Q&A: Getting into product management

This is an interview I did a little while ago with a user experience author living on the US East Coast. She was interested in moving into freelance product management.

We cover:

  • how to move into product management;
  • differences between working in the private and public sectors;
  • KPIs and financial modelling; and
  • the pleasures and pains of being a product manager.

If you’re interested in asking a question, you can do so in the comments below.

SA: You started with Classics and ended up in product management… I wonder what led you there?

JB: I kind of fell into it, if I’m honest. I’m a self-taught techie. I ended up doing several different jobs at a startup I joined after university.

SA: Yes, I noticed you did some development work after university… impressive with a degree in classics :)

JB: Thanks! So how can I help you out ?

SA: So I’d like to learn more about your product management experience. I’m interested in that field, but it seems like that they are looking only for full-time employees, not freelancers or consultants. Also when I check job adverts, they expect several years of experience, even though my skills could be transferable.

JB: That’s certainly generally the case. On the first point about freelancing, most organisations are looking for someone full-time, but the way I typically work is to fill in when there’s a gap.

This might be while they’re recruiting (if someone’s left abruptly), as it typically takes about 3 months to find someone to hire, or it might be a startup that doesn’t yet need a full-time product manager because they’re not big enough yet (and the founders are not busy enough running the company yet).

So if you can find companies at the right time, you can open their eyes to the option of having a product manager to fill the gap, or to set things up for their eventual product manager hire.

The experience point is a bit circular, isn’t it? You need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience…

SA: I have 15 years of experience in various fields. I started as a graphic designer, then moved into web design. I also did some user experience, QA work and also do accessibility, so I can understand well what team members would need if I was a product manager.

JB: What have you done on the technical side of things (i.e. working with developers, experience with different technologies)?

SA: Coding mostly. I know the ins and outs of that side. Client and server-side, security, QA etc. but i am done with it :) I prefer to work with developers instead. I’m more interested in strategy.

JB: Okay, good – so you’ve got hands-on experience there also. How about on the business side of things, have you ever dealt with internal stakeholders directly, managed a team etc.?

SA: When pursuing a business degree, yes, and working on projects in school, but not in work experience. I have experience sharing my ideas during work meetings and offering solutions.

JB: So potentially an area to focus on there. You’re aiming to achieve balance in three areas – the customer/user, the business, and technology.

SA: Are product managers expected to design or code? I’m okay with wireframes and personas but not more than that. I’ve done enough of design and coding and am tired of it :)

JB: It depends. You should rarely be expected to code as a product manager, and in an ideal world, there would be a dedicated designer who would create the front-end look and feel, based on decent user research.

In practice, organisations rarely are enlightened enough to have dedicated specialists, so the product manager unfortunately becomes a bit of a catch-all role. Plus, with your background, an organisation might think they can kill two birds with one stone by hiring you to do both product management and user experience (run a mile from this).

I find user experience a bit of a confusing role title, to be honest. It’s far broader than the simple visual UI design. Think of it as several separate functions that sometimes can be done by the same person – as long as they’re able to keep their natural biases out of it.

Unbiased user research is one main bit, of which outputs include user personas, etc. Then designing the solutions to discovered user problems is the other main bit. The yin and yang, if you like. But there’s plenty more to it than that, I’m no UX expert!

SA: What about organisations expecting the product manager to do the job of quality assurance (QA) tester and project manager?

JB: Run a mile – they clearly have no clue what a product manager does. As a product manager you might be fulfilling the role of user researcher if there is nobody else doing that, but you should really avoid getting roped in to do the design as well. It pulls you too much into the day-to-day stuff and ties you to your desk, stopping you from going out and meeting users.

If an organisation is still thinking in terms of QA testing and old-school project management (Gantt charts etc. etc.), there’s a good chance they don’t really get product management either. And if they think product manager = project manager – again run a mile :-)

SA: Wow. It’s frustrating enough about organisations not understanding about UX roles… and now it’s product management :(

I was told that it also depends on a size of organisation? I talked to one PM who does QA because they don’t have QA managers.

JB: These days, I’d argue that testing should be part and parcel of the development process, rather than lobbing something over the wall to a dedicated team testers – everyone on the development team should be writing their own tests for their code and peer reviewing their work these days.

Product management confuses organisations because it’s evolved in a couple of major ways over the last 20 years.

Generally speaking, if an organisation is thinking in terms of project management, Waterfall, huge lists of requirements specified up-front without anyone ever speaking to a real user, then product management is essentially an administrative role, shuffling large requirements documents about.

If however the organisation is enlightened enough to realise that building something that users need comes from actually talking to users, then the chances are they’re probably open to working in a more agile, evidence-led way, which does away with all that unnecessary up-front documentation.

