Lady Bird Talent has a mission to get 1,000 women into tech leadership opportunities. To meet this goal, Women Hire Week was held May 9-13, 2022, for women interested in breaking into the industry. The week was filled with networking on Discord, sessions with recruiters, keynote speakers, and panel discussions. It was a week of unprecedented sisterhood.
The Product Manager Panel
This panel was for women who wanted more information about a product manager (PM) job. Some participants were new grads, and some had work experience, not in product management. The panel was moderated by Naya Olmer Senior Product Manager for Flex. The panel participants were:
- Cara Rizo, Senior Product Manager for Leafly
- Kati Presley, Senior Product Manager for BDX (Builders Digital Experience)
- Rachel Billyowski, Senior Product Manager for Storyblocks
Question 1: How did you start in product management?
Kati started by reporting that she was a “late bloomer” in tech. She began her career through a UX end-user design bootcamp. She got certified and worked for five years as a UX designer. She then led a redesign for a product and stayed on after the design phase. She’s grown her skills from there.
Rachel started her career in federal tech consulting. She did strategic planning on business intelligence and analytic dashboards for federal agencies. She didn’t like consulting, so she took some time off to decide her next steps. She connected to Storyblocks via a friend of a friend. She was hired as a product analyst since she had analyst experience and migrated to product management when a job opened up on that team.
Cara earned a degree in math but didn’t know what to do with it once she graduated. She was bartending and met someone working for a scheduling software company she happened to be using at work. She researched the company and saw an open implementation specialist position. She thought if she could teach calculus, she could teach software. She did that for a while but wasn’t interested in continuing down the training route. She was interested in the product lifecycle team. So, her employer put her on a new product team where she works on mobile apps.
Question 2: Best product-adjacent roles to train for a PM job?
Kati came from a design background where her job required putting the product user first, which gave her good insights into the development and implementation of a product. She says, “Any job that offers you a place in the right conversations with development and business teams would be valuable experience.”
Cara says “There is no specific route to a product management position.” She feels that if you have a passion for solving problems and collaborating with teams, you can grow with the product. She also thinks that empathy for the customer and the ability to take action when a problem is uncovered is also vital.
Rachel says “Two types of roles could offer transferable skills for new PMs. First an organization with adjacent roles where an applicant is already familiar with the product. Or roles outside an organization with no product focus, but the applicant uses skills needed in product management like research or marketing.”
Question 3: What are some of the skills aspiring PMs should develop?
Rachel remarks, “The ability to do customer research, understand data analysis, and measure impact is essential.” Kati stresses that a sense of balance and the ability to prioritize tasks logistically is critical for PMs. She says, “A high-level outlook is also crucial.”
Collecting and measuring data, customer feedback, and company priorities are important to Cara. She wants a new PM to be able to work with a team to show problem-solving skills. Cara also says “You can always learn a skill independently if you are not doing it in your job. Just look for resources and commit to gaining the knowledge you need.”
Question 4: Is a bootcamp worth the investment?
Kati reported that she enjoyed the bootcamp experience. She said, “I learned practical engagement and skills, not just theory.” She warned that the experience depends on what you make of it. Full-time engagement was important to her. She said part-time might be better for others. She didn’t think a bootcamp is necessary if you are already in a tech or product adjacent role.
Rachel agrees that a bootcamp is great if you are not in a product-focused company. She has found bootcampers usually have better familiarity with product development and can “speak the lingo” than those who do not have work or bootcamp experience. But, she stresses not to do a bootcamp to check a box. She said, “It’s not always a requirement for a junior PM position.”
Question 5: What are you looking for in junior PM roles?
Rachel repeats that she thinks applicants should display empathy for the customer and the ability to measure business impact. In an interview, some of the questions she will ask are:
- Tell me about a problem you solved at work, the outcome, and how you knew you succeeded
- Do you have any knowledge of the product and the company?
- Can you identify the customer?
- Do you understand the difference between product and project management?
Question 6: What is the difference between project and product management?
Cara, a PMP in project management, says, “The difference is in ownership. Project management has varying degrees of defined objectives. The goal is to pull people together and move them forward. In product management, there is more strategy and ownership. Product management will identify problems, look at data, and form and validate opinions. Project managers solve problems.”
