How to ramp up as a Product Manager. Gain context before you try to change things.

I always remember a song I heard as a child by Guatemalan singer Ricardo Arjona. It said (with a profanity substituted) “aquí no es bueno el que ayuda, sino el que no [molesta], acuérdese.” This translates to “here the good are not those who help, but those who don’t [bother], remember that.”

Having recently completed my first 3 months as a PM at Google, I’d say that this is good advice to keep in mind in the beginning of a new job. Instead of having a grandiose plan to make a big difference and impact, start by learning as much as you can without disturbing others.

Here are the things that I’d keep in mind as you ramp up on a new product or team.

Admit that you’re in a learning phase

As a new PM to an existing product, your focus must be in learning. Even when there is an improvement that seems obvious to you, a product idea or process tweak, you should abstain from trying to make your ‘quick win’ or contribution too hastily.

Consider that:

  • You lack context. Your new colleagues have been working on the product area for months, maybe years. They have tried many ideas that failed, talked to many customers, and learned a lot in the process. Try to gain that context quickly.
  • You have zero reputation. You can only go far if your team actually cares about what you have to say. You can quickly tarnish your reputation if you babble ideas or decisions before thoughtfully thinking through problems and considering all aspects of a problem.

So, focus on learning. How do you get started? Instead of trying to revolutionize the team’s dynamic, I suggest that you pick a small project or initiative and use that to prove yourself.

Picking up a few small initiatives

The most important thing I’ve done while ramping up on a new product or area has always been to dive in and pick up a small, non-critical project. It doesn’t matter how small or uninspiring the project might be. What matters is that it is an initiative with the various phases that a typical project will go through.

Your goal is not to amaze everyone by how well you did on this first project. Your goal is to maximize learning by getting through a full cycle of contribution. You will learn many of the quirks of working with your new team.

Going through a small initiative end-to-end will help you figure out the many tactical things that will later on make you much more productive:

  • What template should you use to write product requirements?
  • Who should you consult in the process?
  • How do you communicate impacts to other teams?
  • How do you break down your requirements into stories? Where do you file bugs?
  • Will you have help from other teams (design, eng, user research, etc.)? If so, how much?
  • How often do you need your manager’s input while working through the initiative?
  • Do you need to get approvals or reviews by other teams? Which ones?

Going through the process will help you see gaps in knowledge that prevent you from moving a project forward. Try to maximize the number of times you go through this cycle in your first few months by picking many small, tiny initiatives and owning them. It doesn’t matter if the initiative is ultimately built or makes a big difference.

As you go through the initiatives, just remember that you’re trying to learn, so look for learning opportunities. As why things are the way they are, but don’t try to offer solutions or change things. What you’re looking for is opportunities to learn what’s effective and to tune yourself to make a bigger contribution within your team’s established processes.

Which brings me to my next point.

Tweak your habits, not your team’s process.

It is easy to look at any process and find ways to improve it. There’s a reason that’s the case, most processes just need to be ‘good enough’ to allow the team to work effectively. Constantly tweaking processes so they are ‘better’ is often more distracting than it is worth.

As such, instead of trying to change how your team does things, first accept their processes and tools and use them. Give them a genuine try and, as you do so, observe the pros and cons of sticking with them. Often I’ve seen new PMs reject a team’s way of working, just to come around months later to admit that it’s the easiest ‘quick and dirty’ way to get it done and not worth changing. Prioritizing using a simple Google Doc may feel inefficient when all your requests are in JIRA (or some other tool), but if that’s what your team does, try it out.

Unless something is an impending disaster, wait a few months before trying to change existing team tools and processes.

If and when you do try to change something, make sure it’s something that is worth trying to change. It must be a pain point that’s frequently observed and big. Also, since your change may fail, look for solution that is easily reversible if it doesn’t work out for your team.

Meeting your team

You will need a lot of help over the coming months and years from the people you are meeting now. Meet them as people. Try to learn about their personalities, what they are interested in, what they like and dislike about their job.

You will soon find yourself in meetings and discussions where decisions will be made that will impact the work your team does. You may be working with the engineering lead to decide how to distribute work among the team. Or in a meeting where an initiative is about to get killed or swapped by another one. Knowing your team will help you weigh their feelings and likes/dislikes into the process. It may not change the outcome, but it can surely help you make the process smoother for everyone and provide the right amount of context.

One thing I like to do when meeting people for the first time is to let them know that I’m here to help. “I don’t know anything right now, but if there’s something that you think I can be helpful on, just let me know.” It’s simple, recognizing that you are unlikely to be helpful, but shows your willingness to step up and assist others.

Remember, you’re a PM. You’re not the CEO of your product. You are not here to issue commands or speak of visions for the team to execute. You probably won’t be hiring or firing anyone. You’re here to collaborate with your team to come up with a direction that will make the product awesome. You should be very involved and willing to help your team’s life easier. Make it clear to them that you’re here to do that.

Ask your manager and coworkers for ‘braindumps’

When ramping up, my manager and I lovingly started to use the term ‘braindumps’ for many of our conversations or exchanges. These would be sessions in which she would give me a ton of information and context and I’d just soak it all up while asking clarifying questions. These sessions would be unstructured and we would often jump from one topic to the next.

The idea during these sessions was to surface all sorts of information that may be helpful later. Information such as:

  • How does the product work?
  • How does the product initiative fit within the overall product and company strategy?
  • What are the known issues with a given feature?
  • Why hasn’t an important issue been fixed?
  • Why do these two parts of the product feel so disjointed?
  • What did the team try and succeeded with? How did they start down that path?
  • Who are the players involved in making your product area a success?

