Written by Colleen Graneto April 19, 2022
If I ask you right now, what does a product manager do all day? Would you be able to give me a concrete answer? The search term around what a product manager does all day actually gets up to 10,000 hits every month in Google. So we’re taking the time today to talk to a veteran and leader of the industry.
Hey folks. And welcome back to the MentorCruise podcast. And let’s start this one off with a quiz right away. If I ask you right now, what does a product manager do all day? Would you be able to give me a concrete answer if you can. That’s great. And you’ll be sure to learn more about it today, but if you can’t you’re not alone.
The search term around what a product manager does all day actually gets up to 10,000 hits every month in Google. So we’re taking the time today to talk to a veteran and leader of the industry. Colleen Graneto is a product manager at Airbnb and talk us through what product management means, why it’s one of the most Poplar and well-paid jobs in the world and how to get started.
Hey, Colleen, thank you so much for taking the time.
Colleen: You’re welcome. Excited to join you.
Dom: Yeah, I’m excited to talk to you as well. You obviously have a lot of experience in product management as well as in being a mentor. You’re a top mentor on MentorCruise, a lot of experience there as well. But before we dive into the whole topic of product management, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us in your own words.
Colleen: Perfect. Yeah. So my name is Colleen. I am a product manager at Airbnb currently. I’ve been there for the last six years and have spent my career over the last. I guess it’s getting close to 15 years now, working in product across FinTech, commerce, marketplaces, consumer products building community products.
And also e-commerce it’s, it’s been really interesting seeing how the industry’s evolved and getting a chance to work across all those different domains. And I’m excited to talk about it a little bit more with you here.
Dom: Before we jump in, I really want to hear more about your journey and, and those years of experience coming in. But actually what I found is one Google search term that comes up a lot. What is the difference between project management and product management? Could you tell me more about that?
Colleen: Yes, that is oftentimes the question and there’s all these P words product, program, project. And then we have product owner versus product manager. And the industry hasn’t made it any less confusing for us because different companies use these titles differently. For example, Microsoft calls their product managers, program managers.
So you know, even, even in the industry, it gets confusing. But what I would boil it down to is thinking about. What we’re trying to do here, when we’re thinking about a core product role, it’s about setting the direction the team is going in. I liken it to, we’re going to go on an expedition and we have a compass we have to decide, are we going north, south, east, west, Northeast, Southeast?
Where are we going and why? And that’s the role of the product manager to help get that decision and get the team bought into going into that direction based on data and insights. When we look at the role of project management, it’s much more focused on the execution of. So now that we know the direction that we’re going in, how do we make sure we have all the supplies?
How do we make sure that we’re going in that direction as fast as possible so that we can get to our end destination and, you know, all survived the expedition and also get there as fast and as efficiently and as effectively as we can. In a lot of organizations, those two functions partner very closely together, especially for very large projects and very large initiatives, very large things that, that the company’s undertaking.
However, there are times when those roles are functioning independently and in those cases, the product manager needs to absorb all of the execution. If they’re also working to set the direction. And at times there will also be project managers that are very involved in the vision and strategy. They’re working generally with a business sponsor, but if there is no product manager there, then somebody needs to set the vision, the goals, the strategy, and the direction.
And so oftentimes more senior project managers and program managers may be doing that as well. But it’s generally for us. Slightly more defined product or studying more defined business area. So oftentimes you see that when, you know, you’re purchasing something and implementing it, or you know, doing something that isn’t completely from scratch when it’s completely from scratch and starting from, you know, a white canvas there’s generally product involved.
But you know, the roles do get blurry and it is really important for if both are there for them to be working together really closely and. Sharing the same message. There’s nothing worse than a product manager. That’s trying to get everyone to go Southeast. And the project manager thinks we’re running north, right?
If it’s like, who do you follow? What do we do? What’s going on? So it is really important for, for those teams to be in lock step in terms of, of the strategy and the vision.
Dom: It seems like there’s a fair amount of shared responsibility as well.
Colleen: There can be, especially when, when both are working together on a very large initiative or a very large undertaking for the company and where I would see the division is, you know, having that clarity of. When we need to make major decisions that might change our direction.
So when we talk about trade-offs, you know, this came back and it’s going to take twice the amount of time, you know, the project manager might come and say, this came back and said, it’s going to take twice the amount of time than we originally thought. And the product manager might need to get involved in that to decide if it’s still worth it.
Do we still include this? Is there a way for us to slim it down? And they’ll the project and the product manager might be working really closely together on those decisions. Ultimately, the call generally sits with the product manager. I hesitate when I say that, because it makes it sound like everything.
The product manager says is the rule, but it’s more the product managers facilitating that process. To get to the best decision and is generally the person with the most expertise to be able to make the most informed decision, but they’re never doing it alone without the team. If they’re a good product manager there, because they don’t know everything.
