Getting Your Start in Product Management Outside of Silicon Valley

It’s so hard for aspiring PMs to imagine what it’s like to actually work in Product Management.

They know they really want the job, but can’t quite picture what the day-to-day will be like.

What we do know about Product is usually seen through the filter of Silicon Valley, which is not a universal truth.

So we set out to speak to some current PMs, to help our community understand life in the role. First, we spoke to Andrea Sipos, Principal Product Manager at Skyscanner, from Hungary. Currently based in Budapest she has some great insights on how to get started in Product Management when you don’t come from the heart of the tech world, and what local communities mean for aspiring Product Managers.

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When you were growing up, did you ever wonder about how different products or brands came to be? Did you have a kind of ‘product curiosity’ growing up?

Yes, actually I’m still wondering all the time how the biggest services work. I really like to think ‘ok, what is the work that needed to be done for us to have this kind of product?’ So it’s still in my mind. I’m not sure when it started but I always grew up like this.

Did you know anyone in the tech industry, or who knew about the tech industry, who kind of influenced you into taking an interest in it?

Yes and no. Yes in the sense that my father was really interested in technology. We always had computers at home and I was always surrounded by tech. When I started school at 6, I was the one who set up the class computer because my father was the one who taught me how. But I didn’t have anybody in the family who was connected to the tech world as we know it today. No one was an engineer or a PM or anything like that.

Technology was very close to me, but I didn’t know about the tech industry at all.

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Can you tell us a little about what you studied and what your first jobs were?

I have a degree in Business Information Technology. That’s a really good background for becoming a Product Manager, which I didn’t know at the time. I just ended up there because of my love of tech, computers, software, but I didn’t want to be an engineer. So my degree was a combination of not being as techy as an engineering degree, but still being close to technology and it involved thinking about how it can improve our lives. So it was very lucky that I ended up there, because it’s very connected to what we do as PMs, trying to bring these two worlds together.

I had a lot of different jobs before joining this tech path, from being a poker dealer in a club to a dog groomer. I started to work with digital products at the age of 14 when I started to design websites, which I did for a few years. I don’t consider myself an engineer but I had a few clients and was able to create a couple of sites.

When I left university, I got my first product job which was planning price comparison websites for equine products. That was the first position where I acted like a Product Manager, and I first discovered there was such a thing as Product Management, and I got my first few product jobs off the back of that.

And you’ve done a few training courses and actually been a mentor yourself at your university. Can you tell me a little bit about how these skills are taught? Do you think current educational institutions are ready for this kind of training?

In Hungary I think at the time I started there was basically nothing related to PM. I only got my first formal Product education when I joined Prezi in 2013. It was really important to them that we all spoke the same language and were on the same level, so we all were sent to Marty Cagan’s How to Create Products Customers Love lab from Silicon Valley.

That was my first experience with formal PM training. In Hungary those kinds of things were not available locally at all. There were maybe Scrum/Product Owner training (which I also did) but those were not the same.

I found it really really challenging to know where to go to get that knowledge. So now I always try to be a mentor. At my current company, Skyscanner, I helped to prepare a candidate from within the company who was going for a PM role to prepare for the interview process. The most valuable thing for him to do was actually shadowing.

Besides the books, and the podcasts…he had to learn in practice. I believe that with the right attitude these skills can be learned, outside of formal education.

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I see you were a co-founder and organiser for a Meetup group on Product Management in Budapest. What’s the value for aspiring and established PMs of joining a community? What impact do you think communities have on people working in tech?

I think product management events are incredibly important, especially in countries like Hungary. We have big companies that have this Silicon Valley mindset, but also lots of smaller companies who cannot afford to send their employees off for training.

So all we can do is share what we do at meetups and conferences, for other parts of the community to learn from. It’s also important from the perspective of hiring. In Hungary for example there are not a lot of Product Managers, especially not the kind that these companies want to hire.

You have to find them abroad and convince them to move to Hungary which is not that easy. It doesn’t beat London or San Francisco! So we have to raise the local talent and educate and train them. That’s our best chance to hire good people.

I personally love these kinds of meetups. The first few events we had had more than a hundred people because they were so interested in the topics.

What’s the size of your current product team?

In my direct team who I work with there are eight of us, including the designers, engineers. There are other Product Managers in the office with their own tribes – we use Spotify’s Tribe model.

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And within your team how do you organise the work with regards to setting key metrics or key objectives? Do you decide these things together?

We are just in the middle of the planning process, so that’s a really hot topic for me right now!

We have the company leadership who does the strategy planning twice a year and identify the focus areas we need to work on in the next 6 months. And there are goals set up for each product area and each tribe, and from there the teams decide what is the best way to achieve that goal. What is the best way to measure our progress.

So it’s a mix of top down/bottom up approach. We try to mix the two and there is a constant feedback loop between the teams. So it’s a very busy process, and we all work on it together.

I actually finished my brief with my team last week, when we came together to agree ‘yes this is what we want to achieve’, and now we have to work on how to get the desired outcomes.