Keep these sessions flexible. They are best in person, but often we’d do these asynchronously by using a Google Doc. My manager would type up a bunch of thoughts about an area or topic I needed context around. We’d then discuss.

During these braindump discussions you will have many ideas, thoughts, and potential solutions. Don’t jump into looking for solutions. Remain focused on surfacing issues and tidbits of knowledge.

What you’re after is building a foundation of knowledge around the team and product. At first, all the information that you’ll gather will be in a disarray. That’s OK. You will then take time on your own to organize all this new information in a way that’s useful to you. As you do, try to explain in your own words the things that you’ve learned. Ask “why” until you’ve hit on a point that is easily understandable and actionable.

For example, consider that your note says that your product feature A has stability issues. Ask why? Is it due to a component of the system that it leverages? If so, what are your options to rewrite/substitute/improve that component? How much effort would it take? Why hasn’t it been done? Processing your notes from your braindumps, asking why, and finding the answer to those questions should take several times longer than the braindumps themselves.

The biggest benefit I find of getting ‘braindumps’ from co-workers is that they will naturally gravitate towards talking about things that are currently or were recently relevant to them and the rest of the team. This will make your learning process more focused, since you will quickly uncover the substance of the various discussions that your team has been having over the past 6-12 months, which will allow you to more easily understand what’s going on as you join team meetings and work on new initiatives. This is much more helpful than reading an internal documentation portal with information that hasn’t been updated in 3 years because no one cares about that topic any longer.

Observe your users

I could, and probably will at some point, write an entire article about the importance of getting first-hand exposure to your users. You can learn a lot from talking to your coworkers. But, ultimately, your goal is to build a product for your users. Deeply empathise with those users. Observe them. Talk to them. Find ways to watch them in action. The more you can identify with your users and understand their real goals and needs, the better of a product that you’ll be able to build.

Bringing it all together

Your first few months as a PM can be quite unsettling. You are brand new, want to make a contribution, may have a lot of relevant experience to bring to the table, yet have little to no knowledge or context about your new team and product area. There are major gaps in your understanding that will prevent you from making a large contribution. Thus, focus on learning by picking up many small initiatives, assimilating your team’s processes and tools, asking your co-workers for braindumps, digging deep into the ‘why’ behind what you’re told, and observing your users. After a few months consistently doing this you’ll be ready to take on larger initiatives and will be much more effective at helping your team.

Google Product Management Interview process and preparation

I get this question often. What’s the Google PM interview process? How should I prepare?

First, it is a lengthy process. Below I distilled everything that I learned about the process before becoming an employee or going through the process myself.

If you’re only looking for information on how to prepare for the interviews (steps 3 and 4 below), see How to prepare for your Google PM interview.

Below we’ll go through the Google PM interview process as of 2018.

  1. Submit your application (if possible, get referred).
  2. 30-minute phone screening with a recruiter.
  3. 45-minute phone interview with a Product Manager.
  4. 5-hour on-site at Google offices.
  5. Hiring committee review
  6. Team matching process
  7. Pre-review Committee
  8. SVP review

Here are the interesting bits on each of those.

Step 1. Submit your resume / Get referred

Google receives millions of resumes a year [1], as high as 3 million in 2014 [2] and increasing.

How do you cut through the noise?

  • Ask someone who knows you and is working at Google to refer you. It’s the easiest way to ensure your application is reviewed by a recruiter.
  • Make sure your resume is sharp by following pro tips. [3]
  • One thing that I’ll stress is this tip: “If you’re applying through an ATS, keep to the standard formatting without any bells and whistles so the computer can read it effectively.”

You’d be surprised at how many resumes are never looked at just because a computer system wasn’t able to parse out the information properly.

Step 2. 30-minute phone screening with a recruiter. 

If selected as a candidate, a Google recruiter will email you to schedule a 30-minute review of your background. The recruiter tries to match you to an open position for which you may be a good fit.

Preparation for the recruiter screening

Be ready to discuss anything that’s on your resume. The recruiter may screen you out if they don’t think that you have the right skills for a position or the right attitude.

Consider this, the recruiter just wants to know if you have a shot at getting hired. They speak to about a hundred people before they come across one that will get hired. Give them a reason to bet on you and move you forward in the process.

Step 3. 45-minute phone interview with a Product Manager.

The next step is a 45-minute phone interview with a current PM.

Preparation for the PM phone interview

Since there’s a lot to the this, I wrote a more in-depth article on how to prepare: How to prepare for your Google PM interview.

Google wants to see how you think about problems. Expect to solve hypothetical problems and situations during the interview. Practice, don’t just show up. I practiced using questions from the Cracking the PM Interview* book.

Step 4. Onsite interview at a Google office.

During the onsite, you can expect to meet five people. You’ll have 4 interview, 3 with current product managers and 1 with a current engineer. You’ll have lunch with another PM.

PM interviews will be similar to the phone interview, but they’ll go deeper. You’ll solve more problems and likely go through all question types multiple times (analytics, product design, strategy, etc.)

In addition, you will have a technical interview with a Google engineer. Review computer science fundamentals for this. You must show your understanding of topics such as data structures, software design, and system architecture.

