Career Advice

How to Become a Product Manager

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Product Management is one of the hottest career tracks today. Have you ever wondered why this role is so important in the company and what qualifications you need to become one? In this blog, Steve Choquette, a Product Manager for IBM Watson, shares his experience and advice on how to become a successful in this role.

By Steve Choquette

 

The first time I became a Product Manager in IBM, I asked my boss, now a SVP with CA Technologies, what my job responsibilities would be. In typical fashion, Hayden asked what I thought. On the spot, I came up with two: 1) make lots of money, and 2) keep customers happy. He said, “Let’s go with that”, recognizing that no matter how fancy the job description, it always comes down to revenue and expense. These two worked perfectly for me. I thrive in an environment where I’m given the freedom to do what I believe is right. We exceeded revenue targets both years I managed that product.

There is lots of advice online about how to become a Product Manager. Some sites recommend courses through Udemy, The Product Institute, or Open Classrooms.  Other sites recommend getting an MBA. Forbes recommends learning how to write code.  A blog on Medium says you don’t need a technical background – that you can, for example, be an Economics major.

I’ve been a Product Manager at IBM multiple times, including my current job where I am working to build out the partner ecosystem for the Watson AI services on IBM Cloud.

 

 

What is a Product Manager?  

Here is a definition that I picked up online that is fairly accurate:

The Product Manager develops products by identifying potential products; conducting market research; generating product requirements; determining specifications, production timetables, pricing, and time-integrated plans for product introduction; developing marketing strategies.

 

Why is the Product Manager important in a company?

The Product Manager plays an important role, especially in technology companies. They set the strategy, lay out a roadmap, and define the features of one or more products that the company will rely on for new revenue.

The Product Manager also develops a go-to-market strategy, an approach to taking the product to market across multiple geographies and industries, working with the market intelligence, marketing, sales, legal, pricing, press relations, and analyst relations teams within the company. What is the value proposition of the offering? What business problems does it solve? What types of prospects have those problems, in which industries and where across the globe? Will we sell this product via face-to-face sellers, digitally, through a marketplace, or with partners?  How should we package & price it? What types of partners are needed? And how will we train all the sellers and partners? These are just a few of the challenges of the Product Manager, in addition to working with the Engineering team to build the product, and going to conferences, customers, partners, and business events to promote it and get feedback.

 

Do I need a college degree to be a product manager?

Typically, a Product Manager has a bachelor’s degree in business or a related field. One great Product Manager I know has an Economics degree. Another has a degree in Electrical Engineering but works with software products all day. One statistic I read said 76% of product managers held a non-technical role before becoming a product manager.

I am starting to question whether having a technology degree, like mine in Computer Science, gets in the way of being a good Product Manager. As someone who has written code in the past, I tend to think of the capabilities of the software (inside out), rather than what client business problems we could solve (outside in).

 

Why do people want to become a Product Managers?

For some, it is the money. For most of my fellow product managers, it is the opportunity to work with so many different groups, to be intimately involved in setting and executing corporate strategy, and the opportunity to work with partners and customers to make a difference for your company.

Learn about IBM opportunities in Product Management by joining the IBM Talent Network.

 

How could I become a Product Manager?

The answer will vary by company. Certainly, having training like I mentioned above is a good start, but I followed none of those paths.

Here are some things you ought to develop:

  • Leadership: The Engineering team will likely be under a different reporting structure. Programmers will want to add lots of bells and whistles to your product. You need to evaluate new ideas but keep the focus on producing something that solves client business problems and on the schedule you developed. Remember, your company is counting on your product to deliver revenue this year.
  • Strategic thinking: You need to be able to think strategically. After all, your product fits in the corporate strategy somewhere. In a similar vein, you should be able to look at the strategy, see gaps, and make recommendations on where your company should invest to win.
  • An Outside-in perspective: You need the ability to think like a customer that needs their business problems solved. Succinctly describing the value proposition of your product in business terms is key.
  • Good oral, written, and presentation skills: As a Product Manager, you will be talking with customers, prospects, and partners. You will be working with marketing, sales, and various other teams that work with customers. And you will regularly meet with the Engineering team that develops your product.
  • People person: I imagine it would be difficult for an introvert to become a product manager since much of your job is dealing with people.
  • Contagious enthusiasm: If you think something is good, and are convincing, others will follow you. This is tied to the Leadership point above. You will need to motivate groups that don’t work for you – engineering, marketing, sales, press and analyst relations, business partners, etc.
  • Get things done: Many people are visionaries. They come up with great ideas that never get executed. When my boys were younger, I remember other parents telling me that they came up with specific new baby items (e.g. new type of stroller, car seat, baby carrier) before the product came on the market. Coming up with the idea is only half of the key to success; you have to also take that idea and bring it to fruition.

The list above looks daunting. The good news is that many companies hire or move people into positions like Junior or Associate Product Manager to develop just the skills above.

I have held many jobs in IBM, but none as rewarding as being a Product Manager. I get to work with clients to solve their problems, and I can make a visible bottom line difference to my company. I hope these recommendations have helped.

 

Interested in a career as a product manager at IBM? Stay connected by joining our Talent Network!

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