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How to Break into Offering Management and Grow Your Career

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(12 min read) It hasn’t been long since IBM established the Offering Management discipline – a practice where Offering Managers develop into solution owners in the world of product management. But what is this really all about, and what type of work do Offering Managers do?

We listened in on the conversation of Andrea Morgan-Vandome and Stella Liu as they talked in detail about this discipline. As the Global VP for Watson, Andrea shares her insights on how an offering manager can grow his or her career journey inside IBM, drawing on her own experiences in offering management that culminated into her current role as the Offering Management Discipline Lead for IBM where she leads the go-to market strategy for all of IBM’s Watson offerings. And to offer the perspective of a recent hire, Stella shares her experiences in the role, her responsibilities and how they have grown, and her perspective on the practice of offering management.


Getting Started in the Role

Andrea: So what attracted you to the Associate Offering Management program initially?

Stella: I was excited about the program because I viewed it as the perfect discipline to act as an “intra-preneur” in a large company. You completely own the vision of the product and flex the skills that you need to run a business. Throughout college, I was involved in entrepreneurship and started my own IoT company where I worked with engineers to build and ship the product. When I heard of offering management as a career path, I became excited by the thought that I could do what I loved as a job. So after I graduated, it seemed like a natural next step to apply for the Associate Offering Management program. I feel lucky for the opportunity to be part of its inaugural cohort.

Andrea: That’s great. It is so important to have that entrepreneurial spirit when you are an offering manager. Can you share a bit more what you are currently working on?

Stella: I’m driving the roadmap to add artificial intelligence to my team’s systems engineering portfolio. My team sells these systems engineering tools that help companies like Jaguar Land Rover build the next car. We have about 3,000 customers worldwide with around 1 million engineers who use our tools.

I’m working on new AI offerings that can extend the capabilities of our tools and augment the systems engineer in their daily work. My first offering helps companies improve the quality of their requirements—so as an engineer is defining the specifications for a new adaptive cruise control system, she can tap on Watson for guidance. Watson will score the requirement, show key structural issues and provide advice on how to fix the requirement.


The Evolution of Offering Management

Andrea: You are so lucky to be working on AI! This is a technology that will really change the way the world works. I am glad to hear that you got this opportunity. Can you take us back to when you first started offering management? From your perspective, how has the offering management discipline grown and evolved?

Stella: To best describe its growth and evolution, it helps to provide some context on how the company operates because that has shaped the process of offering management and its evolution over time. The discipline has found a sweet spot between applying rigor and giving offering managers the independence to own the vision of their offering.

IBM operates in a very high stakes environment. Enterprise customers around the world depend on IBM to keep the lights on for them. And at the same time, IBM is bringing very complex technology to the world for the first time such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and block chain.

Because of this, it is important to apply rigor to the offering management process. The company has iterated on a rigorous process that offering managers follow to bring a new product to market. It has as much rigor as you would expect a venture capital firm would have to evaluate high potential startups. You start first with a market exploration and play back to the business the key market trends and opportunities for your product idea. You need to convince people with data and feedback from customers. If you succeed, you proceed to the next round a “series A” where you can raise a seed fund to build a prototype to quickly vet feasibility and customer interest. If you can prove that there is great customer interest, then you go back for a “series C” to back a development team and product launch plan.

At every stage, you have to flex your influence skills, back your ideas with data and always bring in customer input along the way. This process gives offering manages the freedom to craft the idea, but at the same time, it ensures that only the great ideas fall out at the end.


Day in the Life of an Offering Manager

Andrea: That is a great way to put it. It is so important to be focused on the customer and user needs and I am glad that you feel as if you have the independence to really drive your ideas through. We put a lot of thought in giving offering managers this freedom.

So you “graduated” from the Associate Offering Management program and are now an “Offering Manager”.  What was that like and what does your day to day look like now? 

Stella: There isn’t a set path forward since you own your career path after the program. For me, I went on to develop and design AI experiences for the engineering profession. I am currently leading my team’s first AI product from concept to launch.

My day to day varies depending on the stage that I am at. In the early idea phase, it’s a lot of customer-facing work to validate the idea; then during the fund-raising phase, I dive into excel spreadsheets and business models to build the business case and worked cross-functionally with teams to do a high level view of pricing, services, support plans, security, etc.; During the development phase, I work with engineering teams to build the product; and in the product launch phase I work cross-functionally to get everything ready.

It’s been a crazy whirlwind so far. I felt like I had multiple different jobs and I am a bit excited to go back to the very beginning and repeat this again.


Highlights of the Offering Manager Role

Andrea: Wow, that’s great that you were able to take on so much responsibility early in your career. Throughout that process, what were the highlights? What do you like about being an offering manager?

Stella: To be honest, being an offering manager is a lot of hard work. You own the big picture, but also need to sweat out all the details. You need to lead teams, but also have no direct authority. For me, being an offering manager is worth it though because of two things: impact and exposure to the business.

For the first one, I feel lucky that I am working on a product that is tangible. Like I mentioned before, companies use our tools to build physical things like an airplane or car. So sometimes – and this might seem a little silly – but when I sit in an airplane and it takes off, it just makes my day thinking about the fact that the products that I’m working on helped build this aircraft. In terms of exposure to the business, being an offering manager is one of those rare professions where you don’t need to narrowly specialize. You get to work with all the functions of a business. I think it is great training ground to eventually start your own one day.


