Ask A Good Product Manager

Your product management questions answered

Will an IT person be a good product manager?

Posted on July 28, 2008 · 1 Comment

Question: How can you assess whether an IT person can move to product management?

I have about 11 years of experience in the IT industry with last 5 as managing Custom built applications for different domains and different technologies. I though cannot claim to be a Technology expert. Can I or should I make a move into the Product Management Team of a large organization. Is there a way for me to assess if I will be a right fit in Product Management?

Answer from Ivan Chalif of The Productologist: Product Management is one of those professions where your background is not necessarily as important as whether you are good at and/or enjoy the daily tasks. Great Product Managers traditionally come from Engineering and Marketing backgrounds, but Product Management is a multi-disciplinary practice and having a diverse background, either educationally or through your experience can be an asset as a Product Manager. I personally have undergraduate and graduate degrees in Psychology, which you wouldn’t normally associate with Product Management, but which have served me immensely in my work.

Having a background in any kind of technology is usually a good thing, especially with software Product Management, so even though you don’t claim that you are a “technology expert,” your experience is likely to be an asset. Before you evaluate whether Product Management is the right move for you, figure out why you want to make a change. There are many factors that push folks to consider changing or shifting direction in a career and they aren’t all related to the actual job description. For example, consider which of these might be factors in why you want to make a change:

  • Salary
  • Daily tasks
  • Peers or other staff
  • Available projects
  • Manager
  • Career advancement
  • Job availability
  • Professional interests
  • Business requirements
  • Work environment

What you may have guessed is that many of these are factors about changing your current job, but not necessarily about changing your current TYPE of job. What you should really take a hard look at when you determine if Product Management is the right fit for you is first whether you want to change jobs or change careers.

Once you figure that out (and if the answer is “change careers”), the next thing to consider is how comfortable you are with the types of tasks that Product Managers do on a daily basis. A good place to start is to go to dice.com or craigslist or monster.com and do a search for “Product Manager” (make sure you use quotes to search for the string instead of the individual words). Look at a bunch of the job descriptions and see where they overlap. Chances are that there are a lot of requirements like these:

  • work with Sales, Support and other stakeholders to understand market needs
  • plan and coordinate release priorities with Engineering
  • communicate effectively with executive team, customers, and prospects
  • be the product evangelist
  • write white papers, product literature, user guides, and other supporting documentation

In a nutshell, what this means is that you will spend a lot of time in meetings and you will need to be able to effectively communicate and manage folks who you don’t have any direct (or even in-direct) authority over. Adam Bullied over at Write That Down has an excellent post about how that’s easy and there’s a comment from me about why I disagree, but there’s truth on both sides; you have to be the one to figure out if that’s the kind of role that you can and want to be successful in.

Also, if you haven’t already, read some of the active Product Management blogs (or do a search on “product management blog”) and see if the issues and topics that are being discussed fit with what you want career-wise. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good proxy for the types of challenges you will run into as a Product Manager.

The other part of the question deals specifically with moving to Product Management in a LARGE organization. Large organization does not always equal large Product Management team. If the company you are with or want to be with has a large Product Management team then your role in it will likely be very specialized. It won’t be a role of “many hats,” it will be a role of “know-everything-about-this-piece.” That may be appealing to you…or not. In a large company, there is also a good deal more process and bureaucracy, which again can be a benefit or a liability.

Large organizations can be a great place to learn about Product Management because there are already people who know more about Product Management than you (hopefully) and the environment is relatively safe (mature product, sophisticated release process, etc), but it will take a while to gather all of the knowledge and experience necessary to be a stand-alone Product Manager. Additionally, large organizations typically have budget for training, which is not usually available at smaller companies. If you do end up in a PM role at a large company, I would do everything I could to get them to send you to some Product Management training classes (Pragmatic Marketing, 280 Group, and Sequent are just a few out there.

Big organization or small, there are no hard and fast rules about who can be a Product Manager, but it does require passion and patience and a willingness to stretch outside your comfort zone on a regular basis. You just have to figure out if that’s the kind of job you want.

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