Former IBM colleague Badri gets the gold star for responding to my call to action and recommending topics for future blog posts. Seeing as this is a full service blog, I’m happy to oblige.
Badri asked how I came to my current role as a product manager at a software company. Its a good question, for which there are probably many correct answers. There are many different paths to product management, as elaborated by a book I recently read on software product management, by Marty Cagan entitled Inspired: How to Make Products Customers Love.
Given that there’s no one path, I’ll give recount my professional journey and some of the key turning points.
Way back in the olden days . . . I got an electrical engineering degree and continued on for a “Masters of Engineering Management” before I entered the real world. I got that Masters degree because I kind of knew that I wasn’t going to be interested in being a working electrical engineer. I liked how the engineering discipline had helped me develop problem solving skills and I knew I wanted to be involved in technology at some level, but I didn’t get jazzed by the prospect of designing circuits. So I entered the job market at just about the perfect time for a partially confused, recent grad — 1998 — and got myself a job at a software company: Kenan Systems.
At Kenan, I joined the consulting group. We were charged with deploying a UNIX-based billing product at telecommunications carriers. This was a booming market given the deregulation at the time (in addition to the internet bubble). We were growing rapidly and doing great business. By early 1999, I was a project manager in the consulting practice, and by late 1999 I was leading a huge project at a large long distance carrier in Rio de Janeiro. I was way over my head. It was great. I was 25 and presenting to the CIO and CFO of one of the biggest companies in Brazil.
After three years of traveling and working with customers, I moved into a different role at Kenan (which had been purchased by Lucent by this time). I leveraged my hands on experience with the product and at customers into a project management/release management role inside the development organization at Kenan/Lucent. Rather than working with customers, I was scoping and project managing the releases of that same product. I did this for another 3 years. The key to my smooth transition into this new role was my intuition for our customers’ expectation and my deep understanding of the products’ capabilities. My first mentor at Kenan had gotten his start there in the quality assurance group. He set an example of basing his continued success at the company through understanding the technology we provided. Though this mentor was at the Director level and rarely at a customer site for more than a day at a time, he continued to tinker with the software and maintain deep familiarity with it.
6 years total at essentially the same company (Lucent sold us off to CSG), provided me with a foundation of skills. I understood that a key to my successes had been becoming a deep expert in our product. I understood the product development process after working with a good set of predominantly MIT trained, Kendall Square developers. I knew I could push back on their technical arguments, even if I wasn’t a hacker myself. I understood the basics of project management, though I knew tinkering with Gantt charts made me want to scream.
But after 6 years at Kenan/Lucent/CSG, I saw that the trajectory of the company had leveled off and was heading in the wrong direction. Whereas in 1999, I was being given too much responsibility too quickly (which was great), by ’04 I had no clear growth path. My personal trajectory had leveled off. I knew I didn’t want to be a project manager forever.
In response, I found a new job at a new company. I took a bit of a sideways step, taking a project management role in consulting services at a small enterprise software firm — iPhrase Technologies. The strategy was to join a growing, more flexible company where I’d be able to find a new gap that would strike my interest.
After about 9 months at iPhrase, I started a dialog with the VP of Marketing. I didn’t really know what they did in marketing, but they seemed to work on interesting stuff from where I sat. They gave demos (cool!), they worked on sales calls (exciting!), they collaborated with the development team (hey, I used to do that!), they gave webinars (neat!) and just generally seemed to get to work on decisions that helped steer the company. I told him I’d like to move into his team, having spent 9 months learning the product and the market space and generally gaining the trust of folks with whom I interacted.
To his credit (and my gratitude), he was immediately receptive and supportive. He asked me whether I was more interested in Product Management (doing things like defining product requirements) or Product Marketing (more strategic tasks). I hadn’t thought through the question ahead of time but I immediately responded “Product Marketing”, reasoning that it was further out from my comfort zone and would be the better learning experience. That was probably the best split-second decisions I’ve ever made. The reasoning turned out to be sound and it meant that he hooked me up with one of his reports (Roy Rodenstein) who was a great mentor.
Roy parceled off some ‘nights and weekend’ projects for me. He helped me through the projects, teaching me how to give a compelling demo and generally teaching me the basics of the software “product” business. I was still doing my day job at iPhrase with customers, but they got some good work out of me. I got some crucial experience in a new functional role. I was able to effectively execute these tasks because I had remained grounded in the product. I had been “obsessed with the product“. No matter that the functional tasks I was starting to be asked to execute were unfamiliar, I was able to power my way through these new problems because I was completely grounded in the core ‘facts’ of the business — the products.
So when IBM purchased iPhrase, Roy and his product marketing cohorts relatively quickly left the iPhrase business behind, creating a vacuum in product marketing. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for — and was able to quickly backfill the position as someone who had been groomed for the role. No one knew at IBM that I hadn’t been in a product marketing role at iPhrase and with the confidence born of knowing how the product worked, I was able to muddle my way through my first year in product marketing: doing my first competitive analysis, my first messaging work, my first product development prioritization.
So Badri, how’d I get into product management? I focused on the product, I pushed for my own development and I found great mentors (to both emulate, learn from and to champion me when the time was right).
I loved my job at IBM and love my new one at HubSpot (so far so good!). How have you found your way to a job you loved?