Step 5. Hiring Committee review

The hiring committee is in charge of reviewing all of the feedback from your interviews and providing a recommendation on how to proceed (Hire or No Hire). This works is as follows:

  • Each of your interviewers submits individual feedback on your interview, without discussing it with anyone else. This includes a list of questions they asked, your answers, and their evaluation on how you did.
  • Each member of the hiring committee individually reviews the feedback from all of your interviewers and gives your application a score from 1 (No Hire) to 4 (Hire).
  • Hiring committee members then meet and as a group decides what to recommend. Candidates that got 3 and 4 during independent review will move forward, those with 1 and 2 are rejected. Applications that fall in the middle (e.g., a mix of 2, 3 and 4) are discussed and decided upon as a group.

About 10-20% of people that make it to hiring committee review get a recommendation to Hire. [5] If you get a recommendation to be hired by the hiring committee, you have about a 90% chance of getting an offer.

At this point, you don’t yet have a Google offer. [6]

Step 6. Team matching process

If the hiring committee recommends that Google hires you, your recruiter will talk to you about your interests based on PM openings across Google.  The recruiter will then send managers with openings on their team your application with all of the interview feedback. The recruiter will set up a few meetings (typically a 30-minute phone conversation) with managers interested in having you on their team.

These meetings with potential managers are not considered interviews. You shouldn’t be asked to solve problems. But, you are speaking with your potential boss. Use this as an opportunity to see whether you’d like to work for that team and manager, and leave a good impression on the manager.

After those calls, the recruiter will ask both you and the managers for feedback. If there is a match, you want to work for a team and the manager wants you on their team, then you move on to the next step!

To be clear, if you don’t match to any team, you won’t get an offer.

7. Pre-review Committee

Once matched to a team, the recruiter submits a packet for approval by the pre-review committee. This includes your full application, team match notes, and proposed compensation.

There are many hiring committees, but few pre-review committees. The pre-review committee helps bring consistency across the many hiring committees. [4] In addition, the pre-review committee review your compensation.

8. SVP review

This is the final step. The Google SVP group is the final offer approver. They review every offer across the company. It is only after their approval that you would get an official Google offer.

Additional notes

Looking at the overall funnel, it seems that the odds of getting an offer are 0.3-0.5% overall. I estimated the percentage of folks that get an offer at Google by interview stage. I found it helpful to keep things in perspective as I went through the process. It was a good reminder to continue practicing and preparing. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

The process is optimized to minimize false positives, thus many people apply and interview multiple times before getting an offer. That’s both good and bad news. If you get rejected for a role, consider applying again after a year of further preparation.

Stats

  • Google gets about 3M resumes a year (as of 2014 [2])
  • Google added about 9k employees to its headcount between 2014 and 2015 [7]
  • A 0.3% to 0.5% overall hiring rate would yield between 9-15k hires out of 3M applicants. That range seems about right based on attrition and offers rescinded.

Breakdown by stage:

  • Resume screening: about 35% of applicants (~1 million) pass this step. Only about 1.3% of these will ultimately get an offer.
  • Phone interview: 10% pass this step [8], that’s about 100k per year. About 13% of those who pass the phone interview will ultimately get an offer.
  • Hiring committee approval: 10-20% of those who go to onsite interviews get approved by the hiring committee, about 15k per year. 90% of those that are recommended for hire by Hiring Committees will get an offer.
  • Pre-review and SVP review: 90% pass these steps, about 13.5k per year final offers estimated

References

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/stanphelps/2014/08/05/cracking-into-google-the-15-reasons-why-over-2-million-people-apply-each-year/

[2] About Sept 2013 to Sept 2014, “The year Bacon was there, he says that Google received about 3 million resumes.” https://www.fastcompany.com/3052371/a-former-google-recruiter-reveals-the-biggest-resume-mistakes

[3] https://www.themuse.com/advice/43-resume-tips-that-will-help-you-get-hired

[4] Cracking the PM Interview Book*

[5] https://www.quora.com/What-happens-in-the-pre-review-and-svp-review-steps-of-the-Google-software-engineering-application-processhttps://www.quora.com/What-percentage-of-applicants-that-make-it-to-Googles-hiring-committee-get-approved

[6] “…generally about 10-12% are not extended offers.” https://www.quora.com/My-Google-recruiter-has-asked-me-about-my-current-compensation-and-external-references-Whats-the-probability-of-not-getting-an-offer-from-this-point/answer/Bob-See

[7] From quarterly earnings reports, March 31 2014 headcount (46,170) vs March 31 2015 (55,419) headcount, a 9,249 increase. https://www.quora.com/How-many-employees-does-Google-have/answer/Kelvin-Ho

[8] Re: the phone interview, “About 1/10 candidates pass this step…” https://www.reddit.com/r/cscareerquestions/comments/1z97rx/from_a_googler_the_google_interview_process/

Update: this article is now also available as a Google Doc (link) so you can easily add comments and help us improve it.

* Note: I use some affiliate links in this post, marked with an asterisk. If you click through and purchase products I earn a small referral fee at no cost to you.

Joining Google

I’m embarking on a new journey in my career and I’m incredibly excited for what’s to come. I will be joining the Google Product Management team, focused on Hire [1].

This is an exciting next step for me and one that I wouldn’t have considered even just a year ago. Google is a company that I’ve admired since my middle school years.

