My Route to Becoming a Product Manager

As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I put absolutely no thought into choosing a career. I simply followed the roads that were most interesting to me which led me to a double major in philosophy and cognitive science, although I decided to only finish the philosophy major. In retrospect, these areas of study prepared me excellently for product management:

  1. The multidisciplinary nature of cognitive science is analogous to how product managers translate between disparate areas of the busineess. In cognitive science, one has to weave a coherent narrative between technical areas (e.g., computer science and neuroscience), and the humanities (e.g., psychology and philosophy). This mirrors how product managers must create bridges between engineers, designers, marketers, sales, etc..
  2. Studying philosophy helped me sharpen my fundamentals of thought. It taught the difference between a deep understanding of a problem space versus a hand-wavy one. The process of reading and re-reading a philosophy text until I could understand it reminds me of iterating on a user interface until it clicks.

After graduating college in 2003 and returning from a month long trip around Europe, I had to get a job, and get one fast. While I vaguely thought I wanted to be a psychotherapist, I was open to any job that (a) had no rigid qualifications, and (b) seemed intellectually stimulating. At the time, there were several jobs that had the word “knowledgebase” in the title; knowledgebase manager, knowledgebase editor, etc.. I discovered that I would get interviews when applying for these jobs since they were entry level and they seemed to like the mention of “cognitive science” in my coursework. In September of 2003, I was accepted for job as Knowledgebase Editor for CNET Networks, which I think is one of the most fortunate things that has ever happened to me — it led to the career and life I have now.

As a knowledgebase editor for CNET, I managed various aspects of the product catalog. While there was some data entry work, it required me to think about information architecture, ontologies, and the structure of metadata. For example, I had to think about which attributes users would want when filtering for (e.g.) which digital camera to buy. In retrospect, I think this was the perfect entry level job for me on the path to becoming a product manager. While I wasn’t directly impacting CNET’s user interface, I learned about the data, metadata, and information systems that were at its core.

In my role working on the catalog, I started working on improving our tools. This led me to my first job with “product manager” in the title: Associate Product Manager of the catalog tools. While I was quite stimulated by streamlining the catalog workflows, I realized that the complexity of the catalog data was largely a black box to the product managers who were working on the consumer facing experience. I starting collaborating on the web site and ultimately started product managing areas of the front-end user experience myself.

To summarize my path to becoming a product manager, it involved following what was interesting to me and filling white space I saw in the organization around me. I’ve tried to put this in general terms in this answer: Dan Schmidt’s answer to Product Management: How do you become a product manager?

The clear downside of my route of becoming product manager is that I haven’t developed skills in the other crafts necessary to create products, especially engineering. This has a few disadvantages:

  1. I’m dependent on others to make products. I’m not able to prototype my own ideas and I’m reliant on my engineering partner to explain some of the technical details of the products I work on to others.
  2. Some organizations require product managers to have an engineering background.

While these are limitations, I’m happy with the route I took because it’s allowed me to focus on the unique craft of product management (which have I’ve outlined here: Dan Schmidt’s answer to How can I learn to be a good Product Manager?). It is easy for people with the product manager title to act too much like an engineer, designer, or marketer than a true product manager, the person who is responsible for the essence of the product and the framework for how the organization thinks about it.

This post appeared originally on Quora.

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