What does it take to transition to a Head of Product position after serving years in the trenches as a Product Manager?
Product Management is already a role in short supply. Those who are in the industry understand that there will always be more developers than there are Product Managers in the marketplace. A company can have as many as 22 developers and still only have only one Product Manager. Head of Product positions are in even shorter supply. In this article, we interview Benjamin Berry, Head of Product at Urbint to see how he had made the transition.
Product Gym: What is your definition of Product Management?
Benjamin: I like to start by distinguishing between this newer, digital Product Management and historical Product Management. In historical Product Management roles, folks working in consumer goods companies with large supply and distribution chains really were “CEO of the product.” In newer, digital Product Management roles, organizations are smaller and flatter because the distribution and supply scale so differently. At this scale, your CEO is still CEO of the product. That’s something I see a lot of folks looking to enter Product Management get confused about so I like to establish that up front.
There are two broad focuses in this kind of Product Management.
One is Product Design, which can be everything from UX design, what people call the Product Designer, making sure engineers know what to build, whether it’s specs, PRDs, or user stories, making sure customers know how to use it, and that customers have support; all of that encompasses Product Design. I like to call that first because I don’t think there’s another team in the company that will specifically tell your engineers what to do if Product Management doesn’t do that. That’s the core responsibility for three traits of an effective Product Manager in these environments.
And the other focus is Product Marketing. I mean marketing in the broadest sense here; how do you get people, internal and external to the company, to buy into your vision for the product. This is where you see a lot of variation in the company – is there a product marketing role, where does it sit in the org, etc.
As a Product Manager, you should care not just about delivering your product, but also how people use that product, whether or not the market is right for the product, and other things that are really impacted by how the vision of the product is articulated outward. How far out this vision is sold may vary from company to company, but every Product Manager should be thinking about it. So the way I like to think about Product Management is through those two lenses: design and marketing.
Product Gym: You started off your career as a software engineer. When did you first hear about Product Management and decide you wanted to get into it?
Benjamin: The first company I worked at was about 25 people at peak and there was no Product Manager. This was like way back in 2003 to 2005 and so our tech architect was kind of like our Product Owner. I first started thinking about design then. I worked on a lot of front-end projects and without an official designer, I did a lot. Our technical architect, Jim Murphy, recommended a book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy, that had a large impact on me. The big idea is that technologists tend to build products for other technologists who aren’t the general public. This is when I started thinking about user empathy.
The next company I was at had a Product Manager. It had about 50 people and it was the first time I could code all day. The Product Managers there were very much on the mold where they had MBAs and were business focused and kind of left product design work to us.
At my next company, I ran the front-end team for engineering and I worked very closely with the Product Managers who were writing the specs because we had an odd organization where the design team eventually reported into me. That was the first time I thought about getting away from writing code at all and just working on product design. I realized Product Management was where I could have the most impact on whether or not someone was actually using what I was building, which, even as an engineer, was what I was passionate about.
Product Gym: You first became a Product Manager at Yext and then you became Senior Manager. What was the difference in responsibilities?
Benjamin: The company had grown a lot and hadn’t grown the Product team in size at the same scale, so there was a big effort to grow the members of the Product team to add some leveling. Before that, all 5 or 6 of us had the same title.
Then, we brought in some new blood from within and outside of the company. We brought in people as Associate Product Managers, allowing myself and a couple of colleagues to become Senior Managers. This gave us the power to directly manage the Associate Product Managers. Our broader responsibility didn’t necessarily change, as we still owned the same areas of the product, but because we had more people we could leverage more consistently and more directly, I would say that we were able to take a more cross-sectional look at what was happening with the product from sales to marketing.
Product Gym: What were some of the challenges being promoted as a Senior Manager of Product Management?
Benjamin: The most obvious challenge would be going from being an individual contributor to a people manager. Fortunately for me, I had managed before in engineering and it was something I really missed. If you started your career in product and hadn’t managed people before, this is the part I would focus on.
A less obvious challenge, as you move up in Product, is having a clear understanding of who is responsible for what, especially in tech companies, where there is probably a founder who cares about the product. You may have product leadership or the Head of Product within the company. You might even have a Chief Product Officer or Chief Strategy Officer, and that’s before you even get to your product team members.
When you are the senior manager or a director, you might have 5-6 people at different levels of the chain who care about Product. The product design aspect of product management will take care of itself. You’re already doing well at that if you’ve been promoted. It’s the product marketing that is the challenge, and I mean that in a very narrow sense. It’s selling the vision of the product to internal stakeholders that becomes a challenge. How responsible are you for product vision and how do you stay aligned with so many senior stakeholders?
Product Gym: When you were transitioning into Head of Product, you didn’t usually see those roles posted on LinkedIn or Indeed. How were you able to make the transition? Did someone bring you in or were you actively looking for it?
Benjamin: I had been at Yext for nearly 6 years and it had grown from around 80 people to 800 people. I wanted to go back and bring that sort of change to another company, so I took a couple interviews for Head of Product roles after folks reached out on LinkedIn, and I found it very tough to put my focus into that while doing my job at Yext. I, therefore, decided to leave Yext and do the job search full-time.
After I set up LinkedIn to make it clear I was looking for a job, I got a decent number of inbound roles. In terms of targeting, I targeted companies that were somewhere between 15-120 employees and generally were B2B companies looking to have an upward growth trajectory like Yext. I felt this kind of fit would make it easy for me to hit the ground running.
Product Gym: When you said you targeted companies that had 15-20 people, was that the criteria you had in mind when you said this was the kind of company you wanted to go to? How did you find those companies?
Benjamin: There actually were inbound requests on LinkedIn. To be fair, the majority of those inbounds were for lateral or even backward career moves, but a few were the Head of Product type roles I was looking for.
My former boss, Jon Kennell, the Vice President of Product at Yext, was also getting inbound requests on LinkedIn. I had left Yext on good terms, so he was willing to connect me with some of these recruiters. Looking back, I had thought that was the right way to make the transition into becoming a Product Manager.
To people that are employed and want to start the transition into Product Management, ask for help within your company. The leadership at your company is probably well-connected in the local community to try to leverage their connections to place you in front of places. Have a conversation with those coworkers asking if the leadership role you’re looking for is available internally, and if not, ask if they’d be willing to help you find it externally. If you don’t think your leadership would be willing to help, start with figuring out how to earn that trust and respect from them so that they would be willing to help. They’ll almost certainly be called upon when your references are checked, so you’ll need to do this anyway.
Benjamin Berry, now Head of Product at Urbint, had a long journey to get to where he is today. Prior to becoming Head of Product, Benjamin started his career as a Software Engineer at Mindreef and aPriori. He then transitioned into leading the Development Team at SoundBite, which led him to become a Technical Architect at Accenture. After Accenture, Benjamin worked as an Engineer at Yext, where his pivot into Product became a reality. His shift from Engineer to Product Manager, and to Senior Product Manager at Yext, catapulted Benjamin to the top at Urbint. Before becoming an Engineer, Benjamin studied Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University.