A Google fanboy

When I first discovered the internet, I started building a local web directory, similar to Yahoo!, which linked to great websites. That project didn’t go anywhere, I was a kid with lots of curiosity but no knowledge or resources on how to build a product. However, I was very keen on the idea of making the web more accessible to everyone. When I discovered Google Search, I was blown away. Over time I discovered Gmail, Google Maps, Google Earth, and Google Docs. These were all revolutionary in and of themselves. Today, I use 5 to 10 Google products every day, and I’m as much of a Google fan as I was in the early days.

When I told my parents that I’d go to work for Google my mom said: “It’s about time, you’ve always been making me use all those Google products.”

A bit about my journey

After getting an engineering degree from MIT in Chemical-Biological Engineering, I thought that my technical and analytical skills were quite polished. I pursued a consulting career to learn more about business.

My 3 years in consulting at Accenture helped me learn about enterprise clients, financial forecasting, planning, writing business cases, project management, and IT delivery. It was a great experience and I considered staying in consulting for my entire career. However, a part of me wanted to explore tech and startups. I moved to San Francisco in 2012 and, surrounded by folks in tech, decided to go for it when BloomReach knocked on my door and asked me to interview for a Product Engagement Management role.

A note I’d make about this time: while a consultant at Accenture, I considered working at Google. However, I wasn’t qualified for the jobs that I was interested in. I was either too junior or had no relevant experience. I never applied.

I joined BloomReach, a Silicon Valley-based tech startup, in 2013. My time at a startup has been an amazing learning experience. I dabbled in problems spanning customer success, sales & go to market, engineering, people & operations, and more. I got to shape my role and spend more time in the areas I was interested in. The learnings I had were based on real startup situations and market challenges. I can’t imagine a better way to have learned.

BloomReach also satiated my thirst for knowledge about product development. Deep passion for technology always fueled me and being able to learn about it while surrounded by brilliant engineers was a privilege. Being at a startup allowed me to transition into product management with no CS or MBA degrees, something that would have been much harder in a big company. [2]

I got a message from a Google recruiter about 1-2 years ago. At the time, I had hesitations joining a large company. I liked startups and wanted my next role to be at a company even smaller than BloomReach. I also had hesitations that my current PM experience and training was sufficient to pass the interviews at Google, a place known for still having a technical interview that tests you for knowledge on software engineering fundamentals if you want to join as a PM.

Over the last 4 years at BloomReach, I’ve had the fortune of working alongside some of the smartest individuals I’ve met. Some came from small startups, others from companies like Microsoft, eBay, Bain, Google, and more. Some had Computer Science backgrounds, others had MBAs, yet others had neither of those. Yet, they all had a ton to contribute to BloomReach as it has grown.

As I entertained career options after BloomReach, I focused on the people, company culture, and values. It was the same criteria that led me to BloomReach four years ago, which worked out extremely well for me. Why change those criteria when it worked so well? I wanted to be surrounded by a world-class product team with many individuals I could learn a lot from.  After speaking to many people at Google I decided to go for it, relaxing my prior requirement of my next role being at a small company.

Looking forward

Google has a world-class product and engineering organization. While I’m eager to work side-by-side with them, I’m aware of some of the challenges of moving to a large company. Initiatives at Google are often killed by management if they don’t show progress, you may end up working on a product or area that’s not your first choice, and the role may get more specialized or narrow than you originally wished for. I will keep this in mind as I navigate Google over the next few years.

On the flip side, I look forward to making the most of the opportunities to learn from people at the peak of their fields. I’m also eager to make a significant impact on a company that I’ve long admired.

[1] https://hire.google.com/
[2] https://omareduardo.com/2017/05/21/my-transition-into-product-management-from-a-non-technical-background/
[3] See more resources at https://omareduardo.com/2017/07/08/resources-when-transitioning-into-product-management/

Resources when transitioning into Product Management

A reader was curious as to what resources I found most helpful while transitioning into Product Management from a non-technical background [1]. Below is a list of things that I have found both helpful and rewarding, which are mostly about Product Management related topics. Most of the online resources are free. I’ll update this with new resources later on as I learn more.

Note: Product Management is done quite differently in different companies, but the resources below are applicable across a wide range of companies and roles.

General Management

Design

Agile

Technical knowledge

Entrepreneurship & Product Strategy

* Note: I use some affiliate links in this post, marked with an asterisk. If you click through and purchase products I earn a small referral fee at no cost to you.


[1] Post inspired by a question a reader submitted via Medium on https://omareduardo.com/2017/05/21/my-transition-into-product-management-from-a-non-technical-background/

My transition into Product Management from a ‘non-technical’ background 

It will soon be 3 years since I transitioned into Product Management full-time. Prior to that, here is what my résumé included.

  • Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering
  • Healthcare Consulting (3 years)
  • Customer Success Management (1 year)

I then transitioned into Enterprise Software Product Management at BloomReach, a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) company. It was particularly important to me to do Product Management (PM) at a company in which Software is the core product.

In my specific case, the opportunity to transition was a mix of preparation and luck. In this article, I want to highlight some of the more practical aspects of my transition. I want to offer it as one sample journey that didn’t involve going back to school for either Computer Science training nor an MBA.

Personal awareness and setting a goal.

The first step to transition into PM was being clear in what I wanted to do. Without this clarity of mind, I doubt that the transition would have ever happened. The reason I quit consulting to join a Silicon Valley startup was to learn how to lead in a startup environment. In particular, it was important to me to gain skills that would be relevant when building and growing a new company.

