Breaking Barriers and Bias in Product Management — Alumni Stories

Editor’s note: this content was updated in 2021 as part of our 7th Anniversary celebrations. That’s right, 7 whole years of Product School! Come and celebrate with us…

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Here in Product School we like to employ the language of opportunity. Of transitions. Of upskilling. We look forward to the development of new technologies and celebrate the humans who make them possible. However, some tech people also have very significant stories of transformation. The industry is no stranger to larger social dynamics which make it difficult for certain people to access the world of product.

As a result, we love it when one of our alumni can say how certain figures inspired them to break barriers and biases to pursue a Product Management career. Priyanka Palanikumar took her first steps in product about ten years ago, starting as a System Engineer at Infosys, in India. After an MSc in Management Information Systems and Services, she was briefly a Software Engineer at ISGN Corporation. Later, she became a Solution Designer for a small startup, Idea Bubbles Consulting Services. Her ultimate move took place sometime later when she joined Zensuranceas a Product Manager. Most recently, she started her career at Yelp as a Product Manager.

priyanka palanikumar

Let’s learn a bit from her sources of inspiration and her gradual transition into Product Management.

PM Inspiration: Women in Tech, From NASA to Microsoft

katherine johnson

The lady pictured above is Katherine Johnson. She was one of the mathematicians who accurately generated the equations needed for NASA missions in space. In the 1950s and 1960s, she helped include computers in the daily operations of the space agency. She, among many other women participating on the project, made later missions in space possible; ensuring that a safe return to Earth was achievable. Notably, Johnson and her colleagues’ contributions also made it possible for other women to take up positions of responsibility.

“I have always been inspired by Kathrine Johnson. Her contribution to NASA was extraordinary. As I was growing up, reading about her shaped my decision to pursue a career in technology and break a lot of gender bias and barriers! In recent times I have been inspired by Satya Nadella and his compassionate leadership for Microsoft.”

Priyanka is connecting two generations, pioneers and established leaders in tech. Satya Nadella and many other women in the business are behind some of the world’s most amazing products. In fact, diversity and inclusion is one particular driving force of product growth. If Product Managers aim to solve problems for users; then, they must think of any possible type of user.

The Product School alum also took part, as a reviewer, in the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. “Supporting women to feel more comfortable in taking up big challenges is something I personally believe in, and that reflects in all of my volunteering work. I was a reviewer for the Grace Hopper Celebration and that gave me an insight into how brilliant minds think. Plus, I got the opportunity to help these amazing submissions from several candidates!”.

women at the grace hopper celebration

From Engineering to UX, From UX to Product Management

You never know how you will achieve your goals. For most of us, it is never a straight line. Opportunities come and go, and the only thing you can do is to hop on the train and hope that it will get you closer to your preferred destination. This was the case for Priyanka: from Engineering, she moved to UX before transitioning to Product Management. However, this does not mean that you cannot learn along the way.

For instance, this is how Priyanka assesses her time as an Engineer: “I am able to convince the engineering team to do things a certain way because I can now really find the win-win situation for both business and technology. I would recommend more Engineers to move towards the business side of technology and become Product Managers!”

Exactly. It wasn’t a diversion, but another learning opportunity. Plus, there is some truth in what she is saying. Many technical people feel intimidated by the business demands of product positions. However, there are many things they can do to overcome their fears.

Aerial Photography of Country Road

One good way for technical people to increase their business acumen is to work on their side-project. But really working. This could even mean launching your own startup. When you are in such a small and nimble environment, you become extra efficient. This is because you have little money and little time; but these hardships can also lead you to devise interesting solutions. For instance, an internal tool designed to accelerate your iteration process can eventually become an external product that is loved by your audience.

This is how Priyanka sees it: “I worked at a healthcare startup before and now I work as a Product Manager at a startup. I can say that the pace is definitely different in a startup! In short, working at a startup is like getting your own mini-MBA degree! Decisions are made during the day and we receive feedback almost instantly. Working for a large corporation is also beneficial because you get exposure to different ideas and set of proven methods to learn from. Both of the work environments have opportunities, especially if you get to innovate.

Eventually, Priyanka conducted a horizontal career move towards User Experience. Everybody knows that the user is the most important stakeholder in Product; however, not everyone takes the discipline of “Design” seriously enough. For those with an Engineering background, again, it is very useful to understand the parameters that make certain pathways easy or difficult for audiences. UX also teaches you a couple of lessons.

“UX based roles are the most humbling experience anyone can ever have in their career!”, according to Priyanka. “To see how your idea is perceived by the end user, eliminate assumptions about your own ideas; which is what every Product Manager needs to succeed in their role. My transition into Design was a result of my Master’s degree where I specialized in Human Computer Interaction (HCI). My role as a UX analyst at PayPal opened doors for me to dig into design and research for digital products.” 

Finally, Priyanka was able to join Zensurance as a Product Manager. This company specializes in business liability insurance. B2B companies have very different dynamics; among them, that users and customers do not always coincide. How has she adapted to her new environment? “Taking the path of least resistance has been the motto at Zensurance. I realized that if you make something easier for people, they will start following you. My initial goal was to make things simpler for the tech team, helping them follow the objectives and key results (OKR) format for product development.”

Of course, once you reach your final goal, you do not simply forget about what you have learnt along the way. We expect it to be the same with our alumni. Priyanka says: “I had the opportunity to bring my engineering background and the Masters degree into the job, because they show methods applicable to tech work estimations, product thinking, and UX analysis.” How did Product School help her?

How Product School Can Help You Find a PM Job

Of course, the Product Management Certification’s curriculum is designed to help you get your first product position. This is not just obvious in those sections in the course dedicated explicitly to job search and interviews; but it is actually a constant reference for the whole programme. Our materials, instructors and alumni relations are directed at securing product positions. As Priyanka argues, “the Product School course was certainly more practical than a university degree and it’s the closest I ever got to experience being a product manager before I landed a role“.

In fact, getting the job offer from Zensurance was a fantastic opportunity for Priyanka to start testing hew newly acquired skills. “I was ecstatic because, when I got my job at Zensurance, I had only finished a few classes from Product School. I got the opportunity to strengthen my skills by applying everything I learnt immediately in my new position! I also got a chance to ask Jesse Owens (my PS instructor) questions based on my first few weeks of experience as a Product Manager.”

Of course, not everyone gets that unique opportunity of both working and learning about product at the same time. What should others do to make the most of their Product Management course?

modern class environment with students at the back

“Don’t look at the course as a learning method, consider this your first experience as a product manager!”, suggests Priyanka. “You will realize and also learn what kind of Product Manager you are going to be when you work on the assignments with your class members!”.

You never stop encountering new ideas, of course. Continuous improvement is implicit in the Product Management job description. This is why we do not limit ourselves to delivering great product courses, but we also keep producing books, videos, and other learning materials. Of course, holding events with expert Product Managers is also one of our favorite things. What about Priyanka? “I enjoy meeting people at different product meetups because I get to experience things first hand and also ask questions!”.

Final advice from Priyanka: remain curious! “I’m a curious person by nature and learning is a big part of who I am. I have great deal of respect for my professors who have ever taught me the basics. Times are changing, people are looking for something beyond a traditional education to help them in the real life setting. Although a university degree sets a great foundation, we still have to learn a lot of things that are part of real life. Product School gave me a taste of this real life experience during my classes.” 

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