We had the opportunity to sit down with Fred Radford, a Product Manager at Y Media Labs and an instructor at our Silicon Valley campus. Here’s what he had to say about breaking into product management, and best practices once you get started.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background before you broke into product management?
I’ve always been interested in technology, and initially, I was doing programming in high school and college. That led to doing larger projects in startups and then I started my own business and kind of was a product manager and the CEO. After I sold that company and started working for a larger company, I moved naturally into product management.
Did you go through any recruiting process to be a PM?
Usually, it wasn’t a direct PM title because software product management really wasn’t thought of as its own specialty. So, I would be something like director of solutions or record engineering, or program management, but really looking at the background of having the ability to interface between cross-functional teams in business and design and engineering all at the same time.
A lot of students here at Product School want to become a Product Manager, and for them, what is the single most important thing to do once they become a PM?
So there’s the answer with all PM related things is, it depends. It depends on the company but there are three or four things that are central to any company. One is you have to understand the culture early on and what is acceptable for PM’s to do and what is not. There might be more PMroles that are visionary focused or technical focused, maybe you have to be the scrum master, and if you don’t know that in advance you might have problems with that once you get going. That could be a problem.
By understanding the culture of it, you realize how much of your day can be spent on visionary activities and how much of it is more tactical. Just triaging user stories and prioritizing bug reports that are coming in, so I think that’s an important component when you first get started, is figuring out what the culture is.
The second part of that is writing a press release for the first 90 days. So, after 90 days, what is it going to look like, what is it that you have accomplished, and right then, use one of our frameworks. So, go ahead and write a press release for the future. “In the last 90 days I did this, this and this, I’ve delivered these three things to the company, and they had this value.” And by creating that goal upfront then you can verify with the management team that you guys are all on the same page but also gives you specific targets to move towards to see if you’re on-track of off-track with what you think you need to get accomplished. It might be as simple as creating a roadmap or launching a product, but get something down on paper so you can quickly determine whether of not you’re moving in the right space.
You want to make sure you’re on the same page with what you think needs to be and with what they expect to be done.
What skills are important to be a successful PM?
Every company has a different main skill, and one of the things that I was talking with one of the Google PM’s that teach here at Product School, and he said “building the right shit at the right time” is the most important feature.
Other PM roles, the most important skill, is communication. Especially if you have diverse teams or if they are remote, if you are able to effectively communicate, then your team is going to be effective. Other people think that getting the right data into the system and being able to produce results that are actionable and verifiable is really important. But it all gets down to deliver. You need to deliver something.
Where in a cross-functional situation where we don’t have people reporting to us directly, we have to lead by influence, so the most important skill to be successful is doing that. And that means delivering something whether it’s the vision, the roadmap the release the user-testing data, whatever it ends up being for that company, that’s why the previous action is important. Figure out what it is that’ important to the company and then the next skill is delivery, getting something out there so it can be validated and it can be tested, and you can iterate on it as quickly as possible.
What are the most important things a PM should do?
So the question is more what should a great product manager NOT do. Because there are all going to be too many things to do, just like there’s going to be too many items in the backlog. Consciously figure out what you’re not going to do, what you can delegate and what you can let the experts handle. The focus on prioritizing what you can do and what things you should be doing.
The biggest thing is making sure that expectations are set across all the different teams. Sometimes that is as simple as creating a roadmap or communicating something in a PowerPoint presentation. Other times it’s running the standup, so all the engineering people understand the requirements they are supposed to be working on, and there are no conflicts there.
Other times it can be higher level and more visionary and making sure that the strategy of the way the features are built and the product is going is going to align with the company vision. And that’s something that is tough to find time to do on a daily basis but in a lot of the mid-sized companies, that can be super important, converts them from being a startup or small company to being a mid-size or large company. And those kinds of things. So, it depends again, but a lot of it has to do with the communication and setting expectations.
A lot of prioritization and saying “no” is very important. Start with figuring what you don’t need to do today that you can have someone else do.
What does product management mean to you personally?
Product management is the most fun, most exciting mission because it’s always changing. It depends, as the answer also means that there is always something new. It doesn’t matter if you’re stuck on the same project for years, there’s always going to be turnover in the people, and the roadmap and the customer, and all these different things are always going to be changing.
There’s always going to be a new technical solution that you decide to implement or not implement and refactor. And there’s going to be new market opportunities, and there’s going to be new technologies that are available, and figuring out how to make that profitable whether it’s in money or views or whatever to this company and that means solving a customer’s problem. That’s great, and that’s really rewarding. So I think that product management to me means solving those problems and that makes it very exciting as a role.
Do you have any advice for our students who are aspiring to be good product managers?
So, Nike said best, “Just do it.” Don’t wait for someone to pay you to be a product manager, the best way to become a product manager is just to do it, even if you’re just a project manager or program manager, or an engineer. Find the product team in your company and just do it. It’s going to be a lot easier to transition than trying to go to a recruiter, and all they see is engineering, engineering, on your resume.
Go out there and do the work, and you will show that you can do the job rather than trying to say you can do the job. So I think that’s the best advice that I can give to aspiring product managers.
Do you have any books that you would recommend to our students?
Yes, there’s a new Product School book that’s available, so I would recommend reading it.
Also check out the latest in our Interview Series: Nir Erlich, Product Manager of Craft.io