With three years of consulting experience and working in a Customer Success role at a technology startup, I had a great set of skills that helped me engage successfully with enterprise customers. I understood my customers’ businesses and could effectively position our product so that the customer crisply understood our value. I was fluent in business talk — talking to an executive about ROI, year-over-year growth, market trends, opportunity cost, etc. became second nature to me. Given this level of comfort, I decided that it was time for the next phase in my quest to build skills relevant to building and growing a new company.

At the recommendation of a mentor, I wrote down what I wanted to be able to deliver over the next year. My keen interest, I realized, was to gain the necessary skills to understand and influence the core product. As a software company, it is the product that carries the most weight in the success of the company. A PM is best equipped to influence the product and, I realized, the gap between my skillset at the skillset I needed for a PM job was centered around product design and technical understanding. Developing those skills was within my power — there are many great online resources for this. Also, working at a technology startup in Silicon Valley I was surrounded by brilliant minds that could assist me in the process.

Communicating my intent unambiguously.

Having clarity was crucial as a first step. The next step was more important. I communicated clearly and unambiguously my intent. I told my boss that I wasn’t interested in moving up the ladder within my current team, the logical next step in my career. Instead, I wanted to spend any of my discretionary time at work on projects that would allow me to transition into Product Management.

Some people within upper management were surprised by how candid I was on this point — it isn’t every day that an ambitious millennial comes to their manager refusing a potential promotion. I will admit, there was risk taking this step — I could end up not getting promoted within my team nor able to transition into Product Management. I considered this. However, if being clear on this point could aid, even in the slightest, my chances of moving into PM it was worth it.

Preparing for the next step through a project.

At the time, this wasn’t as clear to me as it is now. However, the most important next step was getting involved in the right project. Doing that wouldn’t have been possible, however, if I hadn’t spent my time closing some of my knowledge gaps on product and technology.

I spoke to other Product Managers and read up on the job. I also asked a lot of questions about how our product worked. A nice engineer gave me a quick overview of Hadoop and MapReduce. An Integrations guy taught me how to see in the web-browser when our JavaScript tracking pixel ‘fired’ and see if there was anything wrong with it. A product manager taught me how she worked with the design and engineering teams to define a new feature and sequence its execution. Our data analysts helped me get SQL Workbench setup on my computer and taught me basic SQL scripting to get data off of our analytics databases. Yet some other nice person taught me what an API call was, what it looked like, how it was executed, and how the customer would work with the response. Someone explained to me that the Cloud I spoke of was just a bunch of servers on Amazon Web Services (AWS). In my spare time, I did a few programming exercises in HTML, CSS, JavaScript and jQuery to better understand what the hell was going on when I browsed to a website.

All in all, this was a time of just learning the basics of many technologies so that I could build a baseline framework in my head of how our cloud product worked. This made me feel more comfortable talking about the product to customers and developers integrating our product.

I also found it helpful to learn about the software development process. Learning about Agile Development, scrums, PRDs and design tools was helpful in this regard.

I will be perfectly candid here, I was searching for a clear list of things to learn. I wanted something titled “The perfect guide to all things technical that you must learn to become a Product Manager.” I never came across such a guide. If you are looking for something similar, I find the following exercise to be more helpful. Just pick any service that seems interesting and learn about the components that were used to build it. For example, a simple search about how was Facebook built yields answers such as this and this. Also, kind folks over at Quora answer just about any question people have.

A project to showcase readiness.

The next step is where readiness and luck both played a role. A few months after I explicitly asked to spend my discretionary time on Product Management activities, an initiative with a top client came up. It was an initiative that required a mix of customer success, integrations, and product management skills. It also happened to be related to our new product, which I had spent my spare time learning about.

An executive within the company endorsed the idea of having me as the ‘glue’ between the customer and engineering for that initiative. The other Product Managers didn’t have the time to do this so I would work directly with the executive in charge of the product to deliver this initiative.

This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been clear with my boss about my intent to focus on Product Management. It also wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t done well at my primary function in Customer Success.

Ship and wait for the next opportunity.

Once on this project, it was a matter of dedicating all that I had to ensure that it was successful. I had to work with the customer to understand requirements and clarify prioritization, worked with engineering to design the product functionality, and do a lot of project management to ensure things were done on time. The project was executed smoothly and it showcased well.

Once this had been completed, the timing was on my side. The Product Management team had a few openings and it was only natural for me to transition into a junior role within the team.

A helpful framework

Many things could have been different in my story. I may not have gotten an opportunity within BloomReach to transition into PM, in which case I would have had to look elsewhere. Or maybe it could have taken longer. But, there were a few crucial steps that I strongly believed can help you also maximize your chances of a transition into Product Management.

Be clear on why you want to transition into Product Management and communicate it. Everything else is much easier if you have clarity of purpose on this. Be willing to give up other tempting opportunities to focus on what truly matters to you.

Take the risk and put in the time and effort. When I started learning more about the product, a Product Manager at BloomReach candidly told me that it was possible that an opportunity within BloomReach may never arise for me to transition into Product Management. However, not letting that deter me was key to continue focusing on learning and growing into what would eventually become my opportunity to move into a Product Management role.

Find a logical adjacent move to make. My journey into Product Management is filled with adjacent moves. From a bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering, I went into Technology Consulting. I had strong analytical skills but needed to learn business and project management. From there I moved into Management Consulting. I had good general business skills and financial acumen but could improve in Strategy and Business Transformation processes. This then opened the door to join a Customer Success team in a technology startup where I could contribute broad business skills and learn about technology and Silicon Valley. Finally, with this broad knowledge of business and diving deep into the product, the next adjacent step for me was the PM role.

