In this article, we are trying to explore what exactly separates the best Product Managers from the rest.
Product Gym: I see you have a Computer Science background, what would you advise others out there that don’t have a CS or technical background and are trying to break into Product Management?
Muin: Well, Product Management has less to do with your hard skills and more to do with your soft skills.
- Are you a good communicator?
- Can you pick up ideas from people?
- Is your emotional intelligence good enough?
I’m via the opinion that hard skills and the domain of the business can be learned and that is not that difficult. If someone has the soft skills to be a Product Manager, that’s much more important than learning a specific coding language that they think is holding them back.
It’s much more important to be able to understand the customer, the market, be able to understand what the goals of the product are, and what the value propositions are. And yes, I think you should be somewhat fluent to talk to developers but that skill itself can be developed; that fluency skill.
Product Gym: So how do you develop that skill, to be able to communicate to developers effectively without having a coding or technical background?
Muin: I think it’s two-fold.
One would have to be a learning that happens. I don’t think you should be in the dark forever. There has to be some learning to be done, like learning the basics of how the program works, basics of how databases work, basics of how programmatic thinking works, how front end and back end work and how they connect. These type of things are very important.
For example, my UX designer, she doesn’t have a background in CS, but she understands how UI works, how the basics of a database work. She probably doesn’t even know how to write a SQL statement, but the skills that she does have are all transferable to Product Management.
Product Gym: Ok, so what would you recommend is a good way for someone that want to pick up better soft skills?
Muin: This is a hard one, because not to sound school-y, but I think Product Managers are born not made. And I don’t mean that in any facetious way. I’ve noticed it with a lot of people, it’s what differentiates a good Product Manager from a bad one which is those soft skills; being able to communicate with people, being able to have empathy with your users, empathy with your developers. And for some, no matter how much they learn the process of product development, they don’t have empathy for people or users or anybody, right? That is a skill you learn outside of the workforce of the professional world. Like go out there and work at a convenience store and deal with annoying customers all day and then maybe you’ll grow some empathy for people.
Product Gym: Is that how you learned to have empathy for people or did you always have empathy?
Muin: I worked in a 7-11 for about 4 years in like the hood. I have almost been at gunpoint. He had it on him, he never put it up. But I did get threatened multiple times by different people. I have worked in a number of crazy places.
Product Gym: Product Managers are always learning, right? What are some books you are reading right now? What are some good recommendations for people looking to make the transition?
Muin: I was reading a bunch of different things,
- Dan Olsen’s The Lean Product Playbook is fantastic. Every aspiring Product Manager should read it and memorize it.
- Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup is a classic.
Product Gym: These are great and for the people who are really struggling to get into this role, what kind of encouragement can you give them?
Muin: I think the first question is “Why?” Why do you want to become a Product Manager? Because a lot of people don’t know why they want to become a Product Manager. A lot of people just think it’s their steps into working for a hip millennial startup in NYC. That’s not what it means to be a Product Manager. That’s just company culture and although a good culture helps a Product Manager thrive, it’s not necessary to be at a startup to be a Product Manager. Product Management is understanding the product deeply, knowing your customers, and knowing your developers. I think an easy avenue for people to get into Product Management is to become a Business Analyst or Product Analyst first. That’s how I did it, I started off as a BA at Accenture.
The Business Analyst role is almost the corporate’s version of an Associate Product Manager because you’re almost doing the same things – for example, in the old school waterfall model, you’re still working with customers understanding what their requirements are, you’re translating those requirements for developers and designers. For all intents and purposes, it’s a Product Management role, it’s just not called that. And I think it’s a very easy step into the door; learn those steps first before trying to land a Product Manager role at a larger company.
Product Gym: What if people don’t want to wait that long? For example, we get a lot of people coming from finance, consulting and even law, that want to go the direct route into becoming a Product Manager.
Muin: I mean it’s a tough one. Product Manager is not a position where it’s like “Here’s a list of skills, go learn them,” and you become a Product Manager. It’s not as quantitative as finance or business management. Product Manager has a portion that is quantitative but an even larger portion of that is qualitative. People from these heavily quantitative backgrounds may have a hard time grasping the more qualitative side. Perhaps they can start picking up work on the side, helping out with requirements gathering, working closely with app development, writing user stories, doing something on the side and getting that initial experience is really important.
About Muin Ali Saiyed
Muin is currently the CEO for Talespun and carries 8 years of experience working with Product Management and Business Analysis. In the past, Muin has functioned as a Senior Consultant for JP Morgan Chase, United Health Group, Accenture, and a number of small and mid-size startups.
His love for adventures, tales, and stories led him to build a company named Talespun, where Muin and his team combine the art of stories, the fascination of the building, and the ingenuity of technology to deliver digital technology solutions and write the adventures of their clients and their business.
Muin has a passion for building memorable, amazing, and incredible things, whether it be ideas, relationships, or products. At the core, he considers himself a storyteller, because the process of building things is very much a live storytelling.
Muin graduated from Rutgers University and holds a degree in Economics and Computer Science.