By Tony Lizza
My God, I’m going to die here, I thought. Every morning the melodrama played out as I marched into the support department of the company where I worked. I had started out there a couple of years before, and everything was easy and fun. I was learning new things. Two years on, I was burned out. No more learning, no more excitement. Just ringing phones, and angry customers, and impossible deadlines, and my god, I’m going to die here. I didn’t see myself in support for the rest of my career. I found quality assurance and documentation tasks dull, and I knew I didn’t want to keep track of project spreadsheets for the rest of my career, so implementation was out. I was always drawn to the process of creating something new, but I wasn’t an engineer. I felt hosed.
All wasn’t lost, though. Even though I didn’t have a technical degree, I accumulated a lot of technical knowledge. I was able to go to work in the documentation department where I got to work writing training material and use cases for features of a new software product. About a year after that, I took a position in the product department of my company. Here’s what I did that helped me.
1) I was curious
I learned about as much as I could in each of my roles. Product, market, domain, it didn’t matter. My first job was supporting a legacy receivables management software package. In addition to soft skills, I used that opportunity to learn Linux, Bash scripting, and Python, among other skills. Have they all been equally useful in career as a product manager? Not all of them, I admit, but some certainly did.
2) I was helpful
I did everything I could. If the website needed updated copy, I volunteered to write it. If an RFP came in, I volunteered to help with it. I did anything to build my knowledge of the product and the market. As a character in Mad Men said, “This is America. Pick a job and become the person that does it.” But be willing to start small. Approach the product manager or department head, and say that you’re interested in taking on some product work. This might be tough if you’re not a natural gladhander. (I’m certainly not!) But most people are willing to help those who ask for it, and there are plenty of long suffering product departments that would be bowled over by your interest. These things often live and die on the say so of your current supervisor, so make sure he/she approves it first. If your company releases a product, SOMEONE is doing product work, or at least should be. If there’s not a formal department, so much the better. This means that somebody has been taking on product work in addition to his/her own workload, and would probably be glad to give some of it up.
3) I positioned the experience I had
I leveraged my experience in those areas to get into a product management role as a BA. It’s about positioning. If you worked in support, then you have customer empathy. If you were an engineer, then you can speak intelligently about product timelines and feature priorities. If you were in sales, then you know the market and have experience qualifying customers.
Even though I didn’t do this, it helps to get a mentor, either someone at your company, or volunteer with an organization like ProductCamp DC. Communities of interest like these are full of passionate, knowledgeable people who genuinely enjoy helping others. (Full disclosure: I am a volunteer with ProductCamp DC.)
There are plenty of other skills that product managers need. E.g., how to build consensus within an organization, how to interview customers, how to develop a product roadmap, etc. But at the very, very beginning, it came down to those three for me. Not coincidentally, these qualities not only helped me get a product management role, but also have served me well as a product manager. And every day I am learning. And every day I’m excited.