Learn, learn and learn. All of these adjacent transitions were enabled by doing a ton of learning. I personally read up a ton about our products and the technologies that we used. A popular option in Silicon Valley is to build your own website or app. You can partner with someone who’s more technically or business savvy, depending on your skillset, and build a simple app or web browser plug-in. The process of figuring out what to build, what features to prioritize, how to build it, etc. will start giving you an idea of the product management process. You can also read other books or online sources. Here are a few I used.

Volunteer your time to help on your area of interest. This is how you find sponsors! Every transition I’ve made within a company, whether a company such as Accenture with over 200k employees or BloomReach with less than 150 at the time, came after a more established senior person endorsed my transition. When I moved from System Integrations consulting into Management Consulting at Accenture it was thanks to the endorsement of a Senior Manager I helped on my spare time. Moving into Product Management required the endorsement of my boss, an executive I worked with, and our CTO whom I had a chance to interact with thanks to the project I mentioned above.

I hope that this helps you in your journey. If it does, I’d love to hear from you!

To do your best work, stop fragmenting your attention.

Last year, I was introduced to Slack, the new way to communicate among teams. If you’ve never heard of Slack, in essence, it’s chat rooms that anyone in your company can join. But instead of calling them chat rooms, Slack calls them channels.

I hated it. And not because I disliked the app, it’s actually quite nice. It has a great user interface and makes you want to use it. You can also respond with a like, emoji or GIF when words can’t explain your feelings. Millennials and non-millennials alike seem to be enjoying this quite a bit.

I disliked the introduction of Slack because it represented yet another distraction. Another tool that would give me a slight communication benefit at the expense of focus. I didn’t only dislike Slack. I disliked Slack and every unnecessary meeting, email, instant message or “quick question” interruption at my desk.

To understand why this is such a big problem, at least for me, let’s spend 100 hours in meditation together.

It started with a meditation insight

Lucky for you, I’ve already done this part. So, we can skip the meditating part for this conversation.

Two years into my consulting job, I took 2 weeks off from work to meditate. I joined a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. This is the real deal, 10 days in silent meditation. No reading, writing or talking. No electronic devices permitted. The only exception? An alarm clock, so that I could wake up at 4:00 a.m. to get ready for the first meditation session at 4:30 a.m. During this 2-week vacation, I spent 10 hours each day meditating.

If there is one thing that I took from that time, it was that most of the stress in my life comes from a fragmented mind. Fixing this is something that is within my power. I control my mind, I control what goes into it and what I chose to focus it on.

I went back to work the Monday after the meditation retreat ended. Although nothing drastic changed, I started to notice little things. I noticed, for example, how the “new email” notification on my phone and my laptop affected me. That little notification indicated that I had a new email to read. It asked me to decide between checking the new email now or keep working. Without any information about the email, I had no way to know how important it was. This created a source of conflict and anxiety in me.

It took me 10 days of silent meditation to be able to observe how this small situation caused anxiety. It may seem a minor issue, but this would happen dozens of times throughout the day. The cumulative effect is quite damaging.

You may not have spent 10 days as a hermit meditating, but whether you realize it or not, notifications like these are driving you crazy.

Disable your notifications

The tools are not bad in and of themselves. In fact, thank goodness for email. The problem is really about people and expectations. (Slack, it’s not  you, it’s me.)

Let’s go back to my post-meditation retreat realization.

I knew that email notifications were (1) distracting me from the task at hand, and (2) causing me anxiety. I pondered this for a while. As a proud quick-responder, I used to respond to emails within minutes from having received it. I considered it a core part of being a responsive and caring team member. As a consultant, clients were paying hundreds of dollars per hour of my time. Responding immediately to their requests seemed crucial.

After enough deliberation, I concluded that my 5-minute email response expectation wasn’t helping anyone. If it only took me 5 minutes to think up and type an answer, it definitely was not an enlightening thought. I should carve out longer time to answer the difficult questions that really stretched my thinking.

I turned off my email notifications. This dreaded notification popup was no longer there.

outlook-new-email-notification

I wish that I could tell you disabling email notifications fixed my problems right away. It didn’t. In fact, it was worse for a while. I was nervous that a new important email would have come in. But over time, this changed, and I found myself focusing for longer stretches of time.

As a side benefit, I started spending less time in my inbox overall, since I could batch my responses. Another benefit, group email chains would be more complete by the time I got to them. Often questions asked would have been answered by a colleague, no longer requiring my response. Double win.

I haven’t turned back on email notifications on my work computer nor on my phone ever since. The last 5 years have been much happier thanks to that.

Batch all communications

I’ve continued to use Slack at work. However, similar to email and IM, disabling all notifications is key to allow time for focus. By batching all my Slack reading time into 2-3 reading blocks during the day, along with emails and IMs, the rest of the day can be freed up to think through the more intricate problems.

Handle the urgent and important

What about urgent and important issues, you may wonder? The truly urgent and important items should be a rarity. If many things are urgent, then nothing truly is.

Given that urgent issues are rare, they merit being handled using a different process. Urgent communications should not go to the same Inbox as everything else. For urgent issues, people should have a different mechanism to reach the right person. For time-sensitive, critical customer issues, our customers have a 24/7 support line that will get the right engineer on the issue within minutes. As such, truly urgent issues don’t rely on a single point of failure, me, remaining slave to my phone or computer. It is crucial to find such a reliable mechanism for any important type of urgent issue.

