Product Management FAQs – Answered by Product Experts, like Janna Bastow
Our recent ‘Exploring Careers in Product Management’ webinars unpacked product management as a career choice and delved into the challenges everyday Product Managers face across industries.
The events featured industry experts Janna Bastow, CEO of ProdPad and Co-founder of Mind The Product, Laura Kirsop, Product Consultant at 1870 Education, Randeep Sidhu, Chief Product Officer at Reliance Health and Marc Abraham, Senior Group Product Manager at Intercom and author of the bestselling book, My Product Management Toolkit: Tools and Techniques to Become an Outstanding Product Manager.
As leaders in their field and expert contributors to the design of the King’s Product Management Career Accelerator’s course content, alongside Professor James Smithies of King’s College London, they answered some of the most commonly asked product management questions.
Here are some of their key takeaways.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in product management?
Laura: Spend as much time as possible getting to grips with the insights relevant to your part of the product or the product that you’re managing. Seek out any information that already exists, like customer data, previous user research or market research. Aim to become the expert on the part of the product or the product that you’re managing because I think that that is critical in order to be able to make credible decisions going forward.
Janna: Getting a lay of the land is really important. Make time to talk to everyone and meet with all the key stakeholders. Take advantage of the fact that you’ve got fresh eyes, that you’ve come from somewhere else – whether that’s grad school, a teaching, law or software development career – wherever you’ve come from, whatever it is, you’ve got fresh eyes on this. That’s valuable because you can’t assume that the company that you’re joining knows what it is that they’re doing. It can be really helpful to call things out and say, “Hey, why is it done this way?” and ask about how things have been done before so that while you’re unpicking why they work in certain ways, you’re learning. By taking that approach, you’ll even possibly help the company figure out better ways of doing things as you go.
Randeep: You are going to feel like an imposter constantly. You’ll feel like you’re failing because there’s no one size fits all. From what I’ve seen – especially at an entry-level, you feel the need to justify your presence. Whenever you’re showing something, you end up trying to prove it. And actually, sometimes you can put all the proof in the appendix and go, “I think X because of Y, and I’ve done a piece of research, which you can find at the back. Here’s the outcome.” You spend so much energy and oxygen proving your place at the table that actually, you probably don’t need to do that. Most functioning companies won’t ask you to do that.
Marc: Listen and learn is my simple advice. Really take the time to understand the product and build relationships. Understand the competition.
How easily can one pivot into product management?
Janna: Somebody can pivot into product management so easily sometimes that they do it accidentally. I know a lot of product managers who sort of fell into it and were doing product management before they were actually given the title of ‘Product Manager’. Oftentimes, the Product Manager is the person on the team who’s the jack of all trades and picks up all the little bits around them.
Laura: There are lots of people that just ended up doing it because we were drawn to it or could naturally fill that role in an organisation. Where I’ve seen people struggle to get into product management is when that opportunity isn’t available to them in their current organisation. They can find it quite hard to find entry-level Product Manager roles in other organisations, and so I think that courses like the King’s Product Management Career Accelerator are going to be really good for that because it’s going to give people ways to demonstrate that they have the skills, and then hopefully they can take that step into the more junior or associate Product Manager roles. The really good thing about this role is that you can take skills and things that you’ve learned in other roles and apply them to Product. So much of what I do, I remember doing when I was a teacher, so there really are transferable skills from other disciplines and other forms of work.
How can you demonstrate to an employer that you will be a good fit for the role, even if you don’t have much product management experience?
Janna: As a Product Manager, your job is to find the right problems to solve and then solve those problems. No two Product Manager roles are the same. What you should do is figure out what the job actually calls for and what problem they’re trying to solve by hiring a Product Manager. If you can – if you’re the right person for that – then outline in your application why you are the person who’s going to solve that problem.
Marc: It’s a bit fake it til you make it kind of thing. If you’re coming from a different field, it’s helpful if you can apply product thinking and show an example from a course that you’ve done or a project you’ve done in your spare time or maybe some pro-bono work for a charity – it doesn’t have to be taking over the world kind of product – but to me, that’s a real indicator of curiosity and some application. If you’ve got something that you can talk through and I can see you’re hungry, that’s a plus for me, personally.
Randeep: Take the time to research the organisation. I’ve been impressed when I’ve had candidates turn up and say, “I looked at your website, I understood your challenges, and I did a side hustle in X, and here I can show you how I can use that learning to help you.” This shows me how you think and your level of curiosity and makes me think, “Oh, this is someone I could work with.”
What are the differences between a project manager, a product manager and a product owner?
Janna: A Product Manager is the one who generally sits between the business, what the user needs, and what the technology team can feasibly pull off. Classically, the Product Marketing Manager sits a little bit closer to the marketing side and so is often the go-between and using the product as a marketing tool. It takes different shapes at different companies, depending on the company’s goals and aims and things like that. Product ownership is a special thing in itself because the Product Owner depends on the company. It depends on the country as well because if you go to certain locales, like if you go to Germany, for example, the Product Owner is often what some people would consider the Product Manager based on the job titles and all that sort of stuff. From the more UK/US-centric version of it, product ownership is generally considered a scrum role. It’s more of a project management role aimed at the IT teams who do Scrum like an agile project management process. Classically, it isn’t actually a person – it’s a hat that somebody in the team wears. But if you do have a Product Manager and a Product Owner, typically the Product Manager is the more strategic one working on things like the discovery and the strategy and figuring out what the problems to solve are. The Product Owner is the one breaking it down and figuring out how it stacks together and fits into the sprints to be done.
Titles are a difficult thing in this space. Spend more time paying attention to the job description and understanding that because the titles aren’t transferable between companies. Figure out what the job description is that best matches your skills and what you want to do. And then if needed, negotiate the best title to fit that.
If you’re interested in learning more, our experts have shared a list of recommendations for product management blogs, podcasts and other resources you should follow:
- Mind The Product blog
- @simplybastow on Twitter
- Anything that Teresa Torres writes on the subject of continuous discovery
- Marty Cagan’s writing
- Ken Norton’s ‘Bring the Donuts’ blog
- Product Management reading list from Mike Hudack, ex-Monzo Chief Product Officer
- My Product Management Toolkit by Marc Abraham
- Lenny’s Podcast, specifically the one with Shreyas Doshi