And so there’s a lot of that back and forth and conversation, and it is generally involving more than just even the project and the product manager. But you know, the, it’s definitely the project manager. That’s bringing those things to the surface where we’re seeing decisions that need to be made that might impact the end results as we’re executing.
And then the product manager are getting pulled in to help make those decisions so that we are you know, not jeopardizing the impact that we’re intending to have on whatever it is that we’re embarking.
Dom: That’s very interesting. What has drawn you originally to doing product management? Maybe also opposed to project management?
Colleen: You can never get away from leading projects in your career. So I don’t care what your title is. You’re leading projects. I mean, you’re leading projects right now here at the podcast, right? Like it’s getting a group of people together to get something done over a period of time.
And so project management. Key to product management, because you don’t want to have a product manager that sets a direction, but can’t actually get it done. Right. Because then you’re, it’s all talk. No action. We’re having big plans, but we don’t actually get them done. So project management is still a big part of product management.
What I really liked about product management is that ability to deal with really ambiguous situations, understand what you’re trying to go towards and having to learn a lot synthesize information to come up with a plan and take those insights and turn them into action. And you know, being able to see it from beginning to end was really interesting to me. And you know, that strategic thought part was also really interesting.
And I actually fell into product. I started my career as a product manager. I didn’t know it at the time. But I started my career at Procter & Gamble and I was in the finance function. Building the treasury and cash management tools for the global treasury organization at Procter & Gamble. And I really liked doing that.
It was really interesting for me to go out shadow our cash managers, who are our customers to understand what they were doing on a daily basis, how they figured out what money we had, what money we had to pay, what was leftover, thinking about the investment strategy, all of that. And you know, I, I really liked doing that every two years you move and I was in the finance function.
So in about two years, it was time for me to move to another role in the company. And that’s when I moved into a real finance position and I was a P&L forecaster for the haircare and color brand. And that’s where I realized, you know, I really liked the analytical nature and the modeling components of finance and business, but not so much.
In finance, especially not the routine, you know, a lot of forecasting, a lot of finance management is reactive and a little bit more routine oriented. And so that was a signal for me to go back into what I was doing before, which was really that you know, Building the business side of things. But being able to bring in the finance components and the understanding of how to run a business was really important.
And this skill that I’m forever grateful to have learned early in my career. And, you know, it kind of went from there where I was like, all right, well, let me do more of this product stuff. Even though again, I didn’t really know what it was at the time and silly figured out, oh, well this is actually a career in itself.
And you know, evolved into where I am today, but it’s definitely been a journey. And that’s part of the stuff of like, you know, I was leading projects, but there was still that product component of it too, and was realizing what part of it did I really, really like. And you know, the part about product management that excites me the most is you’re almost like a mini entrepreneur.
Cause you have this little piece of the business that you’re running obviously together with a team, but that chance to be continuously learning, to try new things and to essentially build a part of the business, or if you’re at a smaller company, you’re really building the business itself is really exciting to me.
Has the opposite of routine because you’re doing something different every day and you’re always challenged to really learn something new and get into the details on something new as well. And that for me is really exciting. Cause it’s it’s you never know what’s going to come next.
Dom: How much of your job is actually still routine tasks versus, you know, something new every day. What’s your day to day life.
Colleen: You know, there are still routine tasks. You’ll never get away from planning. So planning is just financial forecasting in a different way where we’re building out our business plans and our, you know, our roadmaps and our plans for resourcing and whatnot. But it, for me, it takes a little bit of a it’s a little bit different because.
Your having to articulate and defend why this plan makes sense from a business strategy perspective on top of a financial perspective. So it’s adding to that. And then, you know, there are always things that happen. You know, you’re constantly working on prioritizing bugs and fixing bugs. You’re constantly doing work on.
Research gathering customer insights, analyzing customer insights, and then doing design reviews, critiques, prototyping, and those activities. But while I think it’s, you know, you’re, you’re doing it in some sense, it’s, it’s always a little bit different depending on what it is that you’re tackling when we’re doing research on, you know, one area of the product versus another it’s different questions, it’s different things that you’re learning about.
And so you’re, you’re still. Doing the same fundamental skills and activities and tasks, but with different outcomes in mind, which then kind of changed it around a little bit and you know, You’re diving into like a new subject matter a lot of the time. And even if it is something that you’ve already explored before, you’re exporting it from a new lens, with a new goal in mind to, to get to the end of like, whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish or the goals that you’re trying to achieve.
So there’s still a lot of variation to it. And you know, for me, it’s also the. You can see the impact that it’s having on your customers, because you’re able to be in front of your customers and actually see what happens as you go through and deliver these things as well. And that was something that definitely wasn’t true for me anyway, in the role of finance, I saw what happened.
When we did our earnings calls, right. And understanding the forecast and what that meant for the business, but it wasn’t always so clear in terms of how it impacted the end customer. And that’s the part for me, that’s really exciting, especially, you know, in my career, I’ve, I’ve wanted to focus on. Products that help creators that help small and medium businesses.