Give your best to each situation 

Reducing notifications and other distractions to a minimum is crucial in order to be present and do good, mentally challenging, work. A fragmented mind will lose to a focused mind in just about everything. If you’re a knowledge worker, your work requires you to be truly present and contribute your best thinking.

Disabling notifications and blocking out discrete, time-bound chunks of time on your calendar for all communications helps you regain your sanity. It allows you to regain long, uninterrupted blocks of time to do deeper thinking and planning. It allows you to bring your better self to all settings. When in a meeting, you don’t need to peek at your Inbox or Slack. You are physically at the meeting because you thought that it was an important meeting to attend, so make sure that your mind is also present. When talking to a colleague, that’s all that you should be doing. When reading and responding to your email or Slack messages, do just that, and give others the very best thinking that your mind can muster in your email responses. No half-assed responses.

Startups won’t build your career on your behalf. You must.

Startups are sexy. Here in Silicon Valley, most people I meet either work for a startup or are thinking about starting one. Working for a startup is an alluring proposition for those seeking a challenge. Startups promise ownership, exciting work, and the opportunity to be part of the next big thing. If you’re considering a switch, I’ve written about the case to quit consulting to join a startup.

The often unspoken assumption is that career growth opportunities in a startup will be abundant. With dreams of revolutionizing an industry, it may seem frivolous to think about career management. Yet, challenges unique to startups complicate career growth. I discuss these below not to dissuade you, but as a starting point towards a solution. In fact, I encourage you to make the transition from a large company if you haven’t already. Be prepared to do the necessary work to succeed.

Career difficulties in a startup.

Startups face many challenges related to its product maturity and funding status. Cash reserves are limited and the prudent thing is to be conservative when hiring. These conditions bring in some of the following challenges to a startup.

Quick changes in initiatives. Efforts that you are working on may get cut. You may not be able to go through the full learning cycle of completing the effort.

Not enough people. There may be more critical items to address than the team can absorb. You may stress over having to deprioritize a critical request.

The pace of change far outpaces communication. Startups must also be quick to incorporate new market knowledge to remain relevant. You often feel that you’re learning about important changes late.

Because of these issues, employees’ career growth can be overlooked. It is often not a top priority for the company to focus on career development plans. The executive team may recognize the importance of it, yet be pulled in other directions. This will bring the following challenges when working on your career development.

Unclear career path. Startups rarely have a career path defined for most employee functions. This gives you flexibility but doesn’t provide you with a growth framework.

Unclear promotion requirements. You may have a general understanding of what it takes to get promoted, but no specifics. You may not understand why someone was or wasn’t promoted. Titles may change in confusing ways. The company structure may change quickly and often.

Promotion timing may be odd. Due to business needs and finance’s forecast uncertainty, startups have to be extra careful about promoting. The business may have growth spurts in which many promotions happen at once. You may be ready for a promotion but have to wait until the business needs your skills at a new level. This may come as part of growth or when a leader in your group resigns, both situations more likely to be unexpected at a startup.

No starting cohort. You will rarely find a group of peers that joins the company at the same time and position as you. This is often a group leveraged in large companies for growth discussions.

Difficult to find mentors. There will be a small percent of experienced mentors and managers in a startup. They will be managing many people and initiatives. This will make it difficult to get their undivided attention on your career growth.

Lack of personal time to focus on career reflection. The startup asks so much of your time that you deprioritize career reflection. Reflecting often feels like inaction, which doesn’t bode well with the startup-type.

Limited training options. Your company won’t have a mature HR department with a large training budget. There may be no training specific to your function. You will need to learn on the job. You may be unaware of how your efforts have helped you hone useful skills.

No clear benchmarks on skills or compensation. There are not enough peers for the company to provide guidance on how you compare to your peers. Your compensation includes equity with an unclear long-term value. It will be difficult for you to compare your compensation on a risk-adjusted basis.

Future employers may not understand your title. Recruiters may have a good understanding of the caliber of a Director at Google or Facebook. They won’t know what to expect from a Director at a small company.

Not every challenge above is unique to a startup, but you are more likely to encounter them in one. I put aside companies that simply don’t care or invest in employee growth. Those companies are unlikely to be hiring at the talent level that startups need to succeed in this knowledge economy.

Although you may encounter many challenges in a startup, the good news is that with the right framework these challenges can turn out to be blessings in disguise.

Develop your own growth plan

There is no shortage of career challenges in a startup. On the flip side, startups offer a unique level of freedom and flexibility. If you know where you want to take your career, you are more likely to be able to find opportunities to do so.

Before doing this I encourage you to reflect on what growth means to you. It is important to reframe career growth by factoring in the challenges discussed. This is critical if you’ve enjoyed success in a large, structured work environment so far.

Redefine your view of a role

In a startup, you will find yourself working on tasks that go beyond one function or level. You may be a manager doing analyst work. Or in Customer Success and contributing to product documentation. As a Designer, you may help tweak CSS for an engineer. You may be a product manager stepping in as a technical project manager for a customer project. Or the talented marketer that helps the support team craft better customer responses.

This work may feel counter-productive. You may feel that you are working on tasks that go beyond what you signed up for. But that’s the point. A startup’s blurry role responsibilities let you develop skills outside of your function. Jon Stein, CEO of Betterment, thinks of a startup as a test kitchen. There are always many initiatives at work and as you deliver results you’ll own more of those. This will help you grow your skills and career.