Question 7: What is the product lifecycle?
There are many mentions of the product lifecycle in PM job postings. Cara says, “It is the start of an idea through becoming a thing and then beyond.” She says the product lifecycle includes:
- creating a statement of the problem
- doing discovery
- setting goals
- gathering data
- creating a hypothesis
- building and testing a prototype
- the execution phase
- more testing, more analysis, and more iteration.
Rachel stresses that the product lifecycle is more circular than linear, while a project lifecycle may have a beginning and end. Kati agrees and adds, “Good PMs are a couple of stages ahead for the next phase of the product they are working on.”
Question 8: What is the typical interview process for a new PM?
Kati says that a PM is a liaison and a mediator between the business, customer experience, and product development teams. The interview process usually includes someone from each team.
Cara says the interview process may depend on the kind of PM needed. She said, “Most PMs don’t need specific tech or coding skills if there are engineers and designers on the team, so don’t worry about having to answer specific coding questions. But do think about it if the job description includes specific tech skills.”
Cara continues to elaborate by saying that for her employer, the process usually starts with a phone interview and a screen, and then a pre-brief of the candidate is created for each interviewer. The teams who interview the applicant will have a specific questions to ask, mostly about collaboration and how the applicant’s answers tie back to the company’s core values. She encourages applicants to know the organization’s mission statement and be prepared to answer both practical and culture questions.
For Rachel’s employer, an interview starts with a phone screen and a review of the applicant’s previous experience. Then, applicants will be given a homework assignment. If the homework is acceptable, a full day of interviews is planned with one-on-one and team meetings. Each meeting has a specific goal. One interview focuses on previous experience. Another interview looks at the homework. A cross-functional group is scheduled for a more relaxed conversation. The applicant has the chance to ask questions, and the team asks about the applicant’s goals and objectives. Rachel stresses, “It’s essential to show that you align with the organization’s values when interviewing.”
Question 9: What is the best way to prepare for a PM interview?
“Product awareness is vital”, according to Kati. “Do your research and understand how users view the product and the problem it is attempting to solve. Also, review the job description thoroughly and know the expectations of the role. Many employers are looking for thought leadership from their applicants, which means they want to see what you think about the position, the product, and the company and how you can benefit all three.”
Question 10: What are some good questions to ask during an interview?
Cara suggests asking what a typical day of a PM would look like or what success looks like for the position. Her favorite question is, “If you had a magic wand to change anything about the company, what would you change?” She consistently receives interesting answers to that one.
Rachel offers that she likes questions about the vision for the product team and the company. She also thinks it is great to ask an interviewer what they think the best and worst part of the job is.
Question 11: What are some red flag answers?
For applicants asking questions in interviews, what are some red flag answers to watch out for? Kati reiterates that if the company or the hiring manager doesn’t know the difference between product and project management, that’s a red flag. She adds, “They may be trying to blend the two into the job, which is usually not sustainable for an entry-level position.” Rachel says that if the interviewee can’t or won’t discuss the vision for the product or the company, that is a red flag.
Question 12: What are some less rosy aspects about being a PM?
Cara starts by saying, “A PM is the responsible party if something goes wrong with a product. It’s the PM’s responsibility to fix the problem. While you want to praise your team when they do well, it’s also your job to take responsibility when they don’t.”
Kati adds that many other positions and the product depend on the PM. “People are counting on you, which can be a lot to manage,” she adds. Rachel also says there will always be a backlog of work, which is stressful. A good PM should know their own capabilities.
Question 13: In new remote PM roles, can you be effective?
Kati unequivocally says, “Yes!” but she admits missing a good whiteboard brainstorming session. In general, though, she feels that thought leadership has spread throughout her company, now that location is not hindering who can participate on product teams. That has continued even though her employer is now using a hybrid work model.
Cara agrees that the benefit of remote work has been more diversity in product management and leveled the playing field for those who want to be a part of the conversation. Collaboration can increase when everyone embraces the new work model. Rachel stresses that “Remote work is not for everyone, so know yourself and how you best operate before accepting a remote job.”
Hopefully, this conversation was useful for those thinking about product management. All four of these speakers have shown that it can be a fulfilling and lucrative career for any woman interested in a career in the tech industry.
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