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How could I become a Tech Product Manager without University?

It’s a tacky notion to generalize, so I’ll focus on my own experience and my own journey. It would be great if it helps anyone else.

This one is easy – you do the same thing you would have done after University – only without it. Let me elaborate. One thing I have learned through my 25+ years of different careers in IT and around is that university degree, diplomas, and certifications have very little – if anything – to do with actual performance on a job. At least once in my past 10 years, I was hired against the rule of “everyone should have at least a Bachelor degree in this company”. I also was officially denied a consideration for employment at another company once because of lack of Bachelors degree. That was after I’ve got a solid 10 years of experience in the industry. I guess those two cases cancel each other out.

What defines me as a “knowledge worker” is not a degree or a certificate. It’s the actual knowledge. Granted – given a good education (and by “good” I mean – as close to a real deal as possible, not just expensive one) a lot of things get easier or more transparent. A lot of other things, however, become invisible. You need a special knack to “uncover” things, persistence to do this all the time and actual intelligence to recognize the “AHA!” moment to be able to succeed.

A degree may (or, rather, should) supply you with a set of tools – the quality of them would vary based on your teachers and their methods, but at least you’ll get the basics. Without a degree, you’ll end up developing your own set of tools that may or may not be better than those imposed by education. The upside is that they will be yours, so – ultimately much more convenient to use more often.

The way I have become a Product Manager was through working in various roles in IT – tech support, software engineering, technical leadership, project management. At each stage, you can see various pieces of the puzzle, but usually until the level of manager of “development” or project manager the whole picture will be obscured. This, however, allowed me to build my own set of tools to determine and paint that big picture without having direct access to assets (people or systems) that can define it for me.

Once I was able to get to the big picture for existing systems – it became a lot easier to create my own big picture where there was none before. Because a product isn’t just a piece of software that does A, B and X. A true product is a solution to someone else’s problem. I’ve used this line in one of my other Quora answers, but I’ll repeat it again: “Don’t think about how to make your product better. Think about how you can make a life of your customer easier”. Any successful product would be one that resolves a customer issue or takes away or eases the pain.

Ultimately, to become a Product Manager to start thinking about yourself as a product. What kind of problems will you be able to solve? How do you go to the market? Where is your audience? What are the definitions of your own success?

Well, the last one is easy – once you have solved a couple of real-world problems with a product of your own – you can start thinking that one day you will be a successful Product Manager. I certainly think I will.

As a product manager, what are some anecdotes you find yourself using often?

“Don’t think about how to make your product better. Think about how you can make a life of your customer easier”

In my previous job, I would often be tasked with researching how to plug holes in the 10-year old legacy product. As with many legacy products – it was surviving not because it was good, but because the competition hasn’t caught up yet. One of our main competitors was making a really good progress on catching up and we were scrambling to find and build a feature that would slow down customer leakage.

Instead of thinking of how to make the product better I went to the sales team and asked them what would be the lowest hanging fruit to address with our customers. They were, at the time, under a huge pressure from one of the large accounts threatening to leave. I asked for a “Christmas List” – a list of wants (not features) that in an ideal world this particular client would want to have. What would make their life as our client easier?

One of the items somewhere in the middle of the list was “ease of inventory import from third-party vendors into your system”. Apparently, someone within any large client spent anywhere from 4 to 8 hours per week manually copy-pasting large orders (hundreds of SKUs) from vendors sales orders into our system. I’ll leave it to your imagination to think about all kinds of input errors they were dealing with. But it was literally, copy a line – paste a line. Repeat 100+ times over. Check for errors – manually.

I’ve looked into the problem and within a month we had a solution ready. It was not directly built into the product, which means customers could use it on any other computer, not just where our product was installed. It completely eliminated the need to manually enter anything at all. Instead of 4 to 8 hours, it took 4 to 5 clicks to automagically import each order into the system.

Not only it saved this particular customer, but that was also impressed with the effectiveness of the solution, the speed of the solution’s delivery and with saving on average 20 – 24 hours of one of manager’s time. It allowed the company to promote the “champion customer” program where certain customers would get access to early-stage products I was developing and provide their feedback.

While solution itself was free to our customers compared to the amount of money saved by retention it was definitely a revenue-positive discovery.

What are the pros/cons of having a product owner?

It depends on processes implemented at your organization.

If your organization has classic Scrum (or Scaled Agile Framework – SAF) Product Owner role – it boils down to a having a single point of reference when it comes to product development. Product Owner (PO) is a face, heart and a brain of the product team. Business goes to PO to learn deliverables, timelines and resource allocation as PO is responsible for product backlog (and parts of program backlog in SAF). Speaking from experience being a PO – it’s a high visibility role that comes with some perks (you get to talk and influence some highly placed decision makers that would not be accessible in an old-fashion environment).

What I also found helpful while being in PO role is to sometimes take “one against all” stance to present a solution for a business requirement to scrum team and have them poke holes in it and offer better approaches. This is both a great way to engage team (especially a newly formed team) in finding the best solution given current requirements and a good team-building exercise. Without it, I have found the team to be less proactive and not as cohesive (everyone would offer and defend their own solution thus fragmenting overall approach).

It does, however, come with the same high-level responsibility and in case of failure it will be way more prominent (again, because you are exposed to high-level decision makers). It also presents business with a single point of failure in case PO becomes unavailable (time off, sickness, moving on to another job, etc). Immediately a product expertise, leadership, and vision become unavailable and the team loses focus without direction. This is usually remedied by delegating and training other team members to act as substitute/replacement when PO is unavailable. Personally, I found it very hard to schedule any significant vacation time because my presence was required daily to resolve issues (especially with high-level decision makers).

If your organization is not “agile enough” – i.e. has not progressed to implement agile processes far enough for PO to fully assume all responsibilities (you can read about them all here and here) then product owner(s) act more in either business analyst capacity or team lead capacity, depending on which responsibility the given team is short on. In several cases, while being PO I was acting strictly as team manager (without being subject matter expert and having product vision) or Business Analyst (without leadership responsibilities), sometimes at the same time while acting as PO on 2 different teams. In such cases, PO is just a moniker for someone who doesn’t have high enough rank in old matrix organization but who assumes responsibilities missing from the team. The “pro” here is that PO plugs in organizational holes and takes responsibilities that otherwise would have to be taken by higher-ups and usually managed lousy due to lack of interest from said higher-ups.

The cons are pretty obvious – you’re not formally holding any title and you can’t really push your agenda since you almost always negotiate from a position of weakness (being a lower rank than almost anyone else you need a commitment from).

Additionally, PO ends up checking all decision (even small ones) with management (usually not readily available) which tends to drag product development forever. In this case having a PO actually introduces one more middleman between the team and decision makers.

It’s also high risk/high reward kind of proposition because you’re low enough on matrix ladder to be easily sacrificed if your manager feels you’re failing and wants to protect himself but if you perform well you get a lot of respect from people way above your manager (and your management will cut you a lot of slack while you’re in good graces with their superiors).

And, of course, if PO is removed from their role (for whatever reason – moving on or moved out) the product/team will be back to square one – with the same gaps/holes in the structure.