Why Some of the Best PMs Come From Non-Technical Backgrounds with a Google PM

Product Managers don’t all come from traditional Product Manager backgrounds.  Many Product Managers didn’t make the transition to Product Management until much later in their lives.  We sat down with Mark Ewing, a Google Product Manager and found out some reasons why people that come from non-traditional backgrounds make some of the best Product Managers.

Product Gym: “When you first transitioned into Google, did you ever hear about the title called Product Manager or did you hear about it later on?”

Mark Ewing: “I heard about it later on.”

Product Gym: “When you were initially going into Google, what were you hoping to accomplish there?”

Mark Ewing: “I actually joined Teach for America and became a 4th-grade teacher in Georgia after my graduation.  Two years later, I decided to leave teaching and work at Google because I wanted to try something new, learn a new trade, go to a new location, and expand my horizons a little bit.  I wanted to learn new things and build new skill sets and see from there.”

Product Gym: “When you transitioned from teaching to Google, how did you make that transition? Did you know someone at Google or did you just decide to apply?”

Mark Ewing: “The short answer was that I got an internship working on the online sales side, somewhat by accident, in between my first and second year of teaching. Teach for America had corporate partnerships and most traditionally the way it works is that college seniors apply for that, but I ended up applying for it as well.”

Product Gym:  “When you first got on board with Google as an analyst, what were some of the initial technical challenges?

Mark Ewing: “I honestly didn’t have any, not big ones. I think a part of that was that the fact that I didn’t start in a technical role. It was all very incremental. I started on an Operations Analyst team, looking at website quality and analyzing data patterns and things like that.”

“I think the biggest technical thing that I needed to learn to do my job that served me well in Product Management was SQL; it allowed us to dig into data to analyze patterns. I also did some light Javascript coding.”

Product Gym: “When you moved from QA, did Google provide a training for SQL, or did you have to pick it up on your own?”

Mark Ewing: “I picked it up on my own. Google has a lot of internal documentation of varying degrees of utility and organization. If you’re willing to sift through it all, you can piece them together, so part of it was just being willing to sift through information.”

Product Gym: “What are some of the biggest challenges for you as a Product Manager?”

Mark Ewing: “The biggest challenge right now is in aligning the New York office with other offices across the world on one uniform plan.  The other big challenge is being organized across different Google products and teams. This is all a function of Google being a very big organization.”

“There has to be uniformity across our products. What that means for us internally is that you can’t build Google Search or Google Maps separately; they have to actually integrate. Your product experiences must go beyond your specific domain, which increases the level of complexity. Working on these types of projects require more conversations and coordination between teams.”

Product Gym: “I saw that you spent some time as a Program Manager, what do you think some of the biggest differences are between Program Management and Product Management?”

Mark Ewing: “I’ll start by saying that my experiences of this are only informed by my work at Google. I know that the role of Program Manager can be potentially different at, say, Microsoft than it is at Google. I would say the super high-level way I think about this is that a Product Manager’s main responsibility is to define the what and why – what should we build, and why should we build it, and for whom, though Program Managers definitely have input.”

“Program Managers are mainly responsible for the how – how do we execute, how do we manage complex timelines and roadmaps, and how do we get our team working well towards the goal that is set.”

“Product Managers’ responsibility lies in the strategy, vision, and goals, and how they serve users. In practice, both roles work in heavy collaboration and contribute to both sides of it, but those are kind of the high-level responsibilities.

Product Gym: “You spent close to 10 years at Google. What keeps you over there?”

Mark Ewing: “I didn’t plan on being anywhere for this long, but that’s not really saying much because I didn’t really do anything intentionally in my career until I was around 28-29. Even now, I can’t say I have a clear vision of where I want to be in 5-10 years. But the things that kept me here are being able to take on new challenges and improving my skill set. Google allowed me to build on new skills and take on new challenges, whether it be changing roles, changing offices, changing products that I’m focusing on, or managing people. It has been a pretty constant roll of changes and I’ve never felt in my time here like I was stuck in a rut.”

“There are other more environmental factors such as how the people who work at Google are great. They are truly phenomenal people who are much smarter than me, which is awesome. Generally, people at Google want to get it right, want to be collaborative, and want to find out what the right thing to do is.”

Product Gym: “Being at Google for close to 10 years, I am sure you have seen many people come and go. What would you say are some of the traits that Google really looks for and helps people be successful there? I have heard a lot of people from Google say there are a lot of people who are smarter than them there. How do people thrive in such a competitive environment?”

Mark Ewing: “From my personal experience, what I think makes people successful at Google specifically is having a strong sense of ownership. Whenever you start a new project or new product, there are a set of things you know that needs to be figured out and get done and there are a set of unknowns that pop up along the way.”

“There is a noticeable difference between people who look for these things and take ownership of them, and people who push them away, and say that’s not a part of their job.”

“I think that is really important and I think that adaptability is also important with things constantly changing. Another Product Manager said this to me one time and it really stuck with me. He said, “A Product Manager’s job is to be the Swiss Army knife of the team.”

“Product Managers have to go beyond their written job description because there are a set of “product” things that you can be doing to help launch your product coupled with the things that are not being done that are also required.  A Product Manager needs to be ready to fill in those gaps. A Product Manager needs to be okay with doing the vision and strategy, but also needs to be fine with doing things that go beyond the job description.”

Product Gym: “Do you have books or resources that you would recommend to aspiring Product Managers that has helped you?”

Mark Ewing: “I’m actually more into podcasts than books right now. I am a new dad and I do not have a ton of time these days. How I Built This is a very good podcast about people who have built very successful companies. Hidden Brain is an interesting one.Crazy/Genius by The Atlantic is the last podcast I would recommend.  It talks about some of the big tech trends and developments that are happening right now.”

Product Gym: “Mark, what other words of encouragement can you offer to Product Managers who want to make the transition into Product Management?”

Mark Ewing: “I feel very fortunate to have been able to make this change in my career. Product Management has been a very rewarding career path for me. I feel like I am doing what I should be doing now.  I’m actually spending a lot of time internally here talking to people who are interested in transitioning into Product Management.”

“I am a big fan of people coming to the role with non-traditional backgrounds because what I have found is that they often make the best Product Managers. They are more adaptable, more humble, and it often involves having a high emotional intelligence when you’re trying to move your way into something you may not be 100% qualified for.”

About Mark Ewing:

Mark Ewing is a Senior Product Manager at Google.  Mark has almost ten years of experience in Google, working in such roles as Search Quality Strategist, Product Specialist, and Program Manager before his current role.  He graduated from Duke University in 2006 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in History and Public Policy.

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