How Product Management Chose Me
23 June, 2022
"We all fell into Product Management in one way or another"
This was one of the first things my first mentor at Capital One told me. This was particularly true when my product career started over 10 years ago. Coming off of the 2008 recession, and a very tight job market, I took the first office job that I could land out of school. That company, a small software firm of about 9 employees, would help me craft my own career into Product Management. When I was hired, my job title was technically "Business Analyst", but in actuality what I was doing was technical help desk and quality assurance on our web app. Essentially, all of the boring, tedious things that the software engineers didn't want to do.
While happy to have a job, I was miserable. And it wasn't because of the people, I do think today that was the best group of engineers I've ever had the pleasure to work with. Day in and day out, I answered phone calls and emails from our clients, mostly lawyers and accountants, complaining about our software. I was making very little money compared to my college friend group who all managed to find high-paying roles in different consulting companies. And at 9 people, there was very little room for career growth.
But then, about 6 months on the job, something started to click: I was very comfortable with this group of developers, so much so that I felt confident starting to give some feedback. Many of our customers were calling in to complain about the same parts of our app. I would take these complaints, and talk to our engineers. We would then find ways to constantly improve on our app (as an aside: It was definitely not this clean of a pattern. I wouldn't say I was always the most professional at this stage of my career).
Shortly after, my boss called me into our office's only conference room and told me that I was going to be promoted to a Product Manager. I was ecstatic! But then it hit me: What's a Product Manager?
Turns out, it was unclear to the rest of the team as well. Product management back then was a newer job family, with very little documentation about it. Company executives would read blogs posts or attend conferences that would tell them they needed a Product Manager if they had a tech product, but many of those execs didn't know what it was, and certainly didn't understand how to cultivate strong product talent.
After 5 years of at that first company, I moved on to a larger growth-stage startup, hoping to learn how to grow my product career. They had posted for a Product Manager position, so I assumed that I would be able to get the mentoring I needed there for my professional product growth. Turns out that just because a company posts for a product manager, does not mean they necessarily understand what that role does. While I learned a lot about myself in that company, I left 2 years later to Capital One with a huge feeling of imposter syndrome (which I promise to document in another story, and am very happy to speak about openly in a mentoring session).
Joining Capital One turned out to be one of the best decisions I had made for my product career. I joined right as the company had solidified "Product" as a job family, with clear career paths and job duties and functions. I was surrounded by dozens of other PMs, who I was able to learn from, and we have plenty of internal learning resources such as instructor-led courses you can take. I was further validated in my career choice after being promoted to Sr. Manager and started to build out a team underneath me.
Like I stated at the beginning, we all fall into product one way or another (though nowadays as it becomes a more entrenched job family some entry-level job seekers are about to jump right into the role). I look forward to learning about your product management career journey as well!
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