Career and Money Advice At The Intersection Of Business And Technology

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Is product management a good career entry point for new college graduate?

May 20th, 2009 · No Comments

A few years ago I hired a summer intern. He just finished his junior year at an Ivy-league school, majored in computer science. He was a very bright and balanced person. Not only he was a proficient programmer, he also had excellent interpersonal skills. I was very happy with his performance and recommended my employer to offer him a full-time position.

A year later, he called me. He had received multiple job offers. Most of them were software developer positions. But, he also got a job offer from Google for "Associate Product Manager" rotational program. The key selling point for the program was that the college graduates would work under Melissa Mayer, the celebrity Vice President of Search Product and User Experience at Google.

Google is a great employer and Ms. Mayer is a very capable executive. But, I have to say that I don’t like the idea to train new college graduates to become product managers.

To be an effective product manager, I believe there are five essential ingredients:

  1. You need to have excellent political skill — entry-level product managers don’t manage anyone, but you’re responsible for a lot of things. You have to be able to lead by influencing, not by manager-subordinate relationship.
  2. You need to have deep domain knowledge in order to set the right direction and requirements for the product you manage
  3. You need to have the ability to think on your feet and make a lot of important judgment calls with regard to strategy, prioritization, positioning, etc.
  4. You need to be able to communicate effectively to both internal and external audiences at the level they feel comfortable.
  5. If you manage a technical product, you need to be comfortable with technology

Let’s examine a new college graduate’s skill set according to above five criteria.

Most college graduates are very inexperienced in dealing with office politics. There are exceptions. For examples, I have noticed that students who were heavily involved in student government in college tend to be more adept at handling politics. But, as a whole, new college graduates need a year or two (or even longer) to become better at handling work-place politics. Unfortunately, product management tend to be one of the most political jobs in a company because it’s cross-functional by nature, and you’ll be dealing with a lot of people with conflicted interests.

Domain knowledge is also very important. Let’s say you manage a product that servers call centers representatives. If you never worked in a call center or worked on related product, how do you know what features/enhancements should be added to the product? How do you know customers’ needs and pain points? Unfortunately, most new college graduates lack the domain knowledge.

I have no doubt that a lot of the new graduates can make decisions on their feet. However, as a product manager, the decision you make requires experience — e.g. which feature should be ranked higher? Which feature should be triaged? Should you roll back a new feature due to a limited system outage? How should the company react to a difficult customer’s unreasonable request? It helps if you have accumulated experiences in one or several areas in the company before you move to product management. Your experience will help you make better, more informed decision.

I’m a little bit less concerned about the last two criteria (i.e. communication skills and technical skills), because I do think some new college graduates are pretty good at these two areas.

But, overall, I think that most college graduates are better off by working in one or several functional areas in the company before transitioning to product management — e.g. sales, sales engineer, post-sales consultant, research & development, support, etc. are all good starting point for your first job after college.

Of course, there is always exception — some kids are so bright and capable that they can become a product manager in no time. But, I think for most people, you’ll be a better product manager if you spend your time to hone your skills in each of the areas above before you move into product management.

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Tags: Career Fast Track · Learning and Growing · Prod. Mgr Transition · Product Management

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