How do I Become a Product Manager / Implementation Specialist?
May 1, 2014 11:52 AM   Subscribe

I recently met someone who is an Agile product manager, and he seems to have my dream job. I love meeting and talking to people, translating layman's speak and understanding into tech speak and vice versa, and I love an everchanging, fast-paced job where you actually *work.* How do I get into this? (Longsplaining background follows.)

He got into it in the Dot Com boom, but he has no background in software or science, so I think it is possible for me to do it too.

I'm currently a social media consultant with a marketing background who spends her nights stage managing at a local black box theatre. The pay for neither of these is particularly good, and while I'm good at social media, I don't LIKE doing it.

I have a Bachelor's degree in History, but I've always hung around programmers and infosec folks, so I speak backend dev as fluently as someone who doesn't do it for a living can. I also think that my time stage managing proves I can manage people, deadlines, and multiple things at once.

So how could I get into software implementation and eventually product management? Do I get a PMI? Do I go back to school? Am I out of luck? Help me out, please, Tech MeFi.
posted by traversionischaracter to Work & Money (13 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Most of our folks started out learning a particular program really, really well in a previous job, then they moved into consulting for that product within the shop that makes it, then at that point they go for product management.

What programs do you use daily that people would consider you a guru at? Eloqua? Oracle? SAP? Sharepoint?

Focus on learning them inside, out and backwards. Then go into consulting.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:03 PM on May 1, 2014

Product Manager, as a phrase, has a very broad definition.

One one pole, you've got folks who are not much more than marketing people. On the other, you've got former engineers who've had the keys to the code taken away from them. Neither pole is ultimately all that effective.

The best product managers steward and define future product direction and refinements. They should be measured (but often aren't) by the degree to which the changes they're championing matter - in terms of rate of adoption, breadth of adoption, impact to the company's growth and/or bottom line, etc.

In my experience, what separates the good from the bad isn't the fluency at which one speaks nerd, but rather the experience/expertise to know what's possible given the other inputs (available time/resources). There are A LOT of bullshit artists in Product Management, with lots of vision, who consequently never really ship product (good orgs fire these quickly). There are fewer examples where a PM is sufficiently experienced/has enough expertise to ship, but lacks the vision to define a game changing feature (good orgs keep these, but hire an older/better one to run the group/provide vision). Neither is ideal, but given the choice, I would pick the latter 99 times out of 100.

To answer your question: there's very little value in someone managing the calendar/tasks if they don't know the magnitude/degree of difficulty of those tasks. That knowledge (for whatever domain at which you're looking) is what you're currently lacking, and what you absolutely need to be good at this role. There are many paths, but consulting is a great one because it gives you the reps to see how the product is being used/abused in the real world across many different, often messy, use cases.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 12:58 PM on May 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

Took a peek at your profile, which says you're located in Houston. There's a local ProductCamp and a LinkedIn group, along with a Scrum Users meetup. I'd reach out to the folks active in those organizations to see if you can do an informational interview with them.

When we started our Agile adoption process, my employer sent everyone in the product group to Certified Scrum Product Owner training. A few folks went on to take the Pragmatic Marketing Framework's Focus and Build courses and found them very useful.

There's also a great roundup of blogs to read on Quora's Product Management section that's worth diving into.
posted by evoque at 1:09 PM on May 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

To answer a specific part of your question, you could pursue a credential such as one offered by PMI. However, to be able to sit for the PMP certification exam you must already have several years managing projects under your belt and a certain number of hours you can document as project-related work. So a PMP is something you would pursue later.

I'm not as familar with the other PMI credentials such as CAPM and whether they are as valuable as resume fodder as the PMP, perhaps others can comment on that.
posted by cabingirl at 1:53 PM on May 1, 2014

Product Manager definitely has different meanings at different companies. However, I wonder if you'd be interested in being in the realm of customer education at a software company, based on what you say you're interested in. At my company this falls under the Customer Success department - writing help docs and blogs, doing one-on-one customer training, training the Sales and Marketing teams on new features, etc.
posted by radioamy at 2:06 PM on May 1, 2014

but rather the experience/expertise to know what's possible given the other inputs (available time/resources).

