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In this discussion chock-full of gems, Jae Taylor, Founder of Mentor Mesh shares how he’s managed to become quite the Product Manager – GPM at Twitter, Senior Product Manager at Microsoft, Director of Product Management at Salesforce, Senior Director of Product at Peleton, and Engineering Manager at Expedia. All these coming from a very non-traditional background!
At Co.Lab, we’re no strangers to techies with non-traditional or even non-technical backgrounds. We’ve written about a wide range of them, from Muse, who pivoted to Product Management following a degree in Economics and Psychology, and Helen, who got a degree in Earth Sciences, before she became a Product Manager. But when we found Jae, who went into Product Management without any Bachelor's degree, we had to talk to him. If you were still on the fence about it, here’s your sign that you belong in tech, regardless of your current path.
When Jae began his career, he didn’t even know what Product Management was. He was an entrepreneur with a problem solving attitude. However, in executing his business, he found that he was always stuck on the ‘why’. “Why are we doing this?” “Why are we doing it this way?” And in going down the rabbit hole of ‘why’s’, he discovered Product Management. As he moved to bigger companies, he realized that his interest in answering ‘why’s’ and in talking about strategy, getting to know the customer, and working out a solution made him a Product Manager.
Jae finds it important to first of all ensure that aspiring Product Managers know what they’re getting into. He describes Product Management as “...influencing without authority. A Product Manager owns everything yet controls nothing”. This is why he believes that your entire success as a Product Manager is hinged upon people.
Obviously a lot of framework and domain knowledge is used in Product Management, but a very large chunk of your work, especially if you work for a bigger company, is marketing. So you have to get good at meeting people and relating with them if you want to thrive.
‘People’ in this case refers to your team/colleagues, your mentors, and your customers. In his opinion, there is a core mindset for Product Managers and that’s the managerial mindset. Your ability to manage and make them willingly work for and execute your ideas, even if they don’t HAVE to, is the sort of relationship building that will bring you success.
The key to networking and getting to know people is to care about them first. With your team/colleagues, don’t start off talking just about yourself and what you need. Try showing a genuine interest in them, their work and their contribution to the team. Then, you can share your vision, your strategy and expectations. This way, they are more inclined to care about your timeline and make your job easier.
With mentors or people in the industry whom you’re networking and trying to develop rapport with: listen! When you reach out, don’t immediately start talking about Product. If all goes well, there’ll be time for that. And if all doesn’t go well, at least you’re not the stranger who randomly walked up to them and asked for a review of your resume.
Truth is, many people are willing to help. If you’re curious and you ask, the chances are that they will respond and share with you. People who've been in the industry for a while love to share their experiences, but you have to play the long game and ease into the process. You have to be an active listener, show up consistently, ask for advice and take the advice. You cannot come back without implementing any of the things that they asked you to, and expect to be taken seriously. And when you do take their advice, give them credit. When people feel appreciated and feel like there’s value for their time, they will do more.
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As the founder of MentorMesh, a company that has great success connecting aspiring or new Product Managers with established persons within the industry, Jae knows a thing or two about networking and mentorship relationships. His top advice on the subject: have a network of mentors.
What many of us think about mentorship is a one-on-one relationship with someone who is super invested in our career. It's the kind of mentorship where we consult and receive advice regularly for long periods of time. But that's not the only kind of mentorship.
Mentors can also be in the form of those who spare you an hour or so of their day or whom you meet only every other month. So long as you can ask key questions, receive guidance, and download all these learnings for the benefit of your career, then that, too, is valuable mentorship.
A network of mentors means that you have a number of people you can go to with your questions and receive a variety of answers. Principles will always remain principles but in unique user-case scenarios, you will get multiple responses and you’re better able to come up with a well-rounded solution.
Your mentors don’t need to be ten levels ahead of you. They could be on your level and have different experiences that you can learn from. Simply make sure to select people who know what they’re talking about. Talk to hiring managers and those that have been hired. Talk to people who have actually done the thing that you’re asking about. Mix it up - if you’re from a non-traditional background, make your mentor group a mix of people from traditional and non-traditional backgrounds.
Don’t look for just Product Managers. In the work environment, Product Managers don’t work in a team of PMs, you relate with everyone from engineers to design to comms. So build relationships with people who are not Product Managers. The more you know about what they do, the more effective your relationship building with them would be.
Don’t make the common mistake of thinking that you have to be an expert to get the role or to offer help and support. As a way of showing your enthusiasm, share what you're working on on your LinkedIn page or whatever platform you think is best. You might be a rookie but there are definitely people who have never heard certain things that you’re talking about.
Plus, when you share, companies, hiring managers, recruiters can find you. Again, they’re not always looking for experts, especially if it's an entry level role. They’re looking for enthusiasm, someone to invest in - and building in public is an excellent way to show that you have these qualities.You might have studied all the necessary material but people need to trust that you can learn and this is what publicizing yourself tells them, long before you even submit a resume.
You say you want to be a Product Manager, have you built a product? True, you’re not an engineer but there’s so much involved in building a product before an engineer comes in and that is your job. Do it because that experience counts even if you fail while at it. Interviewers want to know the mistakes you made as it lets them know that you're not going to do it again. And you don’t even need to get hired to gain this experience, hire yourself.
In tech, if you’re looking to stay in demand, you will move industries often. Acquire skills, acquire people, and take everything with a grain of salt. Everyone has different circumstances, different levels of privilege, and different needs so one person's experience may not be your experience. Gain experience, ask questions and you’ll get to where you want to be.
If you’d like an opportunity to gain Product Management experience at Co.Lab, register here. Also, watch the entire discussion with Jae and other awesome Product Managers on our YouTube channel and connect with us on Twitter or LinkedIn to join in on our next discussion.