Transitioning to a Product Manager Role with Amex Former Director of Product

This week Product School hosted Mike Mayers, former Director of Digital Product at Amex and Founder of Mind Diagnostics, for an #AskMeAnything session. Mike discusses how to switch into a PM role and different tools to tackle frameworks.

Michael Mayers former Director of Digital product at Amex

Meet Michael Mayers

Michael is a Product Manager with extensive experience in Product Strategy & Planning, Capability Development, Lean Coaching, and Product Delivery. Currently, he’s the Founder of Mind Diagnostics, a mental health startup that’s on a mission to destigmatize mental health issues and help sufferers find the support they need.

Transitioning Towards a PM Career

I’m a long-time listener on Product School’s AMA and notice that there are always questions of the form, “I’m in [insert not product function here] and want to get into product management, how do I do that?” I wanted to write a considered answer to that question so thought I’d do so right off the bat.

I’ve hired a lot of product managers, and been one myself, so I think I know what I’m looking for. Before I go into that let me give you a few realities from a hiring perspective:

As a PM you sit at the nexus of three (often competing) forces: User needs, business/commercial objectives, and technology/resource constraints. Reconciling these three forces with little or no formal authority over stakeholders or people in your team – and creating successful product outcomes while doing so – is a difficult task. It takes a combination of political expertise, influencing skills, (some) technical competence, and a range of hard skills which, in combination, are reasonably scarce. 

Done well, product management is a “force multiplier” and can make the difference between a product’s success or failure. Done poorly, it can destroy otherwise excellent products and misuse brilliant talent in engineering, design, data science, etc. In other words product management is a high stakes role. 

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What does that mean for hiring managers? It means that PMs are a high stakes hire and so first-time product managers or transferees from other functions are going to have to work to overcome the risk-profile associated with any product which is either mission critical or politically/technically complex. Don’t be discouraged by this. Just recognize that you might have to cover a lot of ground before landing a job in product and, if you can, bias your search to positions which are developmental (e.g. associate product manager) or working on things which are less mission critical to the organization.

On the plus side, I quite like PMs to have other career experience and so if you are looking to get in from engineering, design, sales, data science, etc. then I view that as a bonus (see my note regarding “T-shaped people” below).

Ok, so you got the interview. Here’s what I tend to look for:

1. Do you have a realistic idea of what being a PM involves?

Forget the glamour of sending the launch email to your organization; product management can at times be boring, tedious, or just plain frustrating. The larger the organization the more likely it is that the PM role will have a political component which can be annoying for folks who just want to ship products. And when you are on your 3rd hour of running test scripts at 1am because your organization doesn’t have a dedicated QA you might start wondering what attracted you to PM in the first place. Product management is an immensely satisfying and exciting function but I like to see candidates who are realistic about some of the associated challenges and, better still, can show demonstrable evidence of having handled them.

You might also be interested in: The Ultimate List of Product Manager Interview Questions

2. Are you a builder?

This goes to the “How do I get experience if you won’t give me experience?” conundrum. If you do not have formal (i.e. paid) experience as a PM then I want to see some evidence that you are a builder in some way. This goes to both demonstrating at least some experience of product management and also showing genuine appetite and enthusiasm for the role. If there are opportunities within your current role to dip your toe into building (or helping to build) and shipping product then I want to see that you’ve taken them. Otherwise there are so many off-the-shelf SaaS platforms which can be integrated without writing a line of code these days it is mind-boggling which means that you can build and launch products – and develop many of the skills that you’d use in a formal PM role – with almost no capital outlay. Don’t know when to start? No worries. Work your way through Steve Blank’s (free!) course on Udacity and build something.

3. Are you T-shaped?

A T-shaped person brings a diverse range of skills and experience to the table (the top of the T) as well as having deep expertise in one or more domains (the I of the T). You can read more about that at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T-shaped_skills and at https://medium.com/@jchyip/why-t-shaped-people-e8706198e437

4. Do you know the material?

Have you immersed yourself in modern product management theory? I hope so, and will be asking you to explain key concepts back to me (with plus points for evidence of their application). Steve Blank, Eric Ries, Clayton Christensen, Nir Eyal, Marty Kagan, Jake Knapp, and Geoffrey Moore are great authors to start with in your learning journey. And of course don’t forget resources like Product School. 