This, times about a million. This makes for a terrific Product Manager/Product Owner. My mantra in this role is "focused but flexible". I have been sitting in a PO role with a digital team delivering product using Agile framework, and I *love* it. I got to say to a fairly highly-placed executive "I've always loved what I do, now I love HOW I do it".

As a data point, my background is: twin bachelor's degrees (English, and Busines/Marketing minor) and a TON of background at the bank where I work. We've traditionally been a waterfall PM shop, and are moving to Agile - I raised my hand to go work on a pet project that finally got some attention when an Agile pod freed up to take the work. The PO they had in place was terrible, and the team imprinted on me like baby ducks (and vice versa, I should add). I had ZERO background in Agile, but it just resonated with me. If you had that shiver of recognition, do yourself a favor and find a way.

Where I work, SMEs tend to be tapped for PO spots more often than traditional product managers - we also do a fair amount of external hiring if folks have PO experience elsewhere.
posted by ersatzkat at 2:27 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've sent you a lot more blather in a DM, but TL;DR - the companies in *my* area seem to be looking for a specific framework of experience and certs, as opposed to general aptitudes, but I'm constrained by the salary range it makes sense for me to look in at my age and salary history. If you're willing and able to work for less (I'm guessing $35-$45K for starters?), I see no reason at your age that you couldn't get a stepping-stone job -- just be careful that what you take will give you the experience that will qualify you for PMP, ACCORDING TO THE PMI.
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:06 PM on May 1, 2014

I have this job. DM me.
posted by anotheraccount at 4:39 PM on May 1, 2014

I have gone back and forth between product management, project and implementation management for my entire career. Right now I'm in client services which at my company is basically implementation and training management - translating between our systems, product and engineering teams and our customers. We have a separate product management function (that I work closely with but is a separate role) that's focused on making the actual product better - I focus on getting customers to use the product better.

I came into it because I know the types of products I've worked with and I just have a general aptitude. I went on to get the scrum certifications and may one day do PMP but it's mostly about knowing our "field" and how customers work and then having the general aptitude and skills needed to be successful - very good communication skills, good people skills, a solid grasp of what is/isn't possible in tech (I can sniff out weird problems and translate oblique - at best - requests into actionable tasks in a way that's kind of freakish), and the most insane natural level of organization most people have ever seen so I never forget to follow up or get something done or leave something behind.

Having said that - most of the time it's not easy to find exactly the right person with exactly the right skill set with a specific X, Y, Z background so I think if you have the personal qualities it comes down to knowing one type of system or software or field really well.
posted by marylynn at 4:45 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

You should to the Scrum Masters's certification, it's only two days of entertaining common sense - then get some feelers out to see who's employing.
posted by mattoxic at 2:01 AM on May 2, 2014

I would read and re-read NoRelationToLea's post above - it is the most concise (and real-world accurate) description I've seen.

You're also somewhat loosely describing a Sales Engineering job, which is similar but different.
posted by Thistledown at 1:35 PM on May 2, 2014

Sales Engineering (SE) - at least in my experience - is a bit different in that it's accountable to sales in terms of delivering demos/proofs of concepts, in theory converting prospects to customers. There's definitely translation, but there's a high degree of hurrying up to build temporary facades. Theater productions are a nice real world analogy.

Stepping back, there are lots of roles inside technology companies that exist at the intersection of people and tech stuff - the difference is what those roles are expected to deliver. Product Managers deliver product direction. Product Marketing/Community/Evangelists deliver (in different ways) prospects for the resulting product. Sales/SEs turn prospects into customers. Project Managers deliver smooth running, on-time projects - either customer side or internally. Training/Docs deliver better prepared customers. Support delivers customers that are no longer on fire.

In smaller companies, you'll often find yourself doing a bit (or a lot) of each of these, depending on the day and/or need. If you develop a reputation for being good in this space (which is hard, because not only do nerds and regular people/users not mix, nerds who run tech companies don't really appreciate how screwed they would be without these kinds of people), it ultimately doesn't matter what your actual title is, because you will be the Boy/Girl Friday drafted by each of the roles I listed above for help, or you will be reassigned to fill one of those needs.

For better or worse these two roles are often conflated - but to me your description sounds more like project manager vs. product manager.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 7:32 PM on May 2, 2014

Pragmatic is awesome. Spend the money and do the course.
posted by jbean at 10:37 PM on May 3, 2014

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