The Making of Product Managers: Negar's Story

This is a free sample story from my book The Making of Product Managers.

Summary: Negar studied marketing in university and later worked as a Marketing Executive at a professional association. Then she decided to acquire technical skills in web development to get closer to the product development process. After attending a web development boot camp and working as a web developer at a small startup, she got the opportunity to become a product manager.

Early Career in Marketing

Negar studied Marketing at the undergraduate level at a university in Vancouver, B.C. After graduating in 2013, she moved to London, U.K. and began working as a Marketing Executive at a professional association and registered trade union organization for dentists in the U.K. She was responsible for creating email marketing campaigns to improve member retention and increase member awareness of industry issues.

Within two years, Negar was promoted to Marketing Manager. In this role, she led a small marketing team and worked with them to develop customer personas to further improve the effectiveness of the organization’s marketing campaigns. She was also in charge of managing the marketing budget and aligning communication of the marketing efforts across the organization.

After working in marketing for four years in London, Negar moved back to Vancouver in late 2018. She had many ideas about how to improve marketing tactics but did not have the technical skills to either make the necessary changes on the web or create better solutions using technology. As a marketer, she was used to being brought in after a product was already built to market its benefits. She now wanted to work with technology in a way that allowed her to be part of the product development process.

Attending a Web Development Boot Camp

To become part of the development process, Negar needed to gain technical skills. Unsure of the best way to break into the technology industry, she attended a coding boot camp at Lighthouse Labs for becoming a developer. Over 12 weeks, she got hands-on experience in a variety of programming languages and frameworks including JavaScript, React, and a little bit of Ruby on Rails.

At the end of the 12 weeks, Negar was required to complete a final project with two other classmates. They were given two weeks to build an application and present it to the instructors, their program cohort, and representatives from a few potential employers. Together with her team, she built a collaborative trip planning application for the web that allowed users to create travel itineraries and share them with friends. The application she built with her team won the Lighthouse Labs People’s Choice Award and gained the interest of the representatives of potential employers.

Upon completing the boot camp, Negar received the Diploma in Web Development from Lighthouse Labs.

This experience was very fulfilling for Negar because it had taught her how to build software from scratch. But she soon realized that she preferred working and communicating with customers instead of putting her head down and building what someone else had determined was required. Having vaguely connected this interest with the work of a product manager, she inquired with the career services team at Lighthouse Labs about open positions for a product manager at their partner companies.

Unfortunately, there were none. The career services team advised Negar that individuals usually transitioned into product management by either being transferred or promoted to the role internally within an organization. This discouraged her slightly.

Negar attended a speed-interviewing event hosted by Lighthouse Labs. It was an opportunity for boot camp graduates to find an internship in web development by meeting with recruiters and hiring managers from various companies. Through this event, she found a three-month internship as a Web Developer at a startup that was developing an online insurance marketplace.

When Negar joined the startup, there were only five employees and no product managers. As she started working as a Web Developer, she noticed that the requirements provided to her were not very clear and caused confusion around what needed to be done. It seemed to her that the team needed a product manager to review the requirements and identify their scope before providing them to the developers.

Becoming a Product Manager

Negar’s interest in product management had grown significantly by now. She started exploring ways to cross over into product management from web development.

For the remainder of her internship as a Web Developer, she made an effort to communicate with as many teams as possible at the startup. This allowed her to demonstrate her interpersonal skills as well as show that she was interested in learning more about how the company operated.

As the end of Negar’s internship neared, she started looking for other job opportunities. What she wanted was to be a product manager, but she was only able to find jobs in web development. She interviewed for the position of Web Developer at a company operating in the music industry and was given a job offer.

Right before Negar accepted this job offer, another opportunity surfaced. The CEO of the startup where she had completed her internship asked her to continue working at the startup as a full-time employee. She quickly recognized this as an opportunity to move into product management. She shared her observation that the development team was in desperate need of product management oversight with the CEO. She then stated that she would be keen to take on the responsibility herself.

