Top positive review
Product Management 101 - Interviewing in the age of social media and new tech
Reviewed in the United States on June 6, 2017
This has been a difficult book for me to rate. On one hand, I really liked it. On the other hand, I couldn't stop thinking that it fell quite short on some aspects of product management. I will explain both of those reasons in more detail below, but let me first tell a bit about my background as I think it is relevant for this review.
I have been in the industry for more than 20 years. Currently, I am the co-founder and Chief Product Officer of a startup that creates networking solutions for the Internet of Things. Previously, I worked for a very large networking vendor in both technical and business roles for more than 15 years. My last role there was a Sr. Product Manager in Office of the CTO. Previously, I held roles as a Product Line Manager (PLM) managing P&Ls north of $200 million. I was also a Program Manager managing multi-year multi-million dollar projects that won innovation awards etc. Throughout my career I coded things, launched products and tools that have been very successful and that are still in use. I also launched products that didn't take of as I had expected them to. I am an engineer by education, I have a EE degree and an MBA and several advanced certifications in business and technical domains. Although I don't have a background in CS, I code for personal projects and I also code for our startup. I have open source repositories on GitHub that have a total of 100 stars in total. I certainly won't claim I know much but I think I have had my fair share of experience dealing with technology, specifically in a B2B/Enterprise model.
I try to keep myself refreshed by learning new things, reading books, working on side projects etc. That is the reason I read this book. I liked it and I also thought it missed some aspects while focusing only on a subset of a larger picture. That is what this review is about.
First the good stuff. Product Management is a bit of a mystery for outsiders. It is partly science and partly art. There is no specific education for Product Management, which makes it a bit hard to grasp. To make matters worse, it may mean very different things in different companies. Sometimes it is perceived to be more of a marketing role, sometimes it is under engineering and so forth. On this topic, I think the authors have done a pretty good job in creating a fundamental structure for understanding Product Management and making it approachable for those who are aspiring to be Product Managers (mine was a bit of luck, I built a service as an engineer which became so successful that they asked me to lead a team to build it for external customers and launch it as a product manager). I liked that the authors gave specific examples on what product management means in different companies, I also liked that they outline paths for engineers and designers to become product managers, which makes a lot of sense.
Authors provide some very good behavioral questions and reasoning behind those questions. I particularly enjoyed seeing that they busted some myths (as they explain, Product Managers are not CEOs of their products, however cool it may sound!). Many of those behavioral questions are also applicable to other roles that require soft skills (Project Management, Program Management, Customer Service etc.) as well and can easily be part of a study plan for interviews for those roles. I must admit, some of the estimation questions challenged me (I haven't done those in so generic ways for probably over a decade) and at times I felt intimidated, which is an indication of good balance.
That made me think, how many times I have asked those generic questions myself while interviewing other PMs and the answer is, it wasn't much (I will explain why below). That also made me think what else was amiss.
That brings us to stuff that I think can be improved. It feels that the authors' experience has been primarily in a B2C context and the book shows it. Content heavily skews towards consumer oriented Product Management. Majority, if not all examples and questions are around consumer products. Companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft etc.) in question are well known but they share a lot of common traits and pretty much all are consumer focused (and on a side note, it may be time to take out examples from Yahoo and Twitter). There are a few questions that venture slightly outside of B2C but it is an exception. Microsoft is arguably the only company that sits somewhere between B2C and B2B in this list, but the way it is covered is still through the lens of consumers. There is nothing wrong with this approach but it misses a perspective of Product Management for B2B, Enterprise Software and Hardware companies which have their own challenges.
Three things that stood out the most for me was a lack of focus on go-to-market strategies, content creation and to a lesser degree, domain expertise. Go-to-market strategy and execution consumes a significant portion of a Product Manager's time and is thus reflected in interviews. Similarly, in most B2B companies, Product Managers are expected to create collateral in the form of presentations (not the fluffy stuff but the ones that have factual information), competitive analysis for sales teams, whitepapers, use-cases etc. A lot of time is also spent on helping sales teams to win deals by helping them with RFPs etc. These activities can intersect with those from marketing (and sometimes sales) but it is an important activity for Product Managers. So, these also are also reflected in interviews, depending on the experience and background of the candidate.
Go-to-market is covered in some indirect ways but I didn't find it nearly complete enough. In real life, if I ever created and presented a business case without a fairly detailed go-to-market strategy to an executive team or even a wider PM team, that could have been the end of my career. And when I say go-to-market, I mean an in-depth plan with channel strategies, partnerships etc. Once again, we are talking B2B here. This is reflected in interviews and we expect people to come with at least some knowledge of and experience in go-to-market strategies. I didn't think the coverage of this in the book was enough.
Second to go-to-market, there was also no mention of collateral creation. In our interviews, we expect people to demonstrate previous experience on content creation, let it be in the form of blog posts, technical white papers for engineers, product documentation etc. If you are applying for a product manager role in a B2B context, I'd recommend you to have some collateral that you can showcase. It can come in different forms depending on your experience and job history but this will be important.
The last part is the lack of focus on domain expertise. This will depend on the industry, company and your previous experience but domain expertise is important for product management especially in B2B. So, while you may get generic estimation questions if you apply for junior roles, in more senior roles, you will be asked more specific replacement questions that require fairly in-depth domain knowledge. This brings out the other implicit assumption that I observed in the book. It is aimed at people who are planning to move to product management starting in more junior roles. There is a certain emphasis on fresh college graduates. So, examples and context make a lot of sense for that target group. But be aware that expectations can vary significantly beyond that target group especially for different industries and companies.
All in all, I think this is a valuable book and I applaud the authors for writing it. I recommend it to anyone who is planning to venture into Product Management, also to seasoned Product Managers for some fun and refreshment (just put it into context and set your expectations accordingly). I enjoyed reading it and admittedly it helped me to refresh some topics that I haven't practiced for a while. I get a similar feeling when I open my books from college or MBA days and it feels refreshing at some level. But also understand that this is geared towards people who are in earlier stages of their careers and the content is skewed towards B2C companies and products. I think a different title would be much more accurate and to the point: "Product Management 101 - Interviewing in the age of social media and new tech"