I didn’t necessarily plan for a career in product management. I spent time in development. I spent time in sales, sales engineering, and customer training and implementation. These and my college courses somewhat, perhaps accidentally, prepared me for the job.
I majored in marketing and minored in computer science at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I sent resumes all over the place and got a nice job as a programmer in Fort Worth, Texas. Less than two years later, my boss (!) recommended that I interview with a friend of his at a company in Dallas. I got the job as a sales engineer, making the jump from IT to enterprise software vendor.
It was such a great job. We had excellent sales and marketing teams, and I worked with both teams closely. I got to be friends with some of the product managers and started wondering if that was my next career step. But I stayed a sales engineer for 6 years, and then did 3 years as a sales rep.
Soon after our company introduced it, I hit the leader board with a new product. I was out-selling the rest of my sales team so my boss asked me to train the office in whatever I was doing. We had a few “lunch and learns” and before you know it my office was selling more than the other offices. The VP of Sales asked me to train the rest of the sales force. At the sales training held at corporate headquarters, the VP of Marketing explained that sales training was the responsibility of product management, and suggested that I take on that role. And so, I kinda stumbled into the job of product manager. (And I turned down a similar offer from a guy who went on to make millions in the dot-com boom. Ah, the road not traveled, eh?)
My next product management job was at a startup and I did the strategy, technical, and marketing roles of product management. I learned to protect the dev team from senior management interference (primarily by using a prioritized backlog) and to protect my schedule from firefighting by providing sales tools that were ready to share with customers. (Want to get information to customers immediately? Label it “Company confidential.”)
Over time I moved up the ranks from product manager to VP. But the lessons of “represent the market” came from my first experiences in product management—and they’ve served me well throughout my career.
Nowadays, I am help companies implement (or in many cases re-implement) product management. Many teams have fallen into disrepair as a result of agile adoption and I’m helping get them back on the path with proven business frameworks.
The following is a brief synopsis of my journey to the role of a Product Manager (and beyond).
MBA with Operations Management as major on top of a Mechanical Engineering degree –> Market Researcher in a Management Consultancy division of a large Systems Integration company –> Functional ERP consultant with hands-on implementation, customization & customer training across multiple ERP projects –> Pre-sales Consulting for large SW project deals –> Business Analyst in Customer Relationship Management (CRM) space –> Principal Product Manager in technology related to Enterprise business software –> now, an independent Business consultant advising companies on achieving sustainable business results for the long term applying the concepts of Lean and allied management frameworks.
As in your case, I did not explicitly set out to become a Product Manager, but my education and first few years of customer-facing work experience helped me to operate well in this role. One feeling underpins my experience when I look back at my professional journey traversed so far – the strong desire to apply my skills towards helping to solve a problem / need for customers (and customer segments), rather than just do a job for a company and being sucked into the competitive rat race with other colleagues.