Product Management is the hottest position in the industry right now. People are always asking us here at Product Gym how to tell if Product Management is right for them. In this Podcast, Nkem Nwankwo, a Senior Product Manager at BetterCloud, discusses with us what it really takes to be a Product Manager.
- Why Product Management?
- Day-To-Day Responsibilities
- Problem-Solving and Improvement
- Appeal of Product Management
- Resources and Recommendations
Product Gym: Today for Product Gym’s podcast we have Nkem who is a Senior Product Manager from BetterCloud. Thank you very much for joining us today. How are you doing in Atlanta?
Nkem: I am great. It is hot outside but you know it is Friday. I am ready to get on with the weekend but you know I got to get past this day of work.
Product Gym: It is breezy and windy today out here in New York. We are really glad to have you out here with us. Today we wanted to go ahead and cover a few topics with you.
Why Product Management?
One of the things that we are constantly asked at Product Gym is, “How do I know if Product Management is right for me?” I was thinking for myself about all the people that have succeeded with us that landed the highest paying Product Management jobs in the shortest amount of time with some of the most exciting companies out here in New York and in the Bay Area. They just had a stronger answer to “why?”
The other two questions that I hear the most are:
- What does a day in the life of a Product Manager look like?
- What skills do I need to be successful as a Product Manager?
- Are there any tangibles, intangibles or transferable skills that I already have?
- In terms of “why,” what are some words of advice you can offer somebody who is trying to figure out if Product Management is for them, as they have not yet figured out why they want to make the change into Product Management.
Nkem: Great question. I guess to start off, I will give you a short introduction to my story and how I actually got into Product Management. I was a software engineer. I did software testing and software developing as well. My first job after receiving my undergraduate degree was working at a manufacturing company. When I was there, I was on an actual team that had a Product Owner. We went through our work from sprint to sprint. I was developing, I loved writing code and I loved solving problems. However, one thing that I realized was that I was a better people person.
I was a better organizer, and I was a better person in thinking about the whole picture as well as why we are actually doing something, as opposed to being a programmer.
When the opportunity opened up for me to take a Product Owner position, I said, “Hey, let me go ahead and try it.” That is when my Product career started.
Then I was doing the first steps as far as getting into a Product Owner role; going from sprint to sprint, really trying to make sure my team was working on the right things. I started to question why we were doing certain things from a business standpoint that did not 100% make sense to me and my team. I was super, super inquisitive as to the business strategy. I was working under a really large company at the time, and yet my manager could not even give me the answers. When I saw that I thought, “Let me see if I can get to a point where I am at a management level and I can make decisions that make sense.” That was what motivated me to get my M.B.A.
When I went to graduate school to get my M.B.A., I explored different things. I was trying to decide between marketing, finance, and consulting. I was observing my classmates and seeing what those fields had to offer. But I came to the conclusion afterwards that I was still an engineer at heart, since I loved solving problems and I loved making things that help people.
I wanted to be as close to engineering as possible. However, the best job that I received after I got my Master’s Degree that fulfilled my wishes was in Product Management, so I decided to come back into the field. Having that skill set from the M.B.A. program allowed me to make financial models and think more strategically about why certain companies make certain business decisions.
To come back to the “why,” as you can see throughout my story, I said that I have always liked helping people and I have always liked solving problems. Then I came to a realization that I am actually better at my capacity helping people on an engineering team solve problems by helping them focus on making the right thing, which became so interesting to me. I had to ask myself certain questions such as, “Why do customers buy a certain Product? Why would a business actually make this strategy over here? What is this industry like versus this industry?” Breaking those questions down is what really pushed me in my Product career.
What I would say to people who are aspiring to really get into Product Management is: You have to ask yourself whether or not you have that inquisitiveness to take it to that strategic level.
It is being able to get down and do the work, and ask yourself:
- Why do humans behave in certain manners?
- Why is this strategy more influential than this strategy in this business segment over here?
We can go into depth of the transition from an engineering background to Product Management, or from marketing to Product Management. There is no singular background for a Product Manager. I want to make that super clear.
The number one requirement for a Product Manager is that you are intensely interested in your customer base.
Once you have that, your Product Manager skill set should grow from that interest.
Product Gym: If somebody does not have that interest in the customer, do you believe they can be successful as a Product Manager?
Nkem: I do not see it honestly. It is such an important part of why you are a Product Manager in the first place. If you do not have the empathy for it, you might as well go into Project Management. Maybe you are better at making sure everything is aligned to delivering the Product successfully. You might want to look into Project Management instead.
Product Gym: What does your life look like as a Product Manager on a day-to-day basis in the office?
Nkem: I get this question a lot. It depends on where we are at in the delivery cycle.
For example, if you are at the beginning of making a new feature, your day would require a lot of calling and talking to your customers. It is doing interviews, getting the questions out, and making sure you are not asking leading questions that compile all those questions together into themes. If you can draw out any big consistent things you have seen across your customers, then you can figure out the mark record sizing.
Figure what the use cases are for your customers, and talk to engineers and try to figure out how this is actually going to be built. There is a lot of ideation from that stage. It is pairing qualitative data that you get from the customers with the quantitative data you get from the market.
You start making what we call over here your one pages, which describes what the Product is actually going to do. You can think of it as a high-level requirements document. From that requirements document, you can break the information down into user stories after a few days. When you break those down into user stories, you work with the team to see which user stories you are going to deliver in each sprint.
Development and Delivery
Your day-to-day tasks revolve around talking to different teams and gaining their feedback. The questions I ask those teams include:
- Do you have a clear line of communication with this person?
- How do you get this out efficiently?
- What are the pluses and minuses of taking this route vs this route?
