From Liberal Arts to Product Management

Caveat: this is not a how-to guide

I know a handful of non-traditional product managers out there.

Contrary to Silicon Valley stereotypes, we exist. Becoming a product manager without the CS degree and coding skills is possible, albeit difficult.

Below is some wisdom distilled from my messy and chaotic journey with a caveat: this is not a how-to guide. Becoming a product manager is building the most important product — YOU — so product manage yourself. Below are five product (human development) phases to get there.

Phase Zero: What is product management?

Cross-functional. CEO of a Product. Visionary. These are all buzzwords thrown around to define product management. Sure, you can read articles about product management (see below for resources), but you need to come up with your own definition. There is no one definition that encompasses all. Defining product management does two things:

Prod·uct Man·ag·er

n. a person who functions as a scientist, armchair psychologist, and janitor in cross-functional teams. Ever curious, open to new ideas, perceptive, listens, and evolves through time. Someone who works well with engineers and designers and understands the customer’s needs. Someone who will do anything necessary to ship a product on time and maintain that product’s quality through its lifecycle.

Phase One: Gather User Data. The user being YOU. Understand your motivations/‘user needs’.

Identify why you want to go into product management. Motivations dictate action. Why are you drawn to product management? Do you want to go into PM because it is cool, sexy, or lucrative? Maybe you like the cross-functional aspect of the role. Whatever it is that draws you to product, make sure you are going into the space with the right intentions. Glitzy roles and illusions of grandeur fade fast. Check your initial assumptions and see if they are still valid. Trust me, your future self will thank you for the due diligence.

Phase Two: Identify the product. Know what kind of PM you are building yourself into.

Know your product and sector. What kind of product do you want to build and in what space? There is a reason why ‘what is your favorite product and why?’ is the most frequently asked question in product interviews. It taps into the heart of what makes you tick. A PM is someone who needs to be passionate about a space, emotionally connected to what they are building, and a power user. You have to eat your own dog food so make sure you like the taste.

Diagram by Jackie Bavaro, stylized by Lester Lee for Medium

A good PM embodies skills in both circles. You may be heavier on some skills over others. Some PMs are design-heavy others are user-focused. Find your niche.

Phase Three: Do a SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of yourself

Know yourself. See how your strengths and weaknesses align with the many traits of a PM. A SWOT analysis identifies the internal and external factors that are favorable or unfavorable to a business objective. It can be applied to a project, business venture, or person. To identify your strengths, take the StrengthsFinder Test and the Meyer’s Briggs personality profile. My five strengths from the StrengthsFinder test — Futuristic, Ideation, Individualization, Woo, and Communication — informed me that I am a big picture person. Knowing my strengths allowed me to recognize my weaknesses like attention to detail. I started writing more detailed specs, coding, and debugged with our QA team to hone my observation skills. While people are often encouraged to develop their strengths at the expense of developing their weaknesses, I believe in a more balanced approach. Early on in your career, you are malleable enough to focus on developing your weaknesses too.

Phase Four: Build your MVP product — build YOU.

Build your technical acumen and language fluency: Unfortunately, the sentiment in tech is “YOU HAVE TO CODE TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY.” The current reality and bias against non-coders means you will have to beef up your technical chops. You don’t have to be an expert, just be curious to learn. Focus on gaining the language fluency to work with a developer. Be familiar with different languages, understand why certain engineering decisions were made, and have a basic understanding of APIs, system architecture, servers etc. Know how your web browser works. Take online programming classes like Udacity’s Intro to Computer Science class and read tech blogs(see below). Take a RailsGirls workshop or work on a passion project. Building something will help you overcome the Valley’s bias against non-technical backgrounds, minorities, and women. Knowing how to turn a disadvantage around will be critical to your career path.

Phase Five: Ship your product — get the job!

Tell your story: Steve Jobs said, “You can only connect the dots looking back,” so tell your story in retrospect. Many college graduates (including me) didn’t know product management existed when they entered the workforce. Explain why product management is the logical jump for you. Why is PM a natural calling? A lot of the qualities of a PM come from a diverse liberal arts degree: communication, writing, research, and analysis. Play by your strengths. Explain why your particular background and work experience give you a unique vantage point as a PM. Companies are starting to realize that diverse teams build better products, which is the reason why I joined Facebook. Diversity is the answer to Silicon Valley’s mono-culture problem.

Product-focused investor empowering underestimated founders. Writer. Advisor.

Product-focused investor empowering underestimated founders. Writer. Advisor.