And so that’s for me is super exciting. Cause I think the world is that much more interesting when we have these types of small businesses, people kind of creating something they’re really passionate about. It adds a lot more uniqueness and variety to day-to-day life. And so I like being in a position in building products that really helps support that and make it happen and make it easier for people to be entrepreneurs.
Dom: Definitely a good place to be then with, with Airbnb. Right.
Colleen: Yep. Exactly. So that’s part of the
Dom: me see.
Colleen: I’ve been there so long
something interesting to tackle.
Dom: Amazing. How did the whole nature of product management change or did it even change from your first position you mentioned, you know, 15 years ago to today, is there something that’s drastically different or is the core of it still kind of the same
Colleen: I think the core is the same. What has been interesting is it’s become a lot more, well-recognized a lot more popular. Like I said, when I was doing it, I didn’t actually realize what I was doing. My, I remember when I joined, they’re like your role as product owner, product manager. And I’m like, no, I’m a finance manager.
Like, why would I want to be this other thing? That sounds like something weird. Of course now I look back on it and I was like, wow, I had the title and I didn’t even know it because it’s such a big thing to actually get an official product title. But I think it’s. W it was also me coming right out of school.
This wasn’t something that was talked about as a career choice when I was in school. I think that’s definitely changed, you know, where there’s. Institutions that are having this as like a primary focus or like things that you can specialize in as you go through and do your degrees. So that’s definitely changed where it’s a lot more popular.
It’s a lot more widely known. I think it’s also changed in terms of the support that you can get as a new product manager. In terms of people that are providing thought leadership resources and things out there, or even mentor crews existing. I kind of shared that when I joined the platform is, you know, when I look back at what early in my career, I wish something like this existed and I didn’t have to stumble through and figure it out myself.
Where you have access to people who’ve been doing it for a long time, that aren’t your coworkers. So you can have like very transparent open conversations. And you know, what I used early in my career was either my coworkers or my friends and family, and like my friends and family had no idea what I did.
So it was like you know, having that ability to even just have a lot more being written about this and share it in the public, it makes it a lot easier to kind of expedite your career and get help where you need it. So that’s definitely changed. Um, you know, for me being able to be. PM at such a widely recognized company and such a high growth company in the tech industry has been very eyeopening, especially being part of a design led company.
That was something I really hadn’t had much exposure to earlier in my career and being able to see like industry leaders and how you incorporate design into product and design into how you lead the business has been really, really interesting and you know, been a huge learning curve for me, but something that’s been really, really cool.
Being able to be at a company like this. So.
Dom: Yeah, actually, I want to talk about that. You know, jumping into a company like Airbnb, which obviously is, you know, a case study for product in, in many, many places. How has that, like, you know, first joining the company. And seeing those, those new processes. Was there anything that was drastically different from how you, how you knew how things were done or where you’re able to kind of get those processes very, very quickly.
Colleen: Yeah. So it was, it was very interesting to me. So I came majority from, I had done a lot of e-commerce commerce work, FinTech work prior to joining Airbnb and everything we did was documents, fax data, and it was all done in documents like Google slides, Google docs, whatever. And I come to Airbnb and everything is done in slide decks. ‘cause it’s, you know, it makes sense. Now it was, you know, from the design perspective, it’s how you kind of share every muse, a very visual company in terms of how they communicate and share information and a very story-driven company which boils down to, you know, things that you’ve seen with like our snow white storyboards and just the approach on you know, leading and designing the company and building our product.
And so it was, I won’t lie. It was an adjustment. It took me a bit. One of the things that I’ve really learned there too, is I had had a lot of at a Procter and Gamble. They invested a lot of in us, early in our career. And we did a lot of business communication and business writing courses. And so I had a lot of knowledge about, and like expertise on actually writing one-pagers and documents and things like that.
And I thought I was pretty good at it, but what I didn’t realize it when I joined Airbnb is the power of simplicity. Where, and when you see, even in the company and what they communicate outside, it’s very much like apple and companies where they distill it down to the very, very simplest pieces to make it that much clearer.
And while I thought I was really good at writing, I realized there was so much more to learn in terms of that ability to really distill it down and make it simple as well on top of the ability to be able to visualize it. And so that’s been something that I’ve learned a lot about at. I’m still learning about it.
Don’t think I’m as good at as good at, as it as some of our executive leaders in the company, but it’s really inspiring to watch it happen and to be able to learn from it. And you see, how would that is able to do how it cuts through the noise and, you know, really. How hard it is when you look at, you know, how simple apple can be, but how hard it is to make it that simple.
But if you’re able to accomplish it, how much you’re able to have that brand recognition and that resonation with your that stuff resonate with your customers. And so that’s been really interesting to see and be able to experience and learn from throughout my time at Airbnb, especially.
Dom: Was there also an adjustment from doing product management in, in Silicon valley, you know, changing to, to kind of Airbnb and being in that, that Silicon valley from, from Procter & Gamble.
