Becoming a Product Manager
I am not a product manager yet. But, I am becoming one. So why am I writing this? And why should you keep reading?
Since I was a kid, I’ve always been great at talking to people. In elementary, I used to spend my recesses breaking up fights amongst other 3rd graders. I would explain to 9-year-olds the importance of loving your neighbor instead of throwing action figures at each other’s faces. However, my ability to help my peers solve conflict did not transfer to my academics.
At the age of 9, I was diagnosed with ADD. I had to take different versions of teachings in different rooms. When I was young, it didn’t bother me because I thought I was getting VIP treatment. But once I started college, I could feel the effects of my diagnosis doing the opposite.
As an undergrad at Indiana University, I performed well in Trigonometry, Information Systems, and Religious Studies. However, topics outside of these gave me a lot of trouble. I found my focus drift into the Sea of Forgetfulness every day in class, making it tough to graduate. Wherever my focus went, my motivation followed.
Discover Your Why
My friend Kevin, whom I met as an undergrad, also struggled with a learning disability. However, Kevin was brilliant. He went on to make straight-A’s as a student and eventually became a scientist.
Like Kevin, many share this story. The most unlikely student who overcomes the odds becomes a success story. I always wondered how he was able to do it until it dawned upon me.
Kevin knew that he wanted to be a scientist at an early age. He had a goal in mind before starting school. He had something to look forward to. Having an ideal goal gave him the extra push to perform well in classes he found disinteresting because he was being backed by his dream career.
Not knowing my dream career made it more difficult to perform well in certain courses because I felt that the only future I could look forward to involved working a job I disliked – exacerbating my ADD in class.
There is a huge correlation between performing well academically and having a successful career. I assumed that since I do not have a career goal, and I am not performing as well as I want to in my courses, then I will not have a fruitful career. But little did I know that what I have been searching for was right around the corner. Oh, and a side note:
“Whether you are a teenager or 75 years old, if you are unsure of your dream career or career passions, please don’t count yourself out. You are still valuable and have a great career ahead of you.”
From Ministry to Technology
Towards the end of my freshman year, I found something that enabled me to provide value for others – ministry.
I spent most of my years in college teaching high school teens and college students about the Gospel and overcoming adversity by establishing healthy friendships and creating a positive self-image. Dedicating several hours per week to assist others helped me become more confident and hopeful about my future.
Right after I graduated from college, I felt a calling to serve others differently, but I did not know what industry or role it would involve.
During my senior year of college, I had to take a coding course to graduate on time. After I built my first website, I became enamored by the notion that “whatever idea comes to mind, it can be developed.” I felt extremely proud that I possibly found an interesting career field to tap into.
But when I imagined “working in technology,” I could only think of someone with super-thick glasses fixing a computer as a hardware technician or programming some complicated code as a software engineer. I enjoy collaborating with others and creating solutions for people. These careers didn’t appeal to me because I couldn’t see how technology would enable me to help people, so I shelved my interest.
Once I graduated, my work in ministry slowed down. Within the first few weeks of adulthood, I started asking myself again, “what’s my career passion?” Yet, only vague ideas came to mind, like, “I want to work with great people, build cool stuff, and change the world.” I didn’t know which industry, company, or role that would be, and I honestly didn’t care. I just wanted to help people by making a huge impact somewhere.
One day, a group of friends and I were randomly discussing how difficult it is to repay our student loans. As we talked, I began imagining what technologies or software systems could help debtors pay off their loans. It was almost as if my coding course from college enabled me to be more creative about helping people. It was then I was able to see that social impact element I longed for.
In 2016, I located the closest tech start-up near my home called Sproutbox. I found a random person there (the Co-founder of the company) and asked him this question:
“I’m trying to connect with people in the start-up scene. Who’s the most important person here?”
To this day, I still can’t believe that that came out of my mouth. I was surprised that he didn’t kick me out for saying that. After embarrassing myself, Brad Wisler, who became my mentor, awkwardly laughed and responded with an…
“…uhhhhhh yeah, let’s just go in the back somewhere and chat.”
For the next three years, within that incubator, I remained hungry. A few start-up founders allowed me to take on any project (unpaid, volunteer, contract) that would supply me with some product-related experiences. Even though I felt strongly about working in technology, I was still unsure of my ideal career role.
