Transitioning from a Junior to Senior PM Role

This week, Product School hosted Divya Cohen, a Product Leader at Google, for a special #AskMeAnything session. Divya answered questions regarding essential PM skills and how to move from a junior to a senior role.

Meet Divya

Product Manager at Google, Divya Cohen

Divya is currently focusing on Google Maps and specifically the Rideshare and Deliveries team. She’s an experienced product leader with a demonstrated history of working in the Consumer Tech and Health industries.

She is skilled in Data Analysis, Sales, Social Media Marketing,
Policy, and Social Enterprise. Divya is a strong Product Management professional and founder with an exciting start-up.

She holds an MBA in Healthcare Management from Wharton Business School, an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School, and has a Bachelor in Medicine and Surgery. 

What do you look for when hiring a Product Manager?

dart in a dartboard

At Google we look first and foremost at user-centered thinking. This is critical. I want to see you understand and articulate user pain points clearly and empathize before creating solutions.

I also look for structured thinking. PM is a hard role because it’s so ambiguous. So you need to start to define and articulate how you’ll manage ambiguity with a team. And finally, I look for the ability to be resilient. If a question is uncomfortable for you or if I push back, how do you react?

Does industry background matter when trying to become a PM?

I personally think generalist PMs are great. I’m a doctor working on maps as an example. It may be easier to get your foot into the door within your industry but mid to long term it shouldn’t matter. The skills you’ll learn are broadly applicable.

The more senior you go the more it may matter to specialize in an industry. In the earlier parts of your career, getting breadth is great.

Check out: Transitioning to Product Management From ANY Background

How the project management and product manager roles overlap? I’m trying to make a jump from project to product 🙂

Ok, you’ll know this even better than me then! I haven’t worked with project managers directly, only program managers.

At a high level PMs are supposed to answer the why and the what, where as program managers are designed to help with how and when.

Project vs program managers may have its own distinction too. I think both are important to a functioning team as they look after two different ends of the spectrum. To make the jump though, you’d want to start showing competency in the what and why. Often that means working closely with a PM and helping them with parts of their strategy and/or product requirements.

What advice would you give to someone in undergrad who wants to get a PM role in a big organization after gradutaion?

If you are in college, the best pathway is through campus recruiting. Do you have large tech companies coming on campus? If not, you can certainly apply online too.

What are your thoughts on the combination of Data Science and Product Management?

Definitely value in DS to PM transition. A PM on our data quality team made the same transition and it worked great. I’m sure your skill sets will be very relevant in some of these more data-centric roles.

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How important are technical skills for a product manager?

I think you need to know enough of the fundamentals to know how things are made but you don’t need to know an exact programming language or the latest frameworks.

Read next: Product Managers and Technical Skills…What’s The Deal?

Is it better for PMs to have a developer background? 

Some understanding of how it works is good. At Google we do have to do an interview round with engineering. You don’t have to be a super expert but you should know the fundamentals.

There are lots of great ways for anyone to learn this. I’m a doctor and I took some CS fundamental courses for free.

Do FAANG companies hire PMs from other countries (like India) for roles abroad? 

Yes, I can’t speak for all, but Google hires very broadly and we have a big presence in countries like India.

What would you recommend for an aspiring product manager to move into Fortune 10 companies like FAANG?

I can only speak from a personal perspective as I was reached out over LinkedIn by a Google recruiter. So keep your LinkedIn up to date.

Try getting into startups as a PM so the FAANGs will notice. It’s often hard to get into FAANG without PM experience unless you go for associate PM roles. Another way is to get in with another role and then laterally transfer inside.

What responsibilities should a Product Manager seek if they’re looking to grow their career in this field?

There isn’t one answer here as it depends on your interests and on future aspirations.

For me, I like working on revenue-generating or growth projects as that’s how the business exists. I also like deep tech-heavy projects because I love science and enjoy nerding out. Each person has their own path here, I’m just sharing what excites me.

You might also like: The Skills Product Managers Need in 2021

I’ve done a few side projects with PMs in my company but am still unable to crack a PM role in my company—it’s been 2 years. Any advice on how to transition into a PM role? 

Firstly, great work on learning as you go along! Maybe talk to the PM hiring manager on what else they’d like to see and make a concrete plan with them? Otherwise, you could start interviewing elsewhere too.

Everyone says getting a PM job outside your company without PM experience is difficult. Any tips to overcome this?

Yes, this is true. That’s why I suggested making a milestone-based plan with the PM hiring manager. It’s up to you how long you are willing to wait. I personally would start to look at alternatives even if they are hard.

man looking around with earbuds

What advice do you have for a PM trying to become a Senior PM?

Best way to do this is to create impact within your product and to show strategic thinking as you move up.

At a senior level it’s much more about your ability to create strategy, communicate clearly, acquire resources for the team, and lead / effectively manage your team. 

Beyond years of experience, how can I show more seniority and depth of capability?

You can show this with your experience (i.e. have you done the type of high-level work senior people do in your previous companies) and do you respond in a way that shows seniority.

Showing seniority means: have you internalized the frameworks? Are you looking at things strategically? Are you able to see corner cases that only experience teaches you?

What framework do you use for prioritization and building your roadmap?

First thing I do is ensure we have a cohesive strategy where I articulate the why of tackling this and the different problem statements we could go after.

I prioritize the problem statements first. Then after that, I articulate solutions that could solve each problem statement and stack rank them again.

I use three parameters for this:

  1. Potential to make an impact for our customers, especially net new customers
  2. Engineering and data effort
  3. Differentiated capability to what’s available in the market.

Finally, with all that included, we have a roadmap.

man and woman looking at map

How do you make the route change process so instantaneous, how do you manage your immense database of possible routes?

The team has worked on vast infrastructure over the years and built proprietary algorithms to be able to handle this well. It’s definitely one of the differentiated capabilities.

What has been your biggest challenge as a product manager at Google and how did you overcome it?

My biggest challenge has been aligning multiple teams on large projects.

The way I’ve handled it is a series of progressive steps starting with socializing the project with the PM on their side in an informal meeting, creating joint OKRs, and running a meeting where I’ve shared the strategy doc, why we should work together, and why it’s critical for the customer.

Read next: 10 Most Common Product Development Challenges

When you take the decision of what to build next do you rely more on interviews or quantitative data?

Often you need both qualitative and quantitative data, so both customer interviews and data are very important at showing points of commonalities and conflict!

I’m currently working at a startup but I don’t have customers to interview. How do I make a product roadmap in this situation?

It’s very hard to create roadmaps without customer input. If you are a startup, some people on your team may have experience you’re targeting so you can start with interviewing them.

After that you just need to get creative i.e. reach out over LinkedIn, go to industry conferences where you informally interview people over coffee/lunch breaks etc.

Read next: Customer Focused Product Management—A Winning Business Strategy

How is the scene for Product Managers changing with the rise of working from home?

I’ve been surprised how little disruption this has created in general. For a PM though, who is often responsible for x-team communication, it has meant many more meetings and a longer process to get final product sign-offs as everything now has to happen via official 30 min time slots.

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