The CEO agreed that the team needed better planning and organization but was unsure exactly what the role of a product manager entailed. Negar took matters into her own hands and wrote a job description for the position of Product Manager, carefully outlining the activities involved. When she presented the job description to the CEO, they recognized that the startup needed a role like this.

The CEO had witnessed first-hand Negar’s ability to communicate with different teams and stakeholders at the startup. They had also observed her successfully map out user journeys, which involves analyzing all the touchpoints a customer makes when interacting with a product and using that information to design a good user experience according to A Beginner’s Guide To User Journey Mapping from Nick Babich on behalf of UX Planet on Medium.

The CEO, therefore, trusted that she would be able to do the job and Negar then became the first Product Manager at the startup.

Dealing with a Curveball

Now that Negar was working as a product manager, she started connecting with product managers at other companies. One of the product managers whom she connected with worked at a company that specialized in the digitalization of company gift card programs. They started meeting regularly for coffee and she learned about what it was like to work at that company. They also exchanged information about how the product management approach differed at the two companies at which they worked.

After only a few months of working at the startup as Product Manager, there was a change in the direction of the company and Negar was unfortunately laid off. She knew that it was going to be difficult to find another job as a product manager with just three months’ experience in the role.

Negar spent the next few months applying for a variety of jobs. Finally, the product manager at the digital gift card company notified her of an open position for Product Owner at that company and urged her to apply. The role did not require a lot of experience in product management because it did not involve developing and managing a product roadmap.

Being responsible for a product roadmap typically requires more experience in product management because it is related to developing a product strategy based on company objectives. Instead, the Product Owner at the digital gift card company would solely be responsible for gathering requirements from stakeholders, converting these requirements into requirements for the development team, and managing a product backlog. Negar immediately applied for the position.

The interview process started with a phone interview with a representative from human resources. It was followed by meetings with different teams to assess Negar’s communication skills and culture fit. For the final stage of the interview process, Negar was required to complete a user story mapping exercise for the process of reloading a gift card. She had to draw a user story map for the steps involved in reloading the value of a gift card. While completing the user story map, she had to document the questions that she would ask in the process.

After successfully progressing through all stages of the interview process, Negar received a job offer and accepted it.

Negar's Thoughts About her Experience

Negar has now been in the field of product management for a year and continues to work as Product Owner at the digital gift card company.

Looking back on her transition into product management, Negar found that her experience in marketing was very applicable. Analyzing customer feedback on marketing campaigns and initiatives strengthened her analytical skills and taught her how to synthesize both quantitative and qualitative data. As a Product Owner, she employs these same skills when gathering customer feedback on product features and user experience. She also uses her knowledge of how to develop customer personas to gain a deep understanding of who her customers are and how a product feature will benefit them.

Spending a year leading a team as Marketing Manager strengthened Negar’s leadership skills. She learned how to manage a team by making sure that they had what they needed to maximize the effectiveness of the marketing campaigns. This experience set her up for leading a team of developers who do not directly report to her as a product owner.

Without the direct authority, Negar knew that she had to focus even more of her time on building strong relationships with each developer to gain their trust. She also knows how to empower her team so that they are inspired to find the best possible solutions and can complete their tasks with minimal interruption.

The technical knowledge and skills that Negar gained while attending the web developer boot camp were instrumental in helping her communicate with developers. Being able to discuss technical details with the developers and understand their concerns around technology helps her in building a connection with developers. She also has a lot of empathy for the developers when unforeseen technical challenges appear since she has directly experienced these situations herself as a web developer.

Before becoming a product manager, Negar had only been involved in certain aspects of the product development process. As a web developer, she had developed product features on her own but only based on clear requirements that someone else had put together. As a marketer, she was only involved in the activities that surrounded the launch of an initiative.

As a product manager, she is finally involved in the entire product development process from early concept to product launch. Although connecting the different stages of the product development process was new to her, she welcomed the opportunity to learn how on the job.

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