It is really a back and forth conversation with the engineering team as you get closer to actually delivering the Product. As you near that stage, you start working with other teams, such as support, marketing, and finance to determine ultimately how the Product will be delivered.
The day-to-day tasks become more monitoring than doing, since you are now dealing with issues that may arise from customers using the Product. For Products like software, there are always going to be issues that come up where you have to triage them correctly.
“This constant cycle of ideation, execution, delivery, and maintenance repeats itself over and over again, until your company IPO or gets sold.”
Problem-Solving and Improvement
Product Gym: When you are stuck on a roadmap, whether for Product Management or otherwise, what are the problem-solving processes you go through internally in your head?
Nkem: When I am stuck on a roadmap, the first thing that pops into my head is deciding between many different features. I must figure out what is more important for the customers and the business at this time. The questions I ask myself before coming to a conclusion are:
- Are there any bugs here that our critical customers can face?
- Are those bugs threatening to any of our sales or renewing accounts?
I have to prioritize keeping my existing customer bases satisfied in order to keep receiving their support and money. After that, I can then ask myself, “Are there any new features that can open a new market segment or upsell?”
A lot of people might have a numbering system to better map out their priorities. However, I do not go as far as making a numbering system unless there are way too many factors. Instead, I access all of the different qualities of the features that I am working on and see where the business goals are and what things we are trying to accomplish this year.
The rankings that I have made and the actual points that I am looking at relating to our end business goals and our target from a company-wide perspective by thinking about how it relates and making sure it aligns with those. It is about factoring all of the different intricacies when the features are actually rolling out. At the end of the day, you are satisfying the customer to the best of your ability.
Product Gym: Are there any questions you ask your engineering teams concerning improving the product?
Nkem: The questions I ask include:
- Will a structural change make the code base more maintainable?
- Will that change make it more maintainable from a platform surfaces side?
Appeal of Product Management
Product Gym: What do you think is the appeal of Product Management to aspiring Product Managers trying to break in? What makes this role so hot to them?
Nkem: I mean it is the hottest role right now. Everybody is trying to get into it. The reason for that is being a Product Manager allows people to actually help get something out there that improves people’s lives, without having to go down to the weeds of an engineering level and really develop software. The reason people want to do it is that they kind of want to feel like an engineer, but they are not doing the engineering. This is essentially the wrong mindset to have.
What you want to be as a Product Manager is somebody who is always a servant to your engineering team, to your customers, to customer support, and all of those different teams.
Everybody has this fantasized image of Product Management that you are the “CEO of the Product.” You are not CEO of the Product nor are you firing people, you are not dealing with people’s personal issues. You are a servant to every single team including the customer as well in this role. You have to humble yourself to be able to listen to them. I want to make that super clear because Product Management can be a very stressful role, if not an annoying one. You are not managing anybody directly, but you are responsible for the features that go out and your Product. This can be very frustrating if you can not go out there and tell somebody what to do.
Product Gym: Thank you! Finally some honest answers. This is what I see here on both sides of the coast. I find the pattern very interesting.
Before they get into the university of their dreams, they make it all about that. “If I get into this university, my life is going to be cool.” Then it is like, “If I get into this company, (i.e. Goldman Sachs, Bain & Company, Boston Consulting Group, PWC, etc.) my life is going to be cool.” Then it is like, “I can even get into Wharton, Ross, HBS, Stanford.” Now it just seems it spun off to Product Management.
Why do you think people cannot be honest with themselves about why they want to break into Product Management?
Nkem Nwankwo: I think it is because the grass is always greener on the other side. It is that 80-20 rule, you see – “I am not getting back 80% of the effects that I put in, let me go ahead and jump to this field and see if it will fulfill me.” Once you get into that role you realize that it is not all that it was cracked up to be.
You should be figuring out what makes you content and figure out what makes you happiest. Then you should start to map out those things in your list that make you happy to what the actual job function is. Consider that day-to-day life, both the good and the bad, and then make your decision from there. Do not just run into whatever is hot at the time. Product Management is really hot right now, and that is what you are really seeing in the Industry.
Resources and Recommendations
Product Gym: On that note, I am sure you had to do a lot of soul-searching and self-awareness before you embarked on multiple journeys professionally across the country. Having said that, are there any books, blogs or resources that you would recommend for people to really learn more about themselves so that they can know that this is going to be the right move for them?
Nkem: I mean there are the typical Product Manager books out there. Inspired by Marty Cagan is the best Product Management book that I have read in my opinion. Another really good book is Cracking the Product Management Interview, which goes in-depth on what the life of a Product Manager is like for someone at Facebook.
If you want to get even more information on the day-to-day aspects of life, you actually need to go ahead and talk with a Product Manager. You can just go reach out on LinkedIn. If somebody sends me, for example, a message, I am going to be honest with them and give them the truth. There is no better way to learn the day to day and see whether you fit as a Product Manager then to actually talk to product managers.
You want to also talk to multiple ones because Product Management is different across every single company. Different companies have different needs, different types of customers, different software teams, and different software stacks. If you are working in a tech company right now that has a product management position, go talk to that Product Manager. There are a lot of books out there but nothing beats actually talking to the people and seeing what their day to day life is like.
Product Gym: This concludes our podcast with Nkem Nwankwo, Senior Product Manager at BetterCloud. Until next time, this is Richard from Product Gym.
About Nkem Nwankwo:
Nkem works as a Senior Product Manager at BetterCloud. Prior to that, he worked as a Product Manager for BetterCloud and as a Product Manager for 2 years at Microsystems. He was a tutor for 10 months at Nurturing Wisdom Tutoring and worked as a Software engineer at John Deere.
He got his Bachelor’s in Computer Science from Georgia Tech and his M.B.A. from the University of Michigan.