Crafting Product Experience Beyond Corporate Boundaries

In this article, COLAB12 PM alum, Jensine delves into some pathways and reflections for building product management skills without relying on a company

Jensine Mattis
March 29, 2024

About the author

Hello there! I'm Jensine Mattis, a current advertising account executive embarking on a journey to create products that foster positive societal change and advancement.

With a background as a former social worker and psychology, my mission in the field of product management is to ensure that individuals of diverse abilities and backgrounds are not only acknowledged but also feel seen and heard through the solutions I develop. Beyond my 9 to 5 responsibilities, I am committed to building community and advancing Black product managers as a regional lead within the Black Product Managers organization.

My next career aspiration is to secure a product management position within SaaS, eCommerce, or Artificial Intelligence. If you're ever interested in exchanging career tips, feel free to connect with me.

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In the world of product management ..

.. the focus lies on problem-solving and crafting solutions that leave a meaningful impact. You don’t need a title to begin creating your own experiences that relate to product management. The core responsibility of product management is to identify the most important problem to solve and shepherd the execution of creating a solution to solve that problem.

As an aspiring product manager, I don't believe we need permission to solve problems for people. At the outset of my product management journey, the focus on driving a business forward felt a bit intimidating.

However, I've come to understand that it's simply a discipline that involves harmonizing different goals of people and resources while keeping the business objectives and company vision top of mind. Breaking into this field is another ball game, requiring grit and discipline. It can become discouraging with the relentless requirement for 5-7 years of experience for an entry-level product management position alone.

In such cases, I recommend not waiting for an official product management title to become a product thinker. Crafting product experience beyond corporate boundaries means learning to identify problems encountered every day and creating a way to improve that experience, whether technological or physical. This mindset has spurred the birth of technology boot camps and training programs, including experts in the community who share career knowledge and expertise to guide professionals looking to break into the field.

When I first decided to become a product manager, I would scroll through the experiences of successful product management candidates and found that they were often co-founders of real products launching into the world. Initially, this was daunting, and I put my pursuit for a PM role on hold because I didn’t feel ready. The complex interview process reminded me of watching Shark Tank, where the investors on the panel would brutally pick apart founders' companies.

While I took a break from actively seeking a PM role, I continued attending tech-related events to learn and become exposed to different boot camps and programs offered to support career transitions into product management. Boot camps often have a bad reputation in the industry, but I find they're a great way to bridge the experience gap. I believe the best programs offer strong brand recognition, help hone desired skills, and provide exceptional human capital (network) that propels your career forward.

To be totally honest, two things can be true: you can complete a great program in the technology field, work hard to excel, and still find it hard to land your desired product role. However, the deciding factor in reaching success is the strength of your network and your networking skills in general. I'm still learning the importance of this aspect of the job search and strategizing a better approach to attract the opportunities I desire. In the meantime, I’d like to share some insights into gaining product experience beyond the corporate sphere.

I'm grateful that I've had my fair share of product management training programs that have allowed me to better understand the product development lifecycle and operate as a product manager to influence the development of a product. Here are three main lessons learned from my experiences operating as a product manager:

1 | It’s important to join a program that will help you apply theory to practical execution with a team 

Have you ever spoken with a corporate professional who admitted they don’t recall much from their degree or find direct application for it in their current job? Well, even without formally holding the title of a product manager yet, I can attest that experiencing the ups and downs of taking on product management responsibilities greatly enhances recall of lecture concepts.

During my time in the product management program at Co.lab, one of the first concepts I delved into was product discovery and customer research. Whether it involved sending out surveys to a community of people or engaging in Zoom calls with individuals in my network, I quickly grasped the significance of interacting with real people to unearth common challenges within a given problem space.

After absorbing lectures on identifying where potential customers spend their time and engaging with them to uncover their problems, it was time to translate theory into practice. For instance, given the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, my team was deeply invested in understanding the challenges faced by individuals searching for places to visit, both in new cities and within their hometowns.

To identify interview candidates, we reached out to family members and engaged with various community groups known for their proactive exploration of places to visit. Through designing a survey to gather quantitative data and conducting interviews within my network, I quickly learned the importance of posing the right questions to unveil the genuine motivations behind behaviors. By probing interviewees to elaborate on the challenges they encountered in achieving their goals, I discovered that asking "Why" often revealed hidden motivations driving their actions.

For individuals venturing into a new career field, relying solely on on-demand videos isn't sufficient to stay competitive with those possessing tangible experience. It's crucial to supplement theoretical knowledge with practical application, thus entering the crucial skill-building phase.

Quick Tip: If you're passionate about a particular topic, consider building a community with others who share your passion. The skills you acquire in fostering this community will be transferable to your product management career.

2 | Mentorship matters in skill development 

Access to mentorship is another key component of a great program experience. Mentorship is like being handed a key to a door that grants you access to individuals who have already achieved your goals and possess secrets to shortcuts, tricks, and advice to overcome hurdles you may encounter. If you encounter a roadblock in your skill-building or learning process, you can rely on their guidance for support.