Colleen: Yes. So I actually moved to Airbnb from the Chicago mercantile exchange. So we were moving from Chicago to San Francisco. We were moving because of my partner’s job, relocated him and relocated us. So I was leaving my job and finding a new job. And I had a few people that I knew in my network who were already in the bay area, and then other people who had moved from Chicago to the bay area and the advice that I got. You need to get a tech company in the bay area on your resume. And it was really funny when I started interviewing in San Francisco. When I would say P and G, which is Procter & Gamble, which is a world recognized company. And they thought I was saying PG and E, which is the utility company because people had no idea what Procter and gamble was.
And same thing for Chicago mercantile exchange, like the it’s the NASDAQ for, for derivatives and options. It’s very widely recognized in the financial industry, but they areas tech. Me saying CME means something in New York means something in Chicago. It doesn’t mean that anything and bay area. And so that was definitely a hurdle.
And you know, it was advice that I’d gotten from people is that, you know, you’re, that the bay area kind of has it’s an ecosystem in its own. And so breaking into that ecosystem, you have to translate your experience into something that’s comparable or resonates with the ecosystem that you’re joining.
And so that was a bit of a challenge. And. I ended up actually starting an Airbnb as a contractor. So that was something I’m like, all right. I checked that box. I got a well recognized company on my resume and I was like, I’m going to take the opportunity to join as a contractor because this is a great company.
Hopefully I can turn it into something full time. And if I can sell at least have this on my resume while I’m recruiting out here, as we move. And luckily it turned into a full-time opportunity. I joined in a team that was very technical and my role was to bring. Product approach and a more customer centric approach to that team.
Which was when I was part of the infrastructure team. It was a mix of employee tools and tools for our customer service agents. And so that’s was a great fit for me in terms of being able to join the company and have impact and leverage my experience. Utilize that to convert it into a full-time position and then was able to also then move within the company.
And that’s when I was able to then move and join the experiences business, which was Airbnb second product where we weren’t hosting just homes, but also activities and things to do. That was super exciting and really got me in. The mix of things, not only like Airbnb second product, we were growing really fast.
And that ability to be part of something that was extremely customer focused in the tech industry, very design and research heavy. And so it got me to that kind of sweet spot of what I really wanted to learn as part of Airbnb. And then. You know, as that team grew and scaled, there were some reorgs. Now we’re back to like hosting and guests.
And so the experiences team is part of hosting. It’s also part of guests. And at that time I made the decision to join payments bringing back my FinTech experience with the customer facing experience that I had and was working on all of the things around how. Choose how to get paid and how they manage their money on the platform to both understand and grow their businesses.
And so that was a really interesting combination of all of the things I’ve kind of done throughout my career. And that’s where I am right now. So it’s, it was definitely a change. And now, you know, looking at the industry. Part of the things when I’m mentoring people on career change and, and recruiting and job search.
What I learned is you really have to be very specific about how you tell your narrative. So regardless of what your experiences, and in my case, you know, Procter and gamble, Chicago mercantile exchange, those are huge companies depending on the industry, in the ecosystem, but what was more important coming into the tech industry was the fact that both of those companies are 150 years old.
And they’re still industry leader. There are there aren’t any companies that I’m aware of in the tech industry, and those are that hold and still industry leaders. And so that ability to know what good looks like and how to get there on top of some of the startup work and the advising that I had done with, you know, e-commerce platforms.
And I also have an Etsy shop and things like that. It was all about how I told my narrative that allowed me to break into different roles and break into different things in the bay area. And you know, that’s, that’s one of the things that was my big takeaway. And I definitely work with people on that.
And mentoring is like, how can you craft your experience and your narrative to best set you up for the things that you want to do, even though it might be different than what other people you’re interviewing against might be, might have. And to be honest, that sets you apart and it gives you a competitive advantage.
If you could tell the narrative. Well if you don’t, then people just don’t know what you’re talking about. Right. So. You really got to hit that sweet spot and it’s the same thing with product. It’s how a lot of it’s how you tell the story. And that was something that I really learned also, Airbnb is how you get people aligned to your product and your strategy is very much how you tell the story and what data and what information you use.
And that was. Like kind of breakthrough too, for my career perspective, but it’s exact same thing. When you’re talking about your career, your experience and the data that you have to support what you can do. Well very much translates into that same concept of how you can create a compelling narrative around yourself, your career or your product.
Dom: Well, Lou definitely arrived in the tech industry and the bay area by now.
Colleen: Oh yeah.
Dom: We were talking before about how product management is becoming more popular and more recognized than it was, you know, 10, 15 years ago, and actually looked up a stat. And it was that park management by now is one of the top five careers in, in the U S are you feeling that also, you know, based on your popularity on, on Metro crews and mentees coming in and trying to score those jobs?
Colleen: Yes for sure. I mean, it is, you know, that’s one of the top reasons that people are contacting me on mentor cruises. It’s generally two things. One is I want to get a product management job help. I’m like, okay. And we, we, you know, go through things. They’re just kind of talking about there. The second is I got a product management job.
