Malachi Boyd is currently an Associate Product Manager at Jane.ai, an AI platform for employees to access company information. He began his professional life as a Corporate Facility Planner Intern for Abbott, where he started to understand how data helped to improve products. He then became a Quality Engineer for Microwaves at GE Appliances (Haier), where he started learning about the dynamics of physical product introduction and updating. He then moved to Whirlpool, where he became a Global Product Lifecycle Management Analyst: his functions began approaching those of an internal PM. After a year at ServiceMaster as a Business Analyst, he took Product School’s Product Management course.
This journey through physical products to the digital world was actually complemented by Malachi’s appreciation for furthering his skills. From LinkedIn courses to his stints as Research Assistant during his Engineering BSc at Purdue; he has never stopped learning. One of his distinctive experiences has included his role as President of the National Society of Black Engineers. In fact, his story helps us illustrate the importance of building Product Manager communities. Check it out!
From College to Product School: A Product Management Journey
“My product management journey started in college.”
Who else feels that way?
This is a fairly common assertion. For many of us, college is really the first place where we are first faced with Product Management dynamics. Early education, for obvious reasons, does not include an intense exposure to issues like how people interact with products, or how teams get together to solve problems. It takes advanced learning institutions to translate curiosity into a professional understanding of these issues. Perhaps, in the future, high schools and professional schools will include product development programs! It would certainly make sense to provide a window into the leading discipline behind the explosion in digital technology today.
“With originally seeking mechanical engineering, I planned to exercise my interest in design. I was fortunate to find the multi-disciplinary engineering program that allowed me to blend engineering curriculum with design courses. After graduating, I worked as an analyst in varying capacities that provided me the opportunity to grow my analytical and business skills. However, I still desired to be in the space between engineering, design and business leading a product from idea to launch.”
Engineering, in general, has a lot in common with Product Management. It was within this area of knowledge where the first Project Management methodologies were developed and applied. It is just natural to transition from one sphere to the other; although it is probably easier if you are taking a multi-disciplinary course like Malachi. That said, more and more colleges and universities have societies or clubs where interested students can kick-start entrepreneurial projects. Starting a business or having a side-project is a fantastic way to begin understanding some of the key product principles. Even if you fail, everything you learn will look great on your resume.
Malachi actually started his own project while he was working as an analyst. Seeing his personal vision grow generated so much enthusiasm on his side that taking the Product Management course at Product School felt like the natural next step.
“During my time as an analyst, I decide to start a project called TOPHARE. Creating a business opened me up to a breath of material I’ve never been exposed to. Included in this material set, I was able to learn go-to-market strategies, wireframing and ultimately product management. With my desire and background, I realized that this was the role I was seeking coming out of school.”
“Though I had an engineering background with a splash of visual design and solid work experience as a business analyst, I thought it was appropriate to strengthen my skill-set by taking the Product Management course offered by Product School.”
Why not an MBA? It is true that the Silicon Valley model has become the economic blueprint for our time. All companies across the world, big or small, are attempting to replicate their success. Business programs and professors are also reflecting this across their lectures. Logically, it should be traditional business institutions the ones in charge of teaching its benefits and applications.
But this is harder than it sounds.
With schools stuck in the old ways of doing things, it is hard to keep up with the rapid pace of technological development. To their frustration, many aspiring tech leaders have found business schools to be wanting. These expensive courses are many times not enough to provide the kind of knowledge and confidence required by a successful tech career. What is more, some of the principles underpinning XX-century businesses are actually detrimental to contemporary operations.
Digitally native institutions like Product School take a different approach. This is what Malachi thinks.
“Similar to my university experience, Product School presents course concepts in a structured format. What makes Product School different is its focus. In addition to vetting Product School, I was considering pursuing an MBA to polish my business strategy skills to break into product management. The MBA route is great, but I found the curriculum to be broad and not focused on developing product management (PM) skills specifically. I thoroughly enjoyed Product School curriculum because it exposed me to structure methodologies for a PM role.”
One of the benefits of taking a course is formalizing informal knowledge. What do we mean by this? Many Product Managers begin their journey by slowly acquiring PM functions. That is, by increasing their responsibility, taking up opportunities and intensifying their relationships with other teams; they de facto become Product Managers even if their position is named differently. However, as much as you might attempt to reflect this on an application letter or interview; your lack of formalized insights will make it difficult for you to claim your credentials as a product person. One useful alternative is to obtain a Product Management certification. For Malachi, this was the case for his Business Analyst position.