Why bother planning for 6 months from now, if things are still so fluid and new that what you learn next week from your users might change your product’s direction completely?

SA: I feel it’s such a common sense to talk to users and find it hard to understand when businesses don’t.

JB: Yup. Just like UX, product managers are champions of the user. Half the battle is getting an organisation to let you speak to (potential) users.

Coming back to the freelance thing, it’s arguably slightly easier to get this point across as a freelancer, because the organisation feels that it has to listen because it’s paying you and it’s a short-term engagement.

SA: Is it because they are more likely to listen to an outside person than in-house staff?

JB: Annoyingly for the in-house people, yes (in my experience at least). It doesn’t mean that you can’t change an organisation from the inside, but you have to be tenacious.

SA: Okay. Which organisations are more likely to understand about product management and UX? Do you still have problems with clients who don’t?

JB: It’s difficult to generalise – there are notable exceptions in each industry/market, plus I’m not as familiar with the East Coast scene as the UK.

Here, the banks, media publishers and big multi-nationals tend to be behind the curve, if for no other reason that they’re like oil tankers and it takes them ages to change direction. One place where you might be surprised by would be the US Government.

SA: Is it because they are larger organisations? Do larger organisations tend to be behind? because of bureaucracy?

JB: Larger yes, bureaucracy yes. Though actually US Government in process of changing. Take a look at the US Digital Service and 18F. They’ll probably be very welcoming of a person with your talents, and you can probably work on a freelance basis.

If their model is similar to the UK Government approach (which they initially modelled themselves on).

SA: Honestly I prefer private sector :)

Oh. I didn’t know that Dana Chisnell worked for the US digital service.

JB: There you go – you might be surprised.

SA: No wonder why their website looks modern :) That’s interesting… I’ve always thought of any government as outdated and bureaucratic :)

Like for example US government uses section 508 for accessibility which is way outdated. For some reasons they don’t follow WCAG.

JB: Yup – that’s how many people think of them, that’s why I’m suggesting you’d be surprised if you took a look. If it’s anything like the UK Government Digital Service, it will give you an opportunity to build out your experience for your freelance work.

SA: I still prefer private sector but I will think about it. One of reasons is because I don’t like going through lots of paperwork – government agencies usually do that.

With private companies they ask for less paperwork. I worked for a local public university and I filled out piles of paperwork plus fingerprints. It doesn’t usually happen in private organisations.

JB: I can’t speak for the hiring process – in the UK part of the reason there were so many freelancers involved was because it was easier / less paperwork to bring them in (at least at the outset). Whether this translates to US, I don’t know I’m afraid.

SA: That’s interesting. I will keep that in mind. Which parts of product management are organisations looking for for freelancing work? Product backlog? Testing? User research?

JB: It always depends – often it’s the whole deal, but with a quick start, i.e. you need to get up to speed in days rather than weeks or months. More often than not, you’re going to be joining an existing team working on an existing product. The brief will be “make it better / more profitable / gain more users”.

So I think the real skill is to identify the problems with the product, with the team, with the organisation, and set about clearing those obstacles as efficiently as possible to allow the product a chance of success.

It could mean doing better user research, or it could be about refocusing the team onto stuff that matters. Or it could be about convincing senior management to do something differently.

Essentially as product manager, you take responsibility for all aspects of the product, even if you’re not directly in charge of each. So if the sales team is performing badly with your product, it’s on you to figure out how to influence and help them to be better.

The solution might be multi-faceted – improved product, better engagement with sales team, better messaging, better training – whatever – but you’ll need to turn your hand to lots of different things to get the job done as product manager, ideally, with the help of capable and motivated specialists in each discipline (but this is often a luxury).

SA: What about KPIs and financial modelling? Does a product manager do it regularly or do they work with marketers/finance people?

JB: That certainly is a part of it, either in a formal sense or on a more day-to-day basis.

SA: I notice some job descriptions requiring experience with financing or even having a MBA.

JB: As a product manager, you should have an idea of whether your product is on track. This could be through monitoring of KPIs (some of which, but not all are financial measures).

SA: What if a product manager is great with ideas and words, but has difficulties with numbers? For me personally I care more about how satisfied users are than how many of them use a product.

JB: This is an area where I’d argue a product manager needs to be credible – not in the sense of complex financial modelling (if the underlying data for a model is based on guesswork, the model will be bogus), but in the sense of being able to back up your decisions with data and evidence.

SA: Helping a business with bottom line is important, but I feel that if their product is not user friendly then it may affect their bottom line.

JB: This is where you need balance between needs of users and needs of business.

SA: I was told that financial modelling is based mostly on guesswork as you cannot predict what will happen?

JB: Sure, an unusable product will be likely to do badly financially, but you also need to have confidence that you can understand the financials for your product so you can have a sensible discussion with sales and finance when you need to.