I don’t know what I’m doing and I need help. And I wanna, you know, I don’t want to over rely on my manager because then it looks like I don’t know what I’m doing. And so they want, you know, people are like, I need some help to kind of figure. These things, an additional person to bounce ideas off of to kind of have someone to work through things like the things they’re working on at work together.
Because oftentimes, you know, managers don’t have time to do the coaching and mentoring of, of their direct reports just because there’s so much going on. And you know, most product managers that I know are. You kind of figure it out and stumble it through, stumble through it and figure it out on your own.
And so that’s where I think that’s really great resources like this exists now where you don’t have to do that necessarily all the time. And you know, we can have somebody with more experience help you on top of what you’re getting in terms of support at your actual role. So that’s definitely been the case and it is. Definitely growing, you know, the people who really want to break into product it’s become like a, like you said, a top job, a very well-regarded job. You know, a lot of people who go into product, it’s like the top thing for people becoming CEOs or building their own startups, and also going into like general management, CEO positions at companies.
You kind of see that happening. As people get more senior in the roles. And so it is a great place to go, to get that experience and to, to grow. And it’s also a role that you get. You know, if you’re good, you can access, you can accelerate your career really quickly. If you do a really good job there’s a lot of opportunity for growth.
And, and it’s something that’s very measurable see the impact that you’ve had and communicate that. So to something that can really jumpstart your career, if you’re doing.
Dom: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense that you can have the impact to basically show it off on your portfolio resume and so on. What are the career paths that you usually see people taking off or is it really more into like the startup scene of becoming CEOs and so on? Or is that an older, know, path in product management?
There may have been companies like Airbnb that, that you could take from there.
Colleen: Yeah, I generally see three things happen. One, you can get more senior and. Where, you know, you, you do go to that like very senior, sometimes even I see product role where you have a lot of specialization and expertise and, you know, Arctic tackling really wide ambiguous problems and an area even as an individual country.
Or going the management route where you’re starting to take on larger scope, larger team, eventually getting up to like chief product officer level or head or product level where you’re owning the whole product, working with the other executives in the company and, you know, managing and building a team.
And then from there. Your product managers generally have a choice. Do you want to stay specialized in product or do you want to go a little bit more general and go more of the general manager route and kind of take over business lines? They’re actually managing business lines or business units and you know, or people kind of go smaller and jump in at a very early startup as the first product hire or you know, do a startup themselves.
So there there’s a lot of different career paths, you know, from product, either staying very specifically in product or kind of branching out and taking on more business expertise and more business leadership. Now, there are oftentimes people who do come into the general management position as well from other disciplines, like potentially marketing or. More of like an operations role or kind of a business strategy role. And they might eventually manage product as well. And so, you know, for them, it’s, there’s always something to learn as you go one step higher and it’s whatever domains or whatever kind of functions you haven’t had as much experience in.
But generally that like business and P and L ownership, marketing product. And kind of operational components are very closely working together. And so as you get up, you know, there’s opportunities to kind of take leadership positions over those areas. As you grow in seniority and expertise.
Dom: Is there a preferred. To kind of go into product management or, or people coming from all kind of shapes and, and origins to this career.
Colleen: Yes. People come from everywhere. I say two of my favorite stories, 1:00 PM that I work with, she was excellent. She actually had background as a crime scene investigator. So, when you think about that, there’s a lot of similarities with product. You’re basically playing a detective and trying to piece together information to come up with a conclusion.
So that skill set is very relevant. I’ve worked with people that have come from nonprofits, people that have come from MBAs, people that have come from journalism and, and Kind of that component and also a biology major. Some of that came, you know, again, there’s a lot of similarities there from like the scientific method and things like that.
So what I say is, you know, product managers are coming from everywhere and I think that is some of the benefit of, you know, product teams. They’re generally very well-rounded and diverse because people come from very different backgrounds and skill sets. And for me, I come from finance, a finance background, which very much.
That basic understanding of how to run a business, which if you come from other areas into product, you may not have. So there isn’t like a one entryway into product, which makes it both harder and easier to break into product. Again, it all boils down to how you tell your narrative. But the interesting thing is.
You know, there is a lot changing in the industry where now there’s a lot of degrees and specializations, like I was talking about before that are teaching product skills and frameworks. And so you do see that like, you know, coming out of MBA programs now is like a big recruiting pipeline for product managers, but they’re learning the business side of prime. There’s still need to learn the customer, the industry, the domain. And so what I say is generally people come that either have the business knowledge and they need to learn the customer and the domain and all of the nuances that come with that, or the other way they have that knowledge of the customer and the domain and the industry, and potentially even the technology.
And are learning the business skills. And so it’s, it’s kind of like whatever you have your strength and emphasizing that, and then setting yourself up to be able to learn and piece together the rest. And you know, no product manager is an expert in it all. And that’s the whole reason we function as a team.