The key to making the most of this flexibility, then, is to know where you want to be. That will allow you to volunteer for the initiatives in the test kitchen that will help you get there.

Think beyond your current company.

Unless you’re a founder or in an executive role, your job at a startup is unlikely to be the last stop of your career. You should, instead, think long-term and beyond your current company. Your top goal must still be to make your current company successful. If your startup succeeds, potential employers will associate you with the company’s success.

That said, give less importance to titles and focus on skills. Your primary goal can’t be getting a promotion and a new title. Your goal has to be new skills development. Owning crucial projects and delivery flawlessly must be a priority. This is what you will take with you once you’ve made this company successful. That is what will help you be an executive at your next startup, or make you successful when you build your own startup. Remember, a recruiter won’t understand what a title in your company means. What results, and how you’ve managed and delivered them, is what they can compare with other candidates.

Define the skills you want to develop

Have you made peace with defining your career growth based on skills, and not titles? Great. Now you may find it difficult to define what specific skills you should focus on. Here are a few suggestions I’ve found helpful over the years.

Find a mentor, think beyond your function. I mentioned above that it’s harder to find a mentor in a startup. However, finding a mentor is still one of the most impactful things that you can do. I encourage you to think beyond your specific function and company. The best career advice and insights I’ve received over the past few years have come from people outside of my department or at a different company.

Today vs. t+1 year resume reflection. A great mentor of mine, Christy Augustine, suggested this exercise to me. Write your resume as you want it to read a year from today. What would you have delivered by then? What position could you go after with that resume? Compare that to your current resume. Identify what skills and experiences to focus on from a career perspective. This approach helped me plan my transition to product management in 2014. Although this exercise is focused on work only, your resume, it is important to put this into the perspective of your overall life goals.

How do your current skills compare? Look at what skills companies look for in the roles you want to pursue. How do you rank in each of these? Use a mentor or peer to help you have a frank discussion on this. Consider general skills besides specific skills. It is also helpful to look at lists of skills and understand what they mean. You may have skills that you don’t know are important or what to name.

Engage with your peers. Many of your peers have figured out ways to develop certain skills. Look at their LinkedIn profiles or resumes. What areas are they highly-skilled in that you want to develop? Reach out and ask them how they become well-versed in that area. These can be folks in the same role at a similar company, don’t limit this to your current startup.

Identify resources and feasibility to develop your desired skills. Can you develop these skills at your current company? Can you develop through books, seminars, courses, or volunteer positions?

Talk to your manager about your career plans. Most of your conversations are likely far more tactical, focused on the day to day work, than you may like. That’s why you’ve read this far. Ensure that your manager is clear on what opportunities you seek. Ask her to find you work that develops your preferred skills. Otherwise, be clear about priorities and make time to develop skills outside of work.

Consider creating a side project. This can be within the company or outside. This may also be something fun, helpful if you’re looking for a distraction from your day job. My friend Ailian Gan writes about side projects as a way to create something that you want to see exist. Great ideas and outcomes often come from where you less expect it.

Use industry benchmarks to demand fair treatment

Data and benchmarks are great. I love mining through data. When I worked at Accenture, I was clear on the compensation ranges for various positions. The company provided salary ranges. This was a great benchmark for me, in addition to performance reviews.

At startups, your compensation isn’t as straightforward. You must establish your benchmark using industry data. You should also look at how much your compensation changes over time. A prudent startup is hesitant to overspend on employees. Thus, a good pay raise is usually a strong sign that your contribution.

Make sure to consider equity (stock and options). Get an estimate of what it’s currently worth based on your company’s last round of funding. Your company should be transparent with you about this information. (If that’s not the case, discount it as worthless). Then consider likely exit scenarios for your company to see its potential. Consider both upside and downside. Find a risk-adjusted average.

Compare your compensation to what other companies would pay for you. You can use PayScale or Glassdoor’s Know Your Worth to access plenty of useful industry data. Remember, however, to focus on skills and not on titles. Titles often don’t capture your scope of work or contribution level at a startup. When establishing a benchmark, check out various titles corresponding to your skill level.

Recognize when it’s time to switch companies

I have focused this discussion on skills development as a clear way to grow your career. But the reality is that often your career growth is capped by opportunities to contribute. I have a simple career growth model.

Career growth = (New skills + new experience) * (opportunities to contribute)

Skills growth and learning from experience increase your capacity to contribute to a company. However, you can be the world’s most gifted manager, but if your company doesn’t need another manager, who cares? You must recognize when your skills are undervalued. Look at your total comp as a benchmark. If you find that your startup is undervaluing your skill-set, I encourage you to have a frank discussion with your manager. Give them a chance to rectify the situation. A great manager can surprise you with solutions you couldn’t imagine before. If, however, your manager is unable to find ways to help you grow your career, it may be time to move on.

Closing thoughts

Startups are fun. Making the transition in 2013 from a company with 250,000+ employees (Accenture) to one with 120 employees at the time (BloomReach) has allowed me to grow in unparalleled ways. However, this growth over the past 3 years came with many bumps on the road. I was fortunate to get sound advice at critical times to continue growing and learning. I hope that by sharing these learnings I can help a few folks, and learn from the experiences of many others.

References

(1) Jon Stein, CEO of Betterment, wrote for Fast Company about startups.

(2) Avery Augustine gives compares career growth at startups vs large companies.

Thanks to Ailian Gan, Stella Treas, and Christy Augustine for their help and insights.