Putting it all together
In 2019, I decided to apply what I learned in those 3 years. Using PowerPoint and my available nights and weekends, I mocked-up a product concept for LinkedIn called The LinkedIn Dream Center. I hypothesized that if LinkedIn diversified its target market and better streamlined its onboarding process, it would increase user acquisition.
One of the first people I shared with the Dream Center was a friend of mine, a Growth Product Marketer at LinkedIn. I mentioned to him that I was still unsure of what role I wanted to play in technology. I like looking at a product to evaluate its utility for consumers and building a better user experience. What is this called? He responded…
“Kell, you are searching for a career in product management.”
It was like a weight lift itself from my back. I felt more confident to show LinkedIn what I created because I can finally articulate where I wanted my product career to go. My idea caught the attention of several leaders at LinkedIn (C-Levels, VPs, and Directors). I was allowed to present the concept in front of the Director of Product Marketing. The conversation was extremely affirming. Once I heard…
“Kell, your hypothesis is correct. We’ve been trying to figure out a way to expand our user persona beyond what it is now. I would like to send your proposal to the onboarding team to be considered for development.”
I knew that nothing else could encumber me from pursuing my goal to become a product manager.
Yet, the euphoria was short-lived. Almost immediately, I hit the wall that many aspiring PMs hit: I’ve done PM things. But I still lack PM experience and skills. I need a PM role to gain those same skills and experiences. To me, this sounded like some tomfoolery!
I volunteered and freelanced at multiple start-ups and tech companies. But my experience kept falling short of actually being a product manager.
Over the last three months, I applied to over 40 associate product manager (APM) jobs. APM roles usually serve as a developmental role that grooms you into a full-fledged PM. I interviewed with three companies. Even though I thought I crushed the interview, I did not get a callback. The feedback I received from each manager was that they wanted someone with more senior PM experience.
After hearing that, I struggled to reconcile “needing senior experience for an associate role.” Probably because I assume associate means “you don’t need much experience, you just need to have spirit and gusto!” In some cases, that would slide…but in the case of being an associate product manager, most companies want you to have a romantic relationship with technology already.
This past Jan marked 4 years since I decided to pursue a career in technology. However, receiving, yet, another rejection letter started to take a toll on me. I began reconsidering if working as a PM or even within technology is worth it. I was witnessing that the majority of the black people getting hired as PMs have one of the following: went to Ivy League schools, got their MBA, or created a successful company and sold it.
One day, while still feeling discouraged from my recent rejections, I set aside 2 hours of my day and reached out to 100 product leaders on LinkedIn. I wanted to see if they could inform me on why I was not getting hired as an associate product manager. From that pile, only one person responded to my “SOS.” An experienced PM at Google accepted my connection request. After sharing my complaints and insecurities about breaking into product management, he challenged me with a task that never crossed my mind.
“Kell, if they will not hire you as a PM, you are going to have to hire yourself by becoming one; create the experience for yourself.”
THE HUSTLE BEGINS
And that brings me here—PM Hustle. I’ve started PM Hustle as a way to share what I’ve learned and will learn on the path to becoming a product manager. I want to repurpose the L’s I’ve received from recruiters and hiring managers to show you, future PM, how I am hustling into product management.
Within the last 13 months, I have had the honor to have met over 2 dozen PMs and product leaders from Google, Indeed, Salesforce, and other great organizations. Over the next several weeks, I will be referencing my past conversations and experiences with these individuals to create a curriculum on how aspiring product managers can hustle into product management. The content I will be posting will be centered around these topics:
- What exactly is a Product Manager
- Where to find a product management mentor.
- How to create and establish product management experience.
- How product hiring managers recruit and hire for APM and PM roles.
There are countless hours of amazing product management content online from super experienced PMs at the top of the game— Ben Horowitz, Premal Shah, Sachin Rekhi, Shreyas Doshi, Carlos González de Villaumbrosia, and Andrew Chen.
However, PM Hustle is going to be a very different resource. Many of us love hearing success stories of how person X achieved major wins with Y. But it is rare to see – in real-time – that person’s struggle and development on their way to achieving their goals.
PM Hustle is a blog. It’s a publishing business. It’s a curriculum. It’s my first official product to manage. Like me, I know other people want to build technology tools to improve their world as a PM but don’t know how to get started. I hope PM Hustle will grow into a community of eager learners who come together to help each other find their home in product management.
Are you ready to Hustle?