It’s not just the product manager, doing everything on, on their own. And so the role of the company when they’re hiring is to balance the teams. And think about where these different PMs are coming from, what their expertise is and what they might need to learn. And so that they’re balanced in terms of the PM’s that are higher, but also the teams that they’re kind of set up with in terms of their design partners, their engineering partner, how strong those people are.
Do they have business backgrounds, like all of that type of stuff, so that you’re really setting the teams up for success in terms of bringing the right expertise and experience together.
Dom: With your mentee stat that contact you. And they either say, you know, I want to break into product management or they’re already in product product management. And don’t kind of know what to do. What are the hard and soft skills that people need to brush up on to, to really be able to make an impact?
There is more maybe a thing of confidence and just collecting the knowledge.
Colleen: I think it’s a mix. It definitely requires confidence to be a PM. I think, you know, when, when I look at what makes a great PM, a lot of it is grit and determination where you’re not giving up. Right. You don’t take no for an answer and that’s not really. It’s a mindset more than it is a skill. So I think that’s a big thing of, of like the right mindset, because it can be a difficult job.
You have to say no 90% of the time and you never have enough resources to get what needs to be done done. So you gotta be creative and, and really push through. I think one of the, the kind of more soft skills is that communication element of it, of being able to craft those compelling narratives.
Because again, you’re leading through influence and nobody reports into you and you have to advocate for your strategy to be resourced. So you need to do that well. And then when we talk about some of the tactical skills that are important to be successful as a PM, That ability to do what we call the consumer science, collecting the qualitative and quantitative data about customers doing that research, doing that data analysis.
Those are really important skillsets. Those are things that you can go out and learn. There’s so many programs coaching. Like even now official degrees and things in this area to be able to do that. And, and then the second piece is being able to synthesize it. So it’s not just collecting that information, but actually synthesizing it and turning it into decisions about what to focus on.
And then the communication comes in and that ability to align people to those decisions, the other pieces, that business component that I mentioned before, It’s one thing to collect data and understand your customers, but you have to understand how you’re going to add both value for your customers and value for the business, because it doesn’t work.
If you do one and not the other, if we’re only adding value for our business, why are customers going to use us? They’re like, cool, we’re going to help you make money, but what are you doing for us? Right. The other side is if you really understand your customer, But you don’t know how it adds value for the business.
You have a hobby, you don’t have something that’s actually making money and isn’t an actual sustainable business. And so the product we’re product managers are really great is that understanding of both. And it’s figuring out what problems we are going to solve that are going to add both business and customer value.
And so having that ability to really understand the customer have gathered those qualitative and quantitative insights and synthesize them and make recommendations, but then also understand. How the product can impact the business goals, what the business goals are, being able to talk with marketing, finance, sales, operations, and understand how they can contribute to make these launches to success.
Understanding how to build a marketing campaign, a go to market strategy, understanding the unit economics and the pricing of your product that all becomes really important as well. And that is exactly why a lot of companies want PMs that have MBAs, because that’s exactly what MBA curriculum is really built around.
But again, If you know how to do that, but you don’t know how to get the insights and understand your customer. You can build a great business, but it’s, we don’t want this build it. And then the customers will come. We want to have that right balance between the customer and business value and understand how we can do both.
And so that’s where, you know, the PM’s are really in a unique position to do that. And that’s where, regardless of what you come from from an education perspective, there’s still something to learn to augment that. And there’s still people to partner with, right? This is why we have designers, why we have engineered leads, engineering leads that we partner with.
Why we have researchers sometimes like a dedicated user researcher, dedicated data scientist dedicated even sometimes writers to actually write the content. Product marketing managers, marketing resources, sales, operations, and why this is a very cross-functional collaborative thing, because you want to be able to leverage all the expertise.
It’s impossible to think that one person will have it all. But what I generally say is, as a product manager, you want to be at least functional in all of these things. And then choose the things that you’re going to be exceptional at. And that’s your narrative of, of where your sweet spot is as a PM. But if you aren’t functional in all those things, then you’re going to have challenges. And so you’ve got to go and figure out how to actually fill those gaps. If those areas that you know, you haven’t built that expertise.
Dom: Would it be accurate to say that product management is a good career path for people that enjoy being generalists.
Colleen: It can be, but I would still say as a PM, you eventually want to specialize when you think about. There’s different types of product managers. So you could be a platform, product manager where you’re managing more like internal tools or like API and those technical things that are then leveraged by other PMs in the company and the business to then you know, build things for your end customers.
You could go into B2B where you’re building products for businesses, going into B to C, where you’re building products for consumers, you know, there’s different industries, like going deep in FinTech, going deep in, e-commerce going deep in marketplaces, going deep and health and wellness going deep in like social media or kind of community products that, you know, the more you specialize in those different areas, the more valuable you become because you’re able to go deeper and really understand the problems in the customers.
