How Can an Entry Level Product Executive Become a Kick-Ass Product Manager?

How Can an Entry Level Product Executive Become a Kick-Ass Product Manager?

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Those looking to undertake this journey be warned – it isn’t an easy one. It takes focus, skill, passion, knowledge and a strategy that will work for you. The smartest approach is to speak to those who’ve already done it and do your best to emulate them in your own unique way.

This post is for the product executives who want to become kick-ass product managers – perhaps the most in-demand (and lucrative) role in tech. Becoming the best takes time, but with a little bit of expert guidance you’re far more likely to get there!

To help you kiss mediocrity goodbye, we spoke to five top product experts who have navigated this journey themselves:

  • Matthew Littlejohn, Product Owner, OFX: Littlejohn is a skilled product manager with nearly 10 years of experience. He works at OFX, an online international money transfer service. His expertise is in driving the delivery of products from inception, through MVP, and to delivery. He was recently awarded the title of OFX’s employee of the year in 2017 – not bad for someone working in a global company with more than 350 employees.
  • Rakshit Bhandari, Digital Product Manager, McKinsey & Co: Bhandari has over 12 years of digital product experience working at McKinsey & Co, one of the world’s top consulting firms. His expertise is in rapid digitisation engagements, Agile transformation and coaching his clients on a range of topics like Agile, DevOps and crowdsourcing. He has led over 20 product designers, owners & developers to deliver products to global clients.
  • Paul Hart, Advertising Technology Specialist, Amicus Digital: Hart is a hybrid product leader and creative director, with experience working in the online media space. He’s skilled in digital strategy, advertising, client presentation, digital marketing and invention, and has mastered the art of creating award-winning custom advertising solutions.
  • Jason Fischer, Head of Development, Bambora: Fischer is a hands-on technical leader, with expertise in building, growing and motivating teams to deliver quality projects on budget and on time. He is currently shaping the future of the customer-focused payment experience at Bambora.
  • Mandar Karlekar, Product Manager, Siteminder: Karlekar is an experienced and versatile product manager. His main responsibility at Siteminder is to maintain the product roadmap, ensuring its alignment with the company’s vision, goals, drivers and delivery backlog. He loves addressing product challenges.

These five professionals are some of Australia’s best product managers – so who better to learn from than them?

What key skills does it take to be an exceptional product manager?

According to Littlejohn there are some key skills you need to be an awesome product manager:

Empathy: You need to be able to feel your customer’s pain. It’s more than just listening to your customers. Being a great product manager is about truly understanding the problem you’re solving, and why you’re solving it.

Know your numbers: You can’t overlook the value of measurement in defining strategic goals, setting expectations and regularly reporting on how you are tracking. Setting clear targets through data means that your business decisions are always defendable, and allows you to track your progress and bring the team along for the journey.

Future focus: Build for tomorrow not for today. Great product managers need to consider external factors such as ‘what will the competitive landscape look like in three years?’, and internal factors such as ‘how is this going to scale?’ Asking yourself these questions early on in development allows you to say yes to larger opportunities and grow your business exponentially. Building solid foundations will always pay off in the long run.

Thirst for knowledge: Always do your research. Learning about your customers should be a given, but you’ll need to put just as much effort into learning about your business and all relevant technologies, as this will allow you to make informed business decisions. It is the role of a product manager to understand their product vertically & horizontally, so dedicate the time to finding out exactly how it all works and what levers can be pulled to take your product to the next level.

Collaboration: Your people are your greatest asset. Product management touches every part of the business, so you need to have everyone rowing in the same direction!

Building on these insights, Bhandari believes that the most important skill needed to be a phenomenal product manager is the ability to influence others without needing to use authority. A product manager’s role is to be a facilitator and leader, and not the archetypal ‘boss.’

According to Hart, a product manager needs to be able to find the right problems to solve. Being able to wear multiple hats, as well as balance the needs of the short term while never losing sight of the long term vision, are key skills that are easier said than done!

“There’s no point in building something nobody wants,” advises Fischer. He suggests spending as much time as possible getting inside the heads of customers to understand why they do what they do, so your solution genuinely adds value.

Karlekar reiterates Fischer’s sentiments, identifying the ability to truly understand your customers as one of the most important skills to have as a product manager.

How should junior product managers upskill?

How do you become the product manager you want to be? “Be invested in and love what you do,” instructs Littlejohn. “Passion for your product reaps massive rewards. Get involved in the products you care about and offer your support even if it’s outside of your role. Having a clear 3-5 year vision for your products also helps. Set your goals and work on them every day.”  

He puts emphasis on proactively developing yourself by following inspirational product leaders on LinkedIn and attending meetups within Australia’s vibrant product community. Short courses and day workshops are also a great way to upskill – Littlejohn highly recommends this one by Lyndon Mayher.  

Bhandari advises seeking active mentorship and observing what others are doing. He says he keeps an eye on other product managers to see how they conduct meetings, prepare for kick-off sessions, analyse data and more. There is so much you can learn from colleagues and veterans in the space.

Bhandari recommends reading the book “Lean Startup,” and enrolling in product management and engineering courses through online providers like Coursera and Udemy.

Hart’s view is that for product managers to be effective in their roles they need to be supported by great project managers, who will help them get things done on time and on budget. He also thinks that having some consistency around defining what a product manager’s role is would be a huge help, as it’s currently a loosely defined role at most companies.

In terms of learning resources, he suggests doing the courses and workshops provided by Brainmates, as they’re specialists in helping product managers upskill.

Fischer adds that in order to upskill, junior product managers need to take on responsibility. They should make sure that customers are championed, and that developers have what they need to create an awesome product. Junior PMs need to ensure that all stakeholders have a good understanding of what is being created and why.

Karlekar feels that product managers need to be versatile and adaptable, as the role deals with constant change in things like the team, the technology and the market. All product managers encounter failures, but the best ones are quick to learn lessons from them.

Wrapping it up

Hoping to become a phenomenal product manager? Follow the advice of these experts and you’ll be on the right track. It’s a challenging role, but one that is ultimately rewarding for those who harbour a real passion for working with the most talented people, and creating the freshest and most exciting tech.

If you feel as though you’re ready to take the next step in your professional career, we have good news – some of Australia’s top tech companies are looking for new talent right now! Check out our job boards for all the latest roles, product management or otherwise!

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