This week, Product School hosted Allan Deutsch, Product Leader at Microsoft, for an exclusive #AskMeAnything session. Allan answered questions on the crossover between PR, Marketing, and Product, as well as how to align teams on the same vision.
Allan is a Microsoft Product Leader using his technical background to build SaaS offerings for game developers.
Before that, he worked at the DigiPen Institute of Technology facilitating the migration of the course curriculum to a blog centralized around a topic of interest to the students and working on how to effectively develop a resume. He has also held two internships at Microsoft, first as a Software Engineer and later as a Product Manager. He also interned at Cooler Master, working on Public Relations and Marketing.
How much of your PM success comes from your deep expertise in coding and dev?
When I first made the switch to PM, I wanted to do it without leaning on my technical background at all. My thinking was that if I leaned too heavily on my dev skills, it would negatively impact my growth as a PM. As a result, I actively avoided being “technical” for the first couple years I was a PM.
Now I feel much more comfortable in my product skills, and have recently leaned into my technical skills more, especially since transitioning to the SaaS space early in 2020. One thing I love about being in product is that you can bring the skills and areas you have expertise and passion at into the role.
While I’m technical and that’s helped me in my PM roles working on developer-facing products like the Xbox platform, Xbox Live, and PlayFab, I know plenty of amazing PMs who don’t have a technical background at all and they’re knocking it out of the park with their own superpowers in ways that I wouldn’t be able to.
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What sort of crossover of soft skills have you seen working as a PR and Marketing intern to your current role?
A huge part of success as a PM is influence. You need to convince all sorts of people to do all sorts of things:
- Get customers to tell you about their pain points in a way you can take action on
- Work with internal stakeholders to convince them to provide resources for things you believe are important
- Convince engineering that the work you think is important actually is
- Convince new/potential customers to adopt your product or leverage more of the features
And way more! Being able to talk to people and tell a compelling story is a great superpower to have and some of the best PMs I know are amazing at it.
What’s the progression for Product Managers and Product owners in terms of career?
This is going to vary by company, but regardless of title/role/company it generally seems to follow the progression of:
- Execution – the mechanics of gathering feedback, testing hypotheses, defining and building features, and iterating on them
- Product strategy – making sure the product is headed in the right direction, has product-market fit, is the right size opportunity for the business to pursue, etc.
- Building team and culture – steering the people who steer the business
As an APM, who is starting their career in Product Management, what advice would you give on focusing my time off-work to enhance my skills and get more deep into Product Management?
Be sustainable. Get enough sleep, eat healthy, exercise out in nature, meditate, and take time off. These things sound basic but they are the fundamentals and they are critical and easy to neglect. Knowledge work is taxing on the mind but will cause the body to atrophy.
Make sure you keep your body in good shape and give your mind time to recover from working.I also find it extremely helpful to have a framework for learning things. You’ll always be learning – whether it’s in AMAs, online videos, blog posts, experience at work, or anything else, make sure you learn the lessons as fast as possible. For this I really like using spaced repetition, which has been shown to dramatically improve retention and ability to apply what was learned.
What is the biggest learning (a mistake to avoid) you had in your career?
The biggest mistake to avoid is not learning from your mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone learns from them. Take time to reflect regularly. I have a morning and evening journaling practice and use prompts at night to reflect on things like:
- What did I do well today?
- What should I have done better today?
Using those helps me keep learning from my own experiences.
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What advice would you give people without a CS / engineering degree when it comes to securing a PM position?
Take my advice with a healthy dose of salt here because I do have a technical background, but:
Focus on what you do have. If you didn’t spend 4 years studying CS in undergrad, you probably did something else which is valuable and differentiates you from the hordes of technical folks already in PM. Your diverse skills and experiences are valuable and help teams build better products. Highlight what makes you unique and valuable, instead of focusing on what you don’t have.
How do you seek customer feedback for an early stage product with low engagement?
Reach out to your customers. If you don’t have enough customers, clearly define who your target audience is as clearly as possible. It should probably be a small niche if you’re early stage (ie “elderly women over 70 living in San Francisco who take public transit to get groceries” or something) and find people who should be your customers to understand their problems as it relates to your product.
Does Microsoft hire PMs with business background, instead of technical ones?
Yes, definitely. Just make sure the role is a good fit for you. IE, you probably wouldn’t want to work on a team building developer APIs if you don’t have a technical background.
What approach worked for you to get everyone aligned with the vision of the end product and tie it back to the overall vision of Microsoft to bring everyone on the same page?
Bring them along for the journey of how you got to that vision of the end product. This is a lesson I’ve had to learn – early in my career I would jump straight to the solution when sharing it with my team, and they would often have an adverse reaction because I hadn’t brought them through the journey of what the problem is and why we need to solve it first.
How different in your opinion is a career of non-technical PM vs. technical?
I think the main differences between a technical and non-technical PM is which types of products you work on. A technical PM can work on technical products like developer APIs where a non-technical PM would really struggle. Same goes for UX heavy PM roles – if you don’t have the UX background it’s going to be a lot harder. Plenty of roles exist without needing those domain-specific skills though, so instead focus on what you’re great at and how you can leverage it for impact.
Any final words of advice?
My final advice is that you are a product that solve product management problems, and your employer is the customer. Use your skills as a PM to improve yourself too!Some practices I find helpful:
- Morning and evening journaling with prompts. I revisit the prompts periodically to make sure they are still helping me grow and reflect in areas I find important
- Meditate daily. Meditation helps you stay calm under stress and dramatically improves your ability to focus.
- Be intentional about learning. I spend 10-15 minutes every day going through my spaced repetition prompts which has helped me retain an immense amount of valuable learnings from a variety of sources.
- Use writing as a tool for thinking. It’s much easier to refine ideas, pitches, etc. when they are written down than when they are in your head.