During my experience completing the In The Lab Product Management program, my team focused on creating a food waste tracking system for millennial households with 2 to 3 members. With the economy experiencing a downturn and prices for goods increasing, households must navigate their financial future to stay afloat, and food waste and environmental impact emerged as a major issue.

In our fourth sprint, which involved solution ideation, our product scope was initially too broad, encompassing the entire journey from households logging their grocery lists, tracking item usage, logging wasted items, and displaying the waste’s environmental impact. With limited resources and the program requiring us to build a solution using a no-code platform, we had to refine the scope and consider addressing one issue along the customer journey.

Our assigned mentors challenged our approach to solving the issue of food waste, suggesting that if our product aimed to showcase the impact household food waste has on the environment, we should focus on the latter end of the customer journey. It was then that my team and I narrowed the scope to include waste logging, which represents the final step of the customer journey.

Our idea was to provide households with a way to log their waste, visualize their environmental impact, and access resources to further educate themselves about food waste categories. By doing so, we tackled one major problem instead of four within a 12-week timeframe.

While we entertained various ideas, including a generative AI feature, implementing them would have required additional time to learn and execute within our time constraints.

Without the guidance of our mentors, we might have allocated more time to building multiple user interfaces and backend databases to accommodate such a complex product idea with minimal resources and time.

Quick Tip: Looking for a mentor in your desired field - start engaging with professionals that you genuinely admire or share similar interests. Reach out for a 1:1 coffee chat and gradually build the relationship over time. In time, a mentor-mentee relationship will sprout. 

3 | Learn how to position your experiences from the program as value for a company 

Once you've completed a training program or bootcamp, the next step is effectively marketing your experiences to different companies to secure your dream role. When I finished the Co.lab product management training program, our team mentor advised us to position our product building experience as a startup we had founded, emphasizing our continued work on the product after the program ended.

However, I still found it challenging to determine the best way to position my experiences on LinkedIn or my resume, particularly as I felt insecure without experiences from notable technology brands.

To overcome this hurdle, I opened a Word document and listed each task I had completed in the program. To better understand the significance of my experiences, I cross-referenced real product management job descriptions at my target companies and leveraged my network to critique my experiences, showcasing my abilities as a product manager.

This exercise proved invaluable, helping me use common product terms for my resume, which increased visibility and traction when applying for roles. Whether you've enhanced member experiences within an organization or improved engagement with a product, your ability to lead and effect positive change holds value for any company. How you present and communicate that change will set you apart from other candidates.

My role as a product manager in 'In The Lab' provided me with the opportunity to put on my developer hat and build out user interfaces for our product's features. I was responsible for crafting the onboarding quiz and resource blog page. To execute these tasks, I initially used Whimsical to create low-fidelity wireframes before progressing to Figma for designing hi-fidelity wireframes. To expedite my team's understanding of the product's key components, I created instructional videos using loom to highlight the most important features and shared them with my team.

In the final four weeks, we began building each feature using Glide Apps, where I learned about relational data, enabling databases to communicate with each other on the backend for interfaces to display information from another table. This was particularly beneficial for me, as I was responsible for the resource page showcasing blogs tailored to each user's specific food waste concerns identified during the onboarding process.

Throughout this experience, I assumed multiple roles - product manager, product designer, product support, and no-code developer. The perseverance to endure the 12-week program, refining my product management skills, even during summertime when I could have been relaxing on a beach somewhere, holds immense value for teams.

Employers seeking product management talent are drawn to individuals who possess the determination to build and learn without corporate restrictions. Instead of simply stating, "Completed a product management training program to build a product within 12 weeks," I framed my experience as, "Led the technical design of the onboarding flow and resource page using Glide Apps, facilitating personalized resource access for users based on their specific food waste concerns identified in the onboarding process."

Quick Tip: Document every task and process you lead or experience in your work. Then, align your achievements with those of successful product managers by cross-referencing their LinkedIn profiles, job descriptions, and blogs. 

Throughout my journey of building my portfolio for product management, I've come to appreciate the network I've cultivated and the leadership skills that have emerged from each mistake. Most people learn best through hands-on experience, and it's crucial to find ways to put your knowledge to the test. This preparation will serve you well during interviews when you need to recall information and articulate your skill sets effectively for a particular role.

To advance in any career, mentorship is essential. It's vital to connect with individuals who recognize your potential and help you amplify it. Authentic relationships are key; don't try to force them, as the right connections always feel natural. For instance, my mentor and friend encouraged me to embrace an opportunity to moderate and produce an event for product managers. Despite my initial self-doubt, she reminded me of the value I bring to the community and the credibility of my voice. 

Maintaining confidence in your experiences is paramount, and it should shine through in all your applications. If you're aspiring to transition into a product management career, seek out programs that believe in your potential and affirm your belongingness in the tech industry.

Are you an aspiring
Product Manager? The Co.Lab program is the perfect place to gain real-world, cross-functional experience that you wouldn’t get anywhere else because you’re going to be owning a product life cycle . Follow us on on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn for the latest updates.

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