And so generally. You know, PM’s are generalists in terms of the skillset, but where you apply it and kind of what your, your customer base is and the types of problems and opportunities you like pursuing the more you’re able to specialize there, the more history, knowledge and expertise you have in that industry where it’s like, it’s not saying you can’t change, but if you go from doing like B2B ERP systems to growing something like Just throwing it out there.
Like, I dunno like a new, like a wellness app or something like that. It’s different customers, different domain. You’re switching now to like a different kind of growth role versus you know, it might be different in the business, in the business to business world. And so there’s, there’s just differences.
And that, that can be good in terms of you’re looking to do something new and kind of shift your career around. But I think part of it is what I recommend is early in your career. Try those things out, figure out what you like the most, and then start specializing in that because that’s when you start commanding a lot of value.
When you look at people in their careers, Who have specialized in a certain area. Companies are chasing after them. And that’s, that’s when you get to be super valuable. And so that’s why I say like, you know, early in your career, try different things out to figure out what it is that you’re really excited about.
And then when you find that specializing in, it can really help in terms of the opportunities that open up. But it doesn’t mean that you have to pigeonhole yourself in something. Cause there’s a lot of adjacent areas, right? Like if you. Specialized in a consumer products, you could do, you know, something from like a marketplace, like Airbnb or move into something like you know, doing more, e-commerce doing more of a community products, something for creators.
So you’re still able to, there’s a lot of things that are kind of like adjacent versus like a switch to like a different end of the spectrum. But it’s like going from doing like Just straight and like being like a growth PM for Facebook and then jumping in to work at Stripe and manage their like new treasury product or something like that.
It’s probably going to be a pretty big shift. Without that industry domain expertise. Yes. You might have like generalist PM skills, but they’re also a little bit more specific to like growth and customer acquisition versus like building a very technical, complicated product. And so that’s, that’s where some of the generalist stuff starts breaking down as you get further in your career.
But you know, you’re still able to kind of specialize with, with still having variety is the way I think about it. And it’s just really. What’s exciting. Is it boils down to like what products you’re most passionate about because then you bring that into the role. Like for me, it’s where I’m going in my career is that commerce marketplaces and empowering small and medium businesses and creators.
There are so many companies that are doing that in different ways. So, but it’s by specializing in that I have that industry and domain expertise. I have, you know, some of the. The expertise around the types of products that are in that industry. And you’re able to bring that to a new challenge versus me kind of trying to jump into building like a B2B marketing tech platform.
There’s probably somebody who’s more set up to do that than I am, but again, am I that excited about it also? No. So some of us boils down to personal preference, right?
Dom: I think that’s insanely valuable advice also for, for PMs late in their careers. So let’s say I listen to this podcast. I’m like ready to go and switch my career into product management. Now realistically like the first thing that I can do, what should I read a certain book? Should I take a certain course?
Should I reach out to you on a mental cruise right away? Do you have any tips for people that, that want to get started into the first step?
Colleen: It’s a mix of things you get, you gave some good ideas there when you said, what should you do? The first thing I was going to say is start thinking about your narrative. And what I recommend doing is find your dream roles, right? So you want to get into product. I don’t want to hear, I want, I just want a product management job, right?
That’s. What products are you excited about? Right. Even if you haven’t decided what you want to specialize in, you need to pick something you’re really excited about and something that is transferable from the skills that you have. Right? So it’s like if you have expert in a domain and you’re really interested in it, great, that sets you apart because you already have some things that you could check the box on.
So I say, you know, my recommendation is go out and find the top five or so roles that are really exciting to you and really think about why they’re acting. What about the product? What about the company? What makes this a role that really pops out to you? Look at those jobs descriptions and use that to craft your next.
Look at those job descriptions, look at your experience and your skillset and pick those things that you can highlight about you. That makes you a really good fit for those roles and use that to craft your resume at your LinkedIn and all of the marketing materials you essentially have about yourself, which is your LinkedIn, your resume and how you interview and how you answer questions.
I think in terms of building PM skills, I have two books that I recommend is like the PM one. One is Marty Cagan inspired. He has new books now inspired. I would think about it as like more kind of. Your role as a product manager, he just also wrote a book called empowered, which is a lot more targeted towards product leaders and how to be a really good product leader.
But Marty Kagan’s inspired, I think is a PM 1 0 1. And then the lean startup by Eric Reese is a great book and learning about experimentation and actually testing to learn. And I would add a third one to there which is one of our PM 1 0 1 books that Airbnb, which is called creativity Inc by ed Catmull.
And it is the story of Pixar essentially, which is a very interesting story that very much applies to how you think as a PM, because it basically talks about the process of building a movie, which is a product and it’s completely out of your imagination. And so how do you actually get. A product out of somebody who’s had out of someone’s imagination with a team of like 300 plus people that actually have to animate and build the whole movie.
So it’s a super interesting book and about, you know, Pixar’s creative process because they’ve been able to do it. How many times? I don’t know, like 20 at this point and like how many movies they’ve made. So those would be the three books that Marty Cagan inspired. The Eric Lee’s lean startup and creativity Inc.