“Business Analyst is such a general title and has different meanings from company to company. In my previous role, I was able to help senior leadership makes decisions on corporate initiatives. This involved using data to drive actionable insights. With this, I was able to tag SQL to my list of skills. With that experience, I have been able to carry along with an analytic approach to problem-solving as I’ve stepped into Product Management. “
Another important factor to get the job is, of course, the first PM interview. How can you make sure that you nail it? Luckily, after a decade of Product Management popularity, there is plenty of online content which can help you get ready for that (sometimes) stressful conversation. Read on to see how Malachi flexed his muscles to become a Product Manager at Jane.ai.
“The interviewing process was very straightforward. After watching tons of Product School videos and taking the course, I was properly prepared and knew what to expect. For Jane.ai, I was given a couple of case questions that seemed random on the surface. However, these questions are geared to help the interviewer understand how I thought and approached product challenges, which include things like how well I could deal with ambiguity and how I demonstrated empathy for users of products.”
Wow! But make sure that you are happy to get what you wished for. It can be extremely stressful to sit down at your new office for the first time. How do you approach your first month as a Product Manager? It really depends on company size, among other things. It will not be the same to begin at a large, established corporation, than to do so at a nimble, smaller startup. What feels scarier? For Malachi, working at Jane.ai has been an exhilarating experience.
“As you can expect, being at an early stage startup, my responsibilities at Jane.ai are wide and varied. Since joining a few months ago, I’ve been able to facilitate a design sprint, lead several PRDs, assist in sprint prioritization, conduct industry and competitive research and contribute to the go-to-market (GTM) and onboarding strategy. The team here is great in supporting each other.”
Building Product Manager Communities and Networks
One of your first sources of support when you begin at any job are definitely your colleagues. However, for Product Managers, they are even more important. They are internal stakeholders, the people you rely on to bring your product vision to life. They can be obstacles, or they can become growth drivers. Thus, communication and soft people skills are essential attributes for any aspiring product people. It does not matter if they are the most technically proficient members of the team; their daily tasks depend on their ability to persuade others. Let’s hear Malachi on this.
“Additionally, product management isn’t solely about identifying what to build. As a PM, you are expected to influence your peers to get things done. I believe this part of the role is probably the most important. So, I would advise that having a growth mindset and working on personal development and awareness skills is critical to instill trust and good rapport with your team.”
This can also apply to your activities outside of the office, of course. Professional communities are nothing new. They provide a structure to thousands or even hundreds of thousands who happen to share the same job position. They often provide educational opportunities and public events to strengthen your skills. Most of all, they are opportunities to network with like-minded professionals. This is Malachi on the NSBE, for which he was President.
“The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) is a great organization I’ve been proud to be a part of beginning in college. Currently, they are doing awesome work to reach their goal in encouraging and supporting 10,000 black engineers to graduate yearly by 2025. Personally, I’ve benefited from many networking and professional opportunities and being surrounded by a culture of individuals that inspire each other to achieve and persevere.”
Of course, it can happen that some of these organizations (like educational institutions above) are not ready for the present and future of digital work. This was the case of the NSBE; we hope that, in the near future, professional PM associations will empower product people to share their experiences!
“It would have been great for me to be introduced to product management during my years in NSBE. Unfortunately, PM roles are not widely understood and many people coincidentally find themselves in these roles. I believe that Product School is uniquely positioned to fill the gap and partner with organizations like NSBE to help bring awareness to interesting tech jobs.”
Finally, what makes a PM? What have been the essential experiences underpinning Malachi’s current activities as an aspiring product leader?
“My educational background embolden me to be a trailblazer and taught me to turn ambiguity into substance. I believe these two attributes have helped me much in my current role. At Jane.ai, we are a B2B SaaS company helping Fortune 500 and small to mid-market companies connect their employees to their company’s intelligence. With my experience at a large CPG and a Consumer Services company, I’ve been able to provide some insight on how these organizations operate. In addition, I, too, was an employee scraping for information in those previous roles. This provides me the insight to be more empathetic to end users.”
What about his personal recommendations? How can one start the PM path through books, podcasts or by following the key leaders in tech?
“In addition to books, there is a ton of content out there dedicated to PMs in various forms. For blogs and podcasts, I often frequent Product Coalition, This is Product Management, Product Management HQ and Product School. Recently, I’ve finished Lateral Leadership by Tim Herbig and just started Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Richard P. Rumelt. Towards the end of last year, I got through Sprint by the Google Venture team. Next up on my list is Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury.”
Sounds like a lot of homework? Hear this quick pro tip: “For managing blogs and podcasts, I use Feedly to compile articles and blogs by topic. I definitely suggested it to people interested in content from many areas or industries.”
Malachi closes his round of advice with a key lesson for those interested in Product School’s Product Management course. Check it out:
“For me, Product School provided me methods for evaluating and making decisions at each stage of product development. My general advice for anyone taking the Product Management course at Product School is to take the learned concepts and try to apply them in a real environment as soon as possible – even if it means starting a project from scratch. I find that with the concepts, experience and practice is the next step to take to become a great PM.”