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First Year as a Product Manager
An interview with a career transitioner from customer support to product management
“Hey Helen, I attended your lunch and learn a few weeks ago and I’m really interested in switching roles and becoming a product manager. I see you have an open Associate Product Manager role, and I was wondering if you could talk to me about what it takes to be successful in it.”
Thus began my conversation with Lyssa Zawalski over 18 months ago as she was exploring joining my team as a Product Manager. She inspired me to write a post on how to interview to be a Product Manager and now, Lyssa has been on the team for 18 months and has been thriving. She was recently promoted to a Product Manager (from Associate PM) and was gracious enough to sit down with me to reflect on what her first chapter in product life has been like especially as a career transitioner.
What inspired you to transition into product management?
“I attended a “lunch and learn” series with you (Helen) in our organization and what piqued my interest is the opportunity to think about solutions to problems in systematic ways. It seemed that the job was about getting to the root of the problem and driving change at scale. I was doing a cursory exploration of other potential jobs at the time but I felt a unique pull to Product Management after that conversation that I did not feel before and it persisted as I learned more.”
If you are exploring transitioning to Product Management, find PMs in your organization and talk to them about the types of problems they deal with day to day to see if that gets you excited. Be curious about what the job actually looks like vs. what you think it is or what the books say it should be.
What has been the most challenging part of your first year in Product?
“Broadly, the hardest thing has been bridging the gap between business needs and tech reality. As a product manager, I do a lot of translating across stakeholders and it’s not easy to explain the business logic to engineers and engineering reality to nontechnical stakeholders.
Specifically in my domain, I needed to really understand how data flows across systems to power experiences so I could hold my own in conversations with product managers, developers and designers and that was a steep hill to climb.”
For onboarding, a 90-day project clearly explaining (verbally and visually) how my product/domain worked functionally and what the key challenges were was a helpful exercise to show my mastery of the space.
What has been the easiest part of your first year?
“The people at my company have really made my transition possible and I’m so grateful. Everyone has been open to not just answering my questions but to making time for me and helping me form the right questions to ask. From engineers to product managers, to partner teams across the organization - people have been kind and that has made all the difference.
So much of this is also part of my company’s ethos - the core value is where you start at the company is not where you have to or are expected to end up.”
If you are planning to make the transition to Product Management, make sure you are at a company that has a culture of internal mobility and that there is infrastructure to support your transition. Questions to ask is whether or not there are APM Bootcamps, how many roles are available for Associate Product Managers, and how many people in the last 12 months have transitioned from a different discipline to Product Management. Talk to those individuals to learn of their experience so you know what you are getting into.
How did your previous experience at Guild help or hinder your transition to Product Management?
“As a customer support specialist, I worked directly with our end users so I had a special insight into what was actually working vs. not and it was easy for me to bring a level of empathy to work every day in a way that was relatable and translatable to teammates who only read or watch our users experience our products.
At the same, my previous role did not need me to ask a lot of questions about why the systems and tools our members were using worked the way that they did. I didn’t have time nor was that level of curiosity needed for me to be successful in my previous role. So I had to make a mind shift when I moved roles.”
What are some of the key skills you think are important for a product manager?
“Ask good questions and always be curious. So much of my job is trying to get to the root problem, so practicing the “5 Whys” and continuously asking questions and clarifying assumptions is key. Often times the problem I think I start out by solving is not actually the problem so I’m always questioning my assumptions.
Overcommunicate and document decisions - as a feature PM, I’m constantly driving decisions and helping people get to clarity. The best way to make sure we have an agreement is to clearly write that down and get it in front of as many people as necessary for visibility and alignment. The tools I use most often to help me with this are email, Confluence, Lucid, Miro, slides and Word documents.
Meet your stakeholders where they are - I have learned that creating a safe place for my teammates especially on partner teams to be able to express their needs and concerns with the solution I’m working on is key. This has meant that I really needed to spend time building and gaining trust across teams. I have learned the hard way that without buy-in from teams around me, it’s really hard/impossible to build a coalition and bring a feature to life.”
How do you stay user-focused?
“In my first job, I spent most of my time talking and experiencing what our end users experienced, so I carry that with me every day on my job. Since I now don’t talk to users daily, I use various tools to keep pain points and user experiences top of mind. I use Uservoice to gain immediate in product feedback (UserVoice feedback is connected to a Slack channel where everyone sees it in real-time), every piece of feedback that comes in through Uservoice also has a FullStory attached to it so I can observe an end user’s behavior and of course, I look at data dashboards (powered by Looker) on a regular basis.”
What advice would you give yourself/what do you wish you knew?
“First, I’d tell myself to slow down and listen to my intuition more - stop expecting to know everything right away and really take the time to understand the problem I’m trying to solve.
Secondly, I wish I gave myself the advice to be braver and to keep asking more questions earlier in the discovery process. Sometimes as a younger career PM, it is unclear if the problem is already thought through and I just need to execute or if it’s ok to start from the beginning and challenge assumptions from senior people in the organization. I have learned that it is ok to question, and I need to make the space to do the deeper thinking regardless of who the idea or request came from.
Lastly, I’m an internal processor, often surrounded by external processors of information. I wish I told people earlier that I need time to understand what we discuss in a meeting and that I will then come back with more questions. A 25-minute densely packed meeting is not a good environment for me to process and question at the same time.”
How do you practice your mastery of being a Product Manager?
“Mentorship has been the big unlock for me - I found so much wealth of knowledge in my peer PMs. They have helped me reframe my thinking as well as get started in kicking off discovery. I am also always asking for feedback and iterating on my approach with mentors as well as my feature squads.
Truthfully, I have not gotten a lot of value from books like Inspired by Marty Cagan (not a popular opinion, I know), because the scenarios are too curated, while real-life ones are a lot messier.”
Any other parting thoughts?
“Being a Product Manager is the hardest job I’ve ever had - there are a lot of tough problems to solve and a lot of accountability to make forward progress. I love the people that I get to do it with and the fact that we are also having a good time while working. At Guild, solving hard problems is a connected community experience and that makes it all worth it.”