By ed Catmull. And then, yeah. I can’t lie. I think mentor Cruz really helps find somebody to practice your interviewing with and somebody to critique your resume. If it’s not an mentor, cruise, find a friend who’s a PM, do some networking and reach out to people on LinkedIn who might be willing to help because you may think it’s good, but what you want to tell.
When somebody else looks at your resume and LinkedIn, and here’s you interview, are you actually taking the boxes? And are you hitting the criteria that they’re looking for? So find somebody in the industry who has experienced hiring that can help critique your process and critique what you’re putting forward that will help you expedite it.
I’ve worked with a lot of people and it’s just small tweaks to their resume. And like, it’s just how you communicate it. You need to communicate it in product terminology so that it looks like Europeans. And those that’s. My last piece of advice is you’re not breaking into PM. You are a PM shift. The narrative, you already are a PM.
And here’s what. That gets you so much further and you already a PM because you’ve done a lot of these things. You may not have done everything, but that’s, it’s those small things that are shifting your narrative that can make a really big difference as you’re looking to break into the role. And my last advice is practice interviewing out loud to yourself.
Don’t make the first time you’re actually thinking through like, even if you type it up and. When you say it out loud, it’s a lot different. And so actually practice that ahead of time so that you’re not rambling and you can critique yourself and actually doing it out loud, even though it sounds really weird, record yourself, watch it, do it out loud with a friend, have them record it, watch it together.
It’s that type of practice that makes people do really well. And You set the tone from the first point in your interview. And so the more you practice and the more you’re able to do that well from the beginning, the more success you’ll have as you go through the recruiting process. And then don’t forget to network the biggest opportunities come out from networking.
And that’s where Metro crews can really help as well because a lot of the mentors on mentor crews have great. They also know each other. They talk to each other, they talked to a lot of their friends, they know who’s hiring. And if you’re demonstrating that you’re doing really well taking feedback, you have the skill sets and whatnot.
It’s in everybody’s best interest to refer. You know, people are asking me all the time. It’s really hard to hire really good people. I get from all of my friends I’m trying to hire. Do you have anyone you could send my way. I would love to be able to send people their way. Right. Cause it makes it easier for everybody.
And so I think that’s where like the power of networking is, is can really triple, quadruple your chances of landing something that’s where the real opportunities open. Because you are an already kind of vouched for person in terms of somebody can speak to your skills or experience. And that kind of sets you apart from people where all they can see is really just what you have on your resume or LinkedIn.
So don’t forget that, that That networking component because it also allows you to learn as you’re talking to people, right? You start learning how to talk about yourself. You learn from them in terms of how they talk about themselves and their companies and what challenges their companies are facing.
It gives you an, an edge to, as you think about how you can best communicate, where you can add value. So all those things read those books, get your resume and LinkedIn together based off of your, your top roles. And don’t forget the power of networking and practicing your interviewing.
Dom: I definitely have to pick up a creativity, Inc. That sounds like an amazing book. And I’m sending lean startup, I think to people like every single week. So I’ll, I’ll totally stand behind that recommendation as well.
Colleen: Yeah, I think you’d like creativity, Inc.
Dom: yeah, it sounds like a great book.
I’ll have to pick it up for sure. Thank you so much for sharing your, your expertise, your passion, and your knowledge with us today on the podcast. I think that this was super fun and super valuable, especially for people that are trying to break into that product management role. And it seems like, you know, it’s not so far away, like it’s a very accessible role, even though you don’t come from an MBA background or, or you come from from something that’s not even tech related.
I think that was something very great. Obviously, you’re a great point of contact. If people want to, to get serious about it, we’re going to link your MentorCruise profile in the description of this podcast. Of course. we find you anywhere else online? Are you on the, on social media? Are you active?
Anywhere is like metric. Who is our LinkedIn the best place to get to know you.
Colleen: Yeah. I say MentorCruise, LinkedIn. I do have a newsletter. I sent out information every once in a while and need to get more active on it. But I do also have, I’m happy to share, you know, people just reach out to me on LinkedIn. As you might imagine, I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the years have helped me recruit and I’ve written it all out in a little, an, a playbook that I share with people when we’re working together, but also happy to share that with anybody.
So reach out on me on LinkedIn and just mentioned that you heard this podcast and you’re interested in those recruiting tips. I’ll happily send them over. It’s not something that I’ve published cause It’s just me writing in a Google doc. Yeah, I’m happy to share that to help people out.
Cause I think that’s, you know, it’s just the first step in getting started. If you, you don’t know anybody in the industry, it’s, there’ll be something that you can get started with. So I’m happy to share that with folks and yeah, if you’re interested in keeping a touch, add on LinkedIn and Sign up for my newsletter.
I promise I’ll eventually start sending it out more often or chat with me on MentorCruise. I’m happy to work with folks on any of your goals around product management or even just career changes in general. Awesome. Thank you
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