Skills and Experiences Needed to Succeed in the Role

Stella: I feel like I have been talking a lot. I would be interested to ask you a few questions! From your point of view, what sorts of skills and experiences should someone starting in their offering management career focus on growing?

Andrea: I’m a bit biased on the whole offering management career because I think it’s one of the most dynamic areas you can be in. You get to learn so much and be part of shaping the future of the company. In terms of skills, I would recommend 3 skills for someone early in their career to focus on:

First one is around making sure that you have strong market domain skills. In order to really shape an offering, you need to truly understand how to attack the market and the dynamics in that market and how your offering will change or drive different areas. I would say read up and get a strong understanding of the market and the domain skills and area that you are working in. For me that’s first.

For the second one, offering managers have to work with so many different groups. It is really important to build collaborative skills. This is something that you can’t do on your own. You need to have the ability to sell the concepts and influence others to get things done.

For the third one, it is around digital skills and expertise. The reason for this is that I believe (and you can see this in the marketplace) that digital is becoming more and more important. Everything will be sold digitally. So the ability to make sure that you have a customer journey from explore to purchase is very important. And thinking about the different steps in that process.

So for me, those are the three skills that I would say offering managers should focus on.

In terms of experiences, I always think it’s very good to get a strong mentor. This is someone who excels in the offering management process itself but also has a good understanding of how IBM works. The combination of those two will help shape your career moving forward.

Ultimately this is about loving what you do and having fun at the same time and driving change.


Qualities of Successful Offering Managers

Stella: Thanks for sharing that! This is really helpful for someone starting out a career. How would you describe a great offering manager? What characteristics are displayed by the most successful offering managers you know?

Andrea: I think in order to be a great offering manager, again for me it’s three things.

The first is putting the customer in the center. There’s been a shift from ownership and usage and adoption of things. It’s really important to truly understand who your customer is—both the buyer and the user, and engaging them and bringing their feedback into product so whatever you build will be something that they will both love. That’s number one characteristic. Really focused on the customer.

The second one is having a market and business focus. Offering managers own the P&L (profit and loss) so you need to understand not only what to build but also how you can drive a profitable offering.

For the third one, it’s the ability to be collaborative and decisive. I know that I said earlier that you can’t do everything on your own. So for me, it’s the ability to be collaborative but it’s also about making the decision and not being afraid to drive change because many of the most successful offerings come from driving change.

So those are what I think makes a great offering manager. In terms of personal characteristics, I think it boils down to positive energy. Because whatever you do, there will be hurdles along the way. So it’s positive energy and perseverance. Those will help you be successful.


The Future of the Offering Management Discipline 

Stella: I know I talked about what I was working on; I was wondering if you can share a bit on what you are focused on and what’s next for you?

Andrea: Some of the things that I am working on for the offering management discipline is being focused on “as a service”. We see the market shifting and focusing on an “as a service” model. So it’s sharing lessons learned and what it means to be in a subscription economy as opposed to an older model. It’s important to not only think “as a service” but also think across the concept of cloud, multiple clouds and bringing those concepts together.

The second one is the emphasis on digital. For instance, we know that 70% of the decision is already made before someone gets to a face to face sale.  So it’s thinking about the customer journey which may have multiple routes to market. This could be digital ecosystem, a marketplace, business partners or face to face selling.

For the third, it’s important to make sure that the offering managers have the data they need to drive their P&L and make smart portfolio decisions. You can’t invest in everything. You need to decide where to put your investments to drive the business forward.

You’ll start to see more enablement and face to face sessions. We have the offering management fundamentals digital course and bootcamp. Then we are launching a pilot of self-service e-learning and peer to peer mentoring as well as digital certifications for offering manager.

Stella: That’s right! I think that’s one of the really helpful things for offering management. I’ve taken a few of the courses myself and find that I can immediately take things that I learn and apply it to my day to day work. There’s a great tool for one called Offering Launch that breaks down all the aspects of a successful launch built on years of best practice in the company. I’ve leveraged that to plan out the launch of my own offering.

Andrea: I am glad that this is helpful for you! How about yourself. What is next for you?

Stella: I am heads down in leading the product launch for my own offering. And for what’s next, it is more of thinking about what we want to build after that. I am, in parallel, thinking through a three-to-five year strategy. In the process of building out our first offering, we have seen a lot of market pull and held customer workshops to uncover a long list of use cases for AI and engineering. We want to go after that space fairly aggressively in the next few years.

I am moving from a single offering to thinking about a portfolio of offerings. It’s been interesting to shift mindsets. Maybe half the day I’m sweating out the details from development to legal to security to marketing and the other half, I am pulling up from the weeds and thinking more long-term vision and strategy. It’s been interesting to flip through those mindsets on a daily basis.


About the author:

Stella Liu is an Offering Manager inside Watson IoT, leading her team’s first AI offering from concept to launch. Her entrepreneurial drive drew her to offering management after she started her own startup in college that received attention from the White House Office of Science and Technology and the University of California Office of the President. During her time at IBM, she was granted the flexibility to pursue an educational leave of absence as a Fulbright Research Scholar to Singapore.


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