Right now you’re working on Backpack, a Skyscanner product. Can you tell us a little about that and what problem it’s solving?

Backpack is a design system built by Skyscanner for Skyscanner, so it’s being internally used for our products. But it’s open source and anyone can find it and use it.

Basically we want to make the designer’s, engineer’s, and everyone’s lives easier. This product has a library with components that can be used on all the platforms we support. So when the team needs to build a new page, they just open the library and they have all the components they need.

In your case, your target users are already in your office which must makes things easier. But in general, how do you make sure you’re listening to your customer’s voice? How do you make sure their needs are integrated into the work?

It’s interesting, because they’re not sitting in our office, as we have locations all over the world and everyone has slightly different needs. So in that light I handle it the same way I’d handle any customer-facing product. I do user interviews with our designers, asking them all the usual questions and identifying their pain points.

Experimentation is a little bit different in this case, but we test a few things, see how they like it. The only difference between this and a normal customer-facing product is that it’s only supposed to be used internally. If I had to convince everyone to use it then yes there would be some things to improve!

You’ve worked with a variety of different products over the years. With apps, for a shopping company, with Prezi, who of course do presentations, and now with Skyscanner. What was the most challenging?

All were challenging in their way, especially as I’d never worked in any of these areas before. But I’d say the previous product I worked on here at Skyscanner, which was the flight search. Actually I owned the search funnel, which was very hard because it’s a very traditional pattern to follow.

You know, the customer searches for a flight, we provide the flights, they pick one and book it. It was incredibly challenging to figure out how to improve that and give our users a better experience.

The key for me was understanding what we are selling. We discovered interesting patterns in how people made different decisions based on what they were searching for.

The search results page doesn’t pose the same problems for each user, everyone looks at it in a different way. The tools we give users looking for a flight between Budapest and London might not solve the same problems as someone looking for a flight between Budapest and San Francisco.

It was a great learning experience for me, as it wasn’t an unsolvable problem, just a difficult-to-solve problem and a never ending story.

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It can seem from the outside that a Product Manager has to have a lot of hard or technical skills. What do you think about this? For example you might need to be a great coder, or know a lot about data analytics.

Well, for example, I’m not a software engineer and I never was. But I’ve learned how to do my job as well as I want to. I’m not a data analyst, but because I was so interested in finding out the answers to my questions, I learned how to use our data infrastructure. Because that was the way to get my answers.

So I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty when it comes to technical stuff. If something is a critical part of my product, then I’m not afraid to go into the code and try to learn what I need to know. I don’t just want to know my customers, I want to know the product that I own as much as I think is necessary. 

When we started using machine learning I took a course on it because I wanted to understand what everyone was talking about. Constant education and constant learning based on the problems you want to solve is very important. For instance I only started working on Backpack a few weeks ago, and I know relatively little about design (as I’m not a designer) so it was a case of thinking ‘ok what books do I need to read now?’

I don’t believe a PM needs to be a software engineer or anything, it’s a special set of skills, but we need to understand as much as we can of what’s happening in our domain, and we need to constantly learn more and more, which is what I try to do.

We always hear how important empathy is for PMs. Is that something you think should be built within product teams? For instance, do you have rotational programs or shadowing, to help your teams understand how other things work?

Yes, a while back we wanted our engineers to understand how our user research worked, so it wasn’t a case of ‘ok, I do the engineering you do the customer stuff’. We wanted everyone to have a deeper understanding of customer knowledge. We invited the engineers into the user interviews so they could see with their own eyes how people used the products they built. That was really powerful.

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And for experimentation, I brought in the engineers to help me make those decisions so they understood what questions I was trying to answer. That did a lot to build empathy and foster a deeper understanding between team members and towards our users. It helps to make our work more effective.

Which audience has been tougher for you, the internal audience you have now or the more usual B2C audience you had in the past?

I couldn’t pick one if I’m honest, they’re both equally challenging but in different ways. On the one hand our internal audience at Skyscanner have more direct access to us and can make their requests or feelings known, whereas it was more difficult to get feedback from previous B2C audiences.

On the other hand in B2C we were reaching hundreds of thousands of users with one feature which was really cool.

When you’re hiring for your product team, what is it that you’re looking for in an aspiring candidate? What makes you think ‘this might be the right person?’

Because we’re a customer focused company, my main thing is that they start with the user, wanting to understand their problems and pain points. I’m always looking for that angle in a candidate. If I can feel in the interview that their thoughts start with our travellers, that’s a good sign.

Aside from a user-first attitude, I like clear communication as that’s an integral part of the PM job. You need to understand all the stakeholders, from the directors to the people you work with on a daily basis.

What’s your advice for the first 30 days as a PM, and then the first three months?

I think the very first thing is to talk to everybody. Not just other product managers but the developers, the designers, the finance people…it helps to understand the company, the product, and the history of the product which is also important. New people come in and want to start from scratch but they need to know the longer history.

In three months time everybody can start to own their particular product area. By three months you should have your own ideas.

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