You might also be interested in: The Product Book by Product School

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5. Can you demonstrate hard skills?

It doesn’t need to be specifically product-related, but here are the hard skills which characterize successful PMs and which I’m looking for you to evidence: 

  1. Communication
  2. Humility/wisdom/maturity
  3. (Senior) stakeholder management
  4. Experimental mindset / Entrepreneurial spirit
  5. User-centric / empathetic
  6. Business model/finance understanding
  7. Design understanding
  8. Engineering understanding
  9. Marketing understanding
  10. Business-specific domain knowledge/experience

You might also be interested in: The Skills Needed to Become a PM with VP of Product at TSIA

6. Can you demonstrate the attributes?

The best PMs I’ve worked with tended to display the following innate characteristics, so I’ll be looking for you to evidence the following:

  1. Collaborative mindset
  2. Transparent / seeks & gives feedback
  3. Builds followership
  4. Humility
  5. Intuitive / insightful
  6. Strategic
  7. Autonomous
  8. Analytical / intelligent
  9. Creative
  10. Curious
  11. Ownership
  12. Risk tolerance
  13. Conscientious

(h/t to Prof. Andy Breen of NYU – and my old boss – for these lists)

Product Questions from Our Slack Community

What would you say separates the good product managers from the great product managers?

That’s a tough question. Once all the skills/experience/attributes boxes have been ticked then probably what separates the good from the great is pace. PMs have the opportunity to up the corporate metabolism and the best do exactly that.

building frame looked from bellow

How do you suggest PMs should tackle analytics? What tool, frameworks, or best practices would you recommend?

Form follows function, so first I’d start by defining what it is you want to measure which (hopefully!) is tied back to a system like OKRs. Once you’ve decided on the “what” you can look at the “how”. For example, you may have an OKR which says “increase acquisition rate by 20%” in which case something like Mixpanel might work for your purposes if you’re in SaaS.

You might also be interested in: 6 Analytics Tools for Product Managers That You Should Try

What professional advice and strategy can you give for a tech product to adopt in terms of its go-to-market strategy (GTM)? What tools and platform can you suggest?

Not knowing your business makes that tough, however, at a very high level, you can categorize most products as either B2B or B2C. The range of GTM options for each differs so first and foremost you need to know whether you are selling to businesses or consumers. Fred Wilson produced an exhaustive set of consumer marketing channels a while back. And B2B generally involves some kind of inside sales function at the very least.

How would you decide on a planning methodology (quarterly vs continuous)? Any anecdotes in your experience suggest drawbacks for one over another?

I am a huge advocate for the OKR methodology which bakes in annual and quarterly planning cycles. Continuous planning smacks to me of winging it – though YMMV. In my experience looking at plans each quarter is the right kind of resolution to get enough done to see what’s working without changing your mind every other week.

Any tips to handle stakeholders that don’t know their business? 

Much of my experience has been with stakeholders who know their domain but don’t know tech or its capabilities.

What I’d say is this: Getting a handle on people’s motivations – either personal or functional – can be key to influencing success. The Finance Director cares about cashflow and ROI. The Line of Business leader cares about unit profitability, headcount, etc. Work to find out what these motivations are and then tune your communication accordingly.

You might also be interested in: The Power of Influence to Manage Challenging Stakeholders

team working together

How do you know when a feature is “good enough”?

Hopefully you are deploying a feature in response to an identified problem, issue, or objective. If that’s the case then you should decide in advance what metric(s) constitute success. If the feature exceeds the metric then you have success and it’s good enough. If not, it isn’t (and you have an amazing learning opportunity on your hands).

I know how easy it is to state this as a philosophy when I know that the practice is much less clear cut and murky. But wherever and whenever possible you should be pre-defining what outcomes you are trying to achieve and then working out whether your outputs achieved them.

You might also bee interested in: These Are the Metrics Great Product Managers Track

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