SA: I may not know history of the business to understand their financial status or predict how much they may profit. Especially if i do freelance work. Do you do a lot of KPI and financial modelling?

JB: KPIs yes, financial modelling I try to avoid. Predicting the future is inherently a fool’s game, however if you’re building a product or feature based on an understanding of the currently baseline, you can hypothesise whether the improvement will change that baseline.

That baseline could be customer satisfaction, conversion rate, speed of completion of task – whatever.

SA: That’s why I was asking what organisations basically look for in temporary projects :)

JB: KPIs should be the kind of metrics you keep track of every day to indicate whether you’re on the right track (ideally automated). KPIs prompt the questions to investigate, not provide the answers.

So to give you an example – I was recently head of product over at the Ministry of Justice in the UK. Each team would aim to spend between 6-12 months taking an idea from initial user research to live release.

SA: And it worked?

JB: More often than not, yes. Appropriate KPIs would come out of the initial user research and the ongoing research – they were the measures of how we knew the product was helping users to achieve their goal more easily and efficiently. These metrics were on big TV screens and automated so they were shown in real-time.

SA: What do you use for metrics?

JB: Sometimes we had to approximate the baseline for certain measures because no data had been collected before.

For example: improving the registration process for a particular service would make life easier and quicker for the user, but the efficiencies should also result in cost savings on the business side because of less manual processing, no need to take calls etc.

To prove this hypothesis, we needed data on how much a transaction costed to begin with. We did this by researching the original user journey and identifying the bottlenecks and costly parts of the process (i.e. when people get involved to do something manually).

This also guided us to figure out where the improvements could be made to the overall service through a digital product to provide automation.

By building the same measurements into the product from the outset, we could demonstrate which bits of the process were faster, and therefore cheaper (less staff time processing, fewer mistakes etc.).

So the kind of things we’d measure would be completion rate, time taken for transactions (both user and staff), rejection rate (whether the user achieved their goal first time or had to go back and do it again).

You had to be good enough with numbers to be able to figure out the baseline, decide the KPIs, measure them all the time and take action to fix them if they weren’t improving as expected.

Financial metrics are but one aspect, but these are usually on a more granular level to traditional finance measures, i.e. in an e-commerce situation average basket value, average spend per user per month etc.

SA: Makes sense about metrics.

I need to go soon. Before ending the conversation I would like to know what made you interested in product management, what are your favourite parts and which parts you feel frustrated with? Sounds like metrics are your favourite part? :)

JB: I got interested in product management because I fundamentally wanted to create better products, and I’d realised that the best way to do that was by focusing on user needs. I also enjoy the variety of jumping between different disciplines, if not doing so myself, then working with talented people to do so.

I’m as passionate about usability testing, accessibility, different software architectures, good product copy and so on, and could talk about those for ages also – that’s kind of what being a product manager is about. They’re all important!

SA: Yes, everything is important :) What about frustrations?

JB: Usual stuff – not getting the chance to speak to users, organisations thinking they know best for users without any evidence whatsoever, being stuck in process that the organisation is afraid or unwilling to change.

SA: So nothing specific to product management?

JB: You’re always fighting fires; and you’re the shield for the team and the product so you need to have a tough skin and be forever calm and collected, and the smartest, most knowledgeable person in the room at all times :-)

SA: Smartest? :) Everyone has their own smarts and talents – you cannot be smart at everything ;)

JB: If being smart = having done the research and having the knowledge, then yes. Or at least knowing who to ask ;-)

SA: Okay :) How did you hear about General Assembly?

JB: I met Matt Cynamon just after General Assembly started up in the UK, then became their instructor early on for their 10-week product management course. I also wrote their book on product management.

SA: Yes, I saw your book and looking forward to reading it :)

JB: Most kind :-)

SA: Why is the General Assembly logo on your book?

JB: They paid me to write it, but it’s based on my own experiences and learning.

SA: Oh okay. Makes sense. I did wonder why the logo. So why not self-publish? :) You have more control that way – that’s what I did with my book.

JB: I didn’t realise I was any good at writing books until I’d done at least one…! Call it an experiment.

SA: I was not sure myself either and just took a shot :)

JB: Best way.

SA: Okay, I gotta go. Pleasure chatting with you and thanks for talking to me. I look forward to reading your book and can I ask you questions later if I have any?

JB: Feel free – drop me a line if you fancy a chat. Also I’d be very grateful for a review on Amazon if you bought the book there!

SA: Sure – I’d be glad to write a review :) Have a nice weekend and keep in touch.

JB: You too – all the best!


Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management by Jock Busuttil

“This book has been a genuine game changer for me”
– pb (Amazon)

“I wish this book was published when I started out in product management”
– KejiA (Amazon)

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