Product-Adjacent Roles Could Be Your Break Into Product Management

Welcome to this week’s #AskMeAnything with Jon Levinson, Senior Product Manager at Uber. Jon talks about how to break into Product, manage product teams, when and how to stand his ground, and offered advice on how to estimate deadlines.

Meet Jon

Jon Levinson is a Senior Product Manager skilled in marketing, with a background in International Relations. He is currently working at Uber with the New York City Metropolitan area team. Jon takes on big problems to help drivers, riders, delivery partners, and eaters get moving. Prior to this, he was the Head of Product at Pillar App, a platform that stores family’s most important information like medical records, legal documents, and financial accounts safely online.

What type of marketing did you do before, and how did you pivot into PM work?

I began my career at TripAdvisor in a combined Marketing and Product rotational program. My cohort and I spent 2 years rotating across 6 different teams in the Product and Marketing Depts. I had stints in both brand as well as CRM (email performance) marketing before deciding I was more interested in pursuing product. Highly recommend APM rotational programs whenever/wherever available to learn PM fundamentals.

Was there a time in your career when you differed from management and stood your ground?

Yes, there have definitely been times where my views have differed from management. The way I’ve handled those situations depends on the size of the company, but in general, my approach has been to look for the root cause of the disagreement and approach conversations from common ground upstream of the disagreement.

For example, at Pillar, a small startup at which I was Head of Product, our CEO and I disagreed over when/how aggressively to pursue a new product feature designed to monetize the platform vs. investing in our core free offering. By orienting the conversation around the strategic business objectives we wanted to achieve we were able to have a productive conversation on the pros and cons of each approach and reach a compromise solution that didn’t feel as though one person was winning and the other was losing.

How would you recommend someone new to Product Management to stand out?

Breaking into Product is really hard! Sometimes I feel we put up too many barriers to entry, and as hiring managers, are unwilling to take risks on inexperienced candidates. The reason there is that almost every open Product role is open for a reason. The team is stretched thin and needs to hire someone who can immediately contribute. Rare indeed are times when senior product leaders have the time/bandwidth to coach up a completely new PM.

My suggestion, other than rotational programs or other such explicit on-ramps, is to look for product-adjacent roles at large companies and look to transfer internally into Product from there. For example at Uber, Product Operations Managers bridge the gap between product and Ops. They don’t need product experience to succeed in their role, and they get tons of exposure to Product Management that set them up well for a transition into Product. An experience ProdOps manager with an interest in Product is an enticing candidate for a PM team looking to hire someone with Product exposure and a proven track record of performance at the company. And once you’ve gotten that first Product role on your resume, you’re off to the races!

Is it necessary to have a background in technology/engineering skills to become a PM at FAANG companies?

Different companies have different philosophies when it comes to preferred backgrounds for PMs. Until recently Google expected a much higher degree of technical/engineering proficiency than the other companies you list. (Although I’ve heard their thinking there has evolved).

I do not have a traditional engineering background, nor do the majority of the successful PMs I have worked with. Because of the multi-disciplinary nature of Product, tech skills are merely one of a number of capabilities a PM must-have. However, the minimum proficiency level in order to be successful can be quite low. You do not need to know how to write Python or Javascript to be a successful PM. You might not even need to know how to write a SQL query. You do need to understand basic concepts like what an API is, how data is modeled, and other basic concepts that will allow you to speak to engineers/data scientists and other technical stakeholders intelligently, and understand their work.

In a Product Agency where we build custom-built software, how do you set due dates/deadlines at the user story level or Epic level?

Estimating projects is a constant challenge, no matter where you work or how your team is structured. I know this is basic advice, but it’s critical to understand the scope of the project and match the granularity of your estimates to the level of detailed requirements available. If your clients have only provided a basic framework for what they want, and detailed product/design/eng scoping has not been completed, either be generic with estimates until more requirements are defined, or (hate to say it) pad your estimates to accommodate expected delays, scope changes, and “unknown unknowns”.It also is important to understand your goals and strategy.

Is it more important for your team to move quickly, or hit your deadlines? etc.

As a senior product manager do you manage other PMs or are involved in the day-to-day product picture?

Sr. PMs at Uber are at the inflection point between IC work (directly managing projects), and management. I both manage projects myself and manage a team of PMs who themselves handle projects. Some Sr. PMs are full ICs, others do zero IC work, depending on the structure of the team and the needs of their product area at a given time.

Does your team in Uber follow Agile/ Scrum, and as a PM do you help est. Story Points (SPs), and are your SPs correlated to effort by time est.?

Disclaimer that not all teams at Uber follow the same process. Each Product/Eng team is fully empowered to make the process decisions that work best for them. Our team follows a rough Agile process led by Eng Managers. They are responsible for taking the projects that we have prioritized on our roadmap and providing estimates, assignees, etc.

Outside of the sprint-to-sprint cycle, we generate high-level delivery timelines by working across Product and Eng management to create roadmaps biannually with swaggy estimates that allow us to create high-level Gantt charts with rough delivery dates.

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