The product spotlight: conversations with experts - Crafting your career path and continually developing
Teagan O’Donovan, November 1st 2023

My name is Teagan, and I’m a Managing Consultant at ISL Talent. I specialise in product and have worked hard to build a solid network over the years. I’ve created this blog series to gather insights from high level product people and help others in the community with advice to take their careers to the next level.

In this interview, I chat to Head of Product Anastasia about everything from the current challenges and trends within the product market, how to set clear career goals and the importance of mentorship for career development.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

“I started working in the tech industry about 20 years ago. I got a degree in Computer Science and wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I took a job in QA Automation. I really liked it because it was complex low-level testing and not something that everyone could do. After that, I decided to try different roles to find my place, so I spent some time in software engineering, project management and business analysis. I was working at a company as project manager when the business hired a product manager, and I began to get curious and realised that everything the product manager was doing encompassed everything I wanted to do.

So, when the opportunity presented itself, I made a move, and I’ve been in product for more than 10 years now. I’ve worked within a wide range of industries from music to cyber security and most recently in the automotive industry.”

What are the current challenges within the product industry?  

“One obvious challenge is a downward trend on funding, with a lot of companies cutting expenses where they can. In relation to these cuts, I’m seeing product functions being sized down and people being made redundant. I mentor junior product managers who are struggling to find jobs because there are less and less roles available on the market compared to 12 months ago.

In terms of the industry, I think it suffers from a lack of diversity. Product management roles are often perceived as very extroverted, assertive and outgoing. Which mean that quieter people are underrepresented in the community. There’s also an obvious lack of gender, ethnic, racial and neuro diversity. Businesses are more aware of it than ever and a lot of companies are trying to improve things.”

What predictions do you have for upcoming trends in product?

“Of course, there’s a big hype around AI now and everyone is trying to do something in the AI space. All products sitting on a large amount of data can and should provide AI capabilities. AI technology is now mature enough to start replacing repetitive tasks at scale, or augment how we do things. The role of engineers in defining product trends is increasing. Product managers need to get familiar with AI concepts and capabilities and re-learn how to interact with engineers.

The other trend is the hype around product management itself. Big corporations have been posting product jobs with massive salaries and that sparked a lot of people’s interest. This influx of interest is good for the industry of course, but at the same time expectations of product management are becoming inflated. However, I do think this hype will die down soon when people realise the limits of the profession and maybe even find themselves a little disappointed because they are just focusing on the salary and don’t fully realise what the role entails.

There’s also a growing question ‘do we really need product managers?’, businesses are wondering whether teams can deliver without having a dedicated product manager, so I think companies are going to become more critical of this role moving forward.”

What strategies and techniques have you used to set clear career goals?

“For product managers, I’d recommend treating their career path as a product. It sounds strange but all the product management techniques are applicable to managing careers. The changing environment pushes you to adjust your ways of working, your aspirations etc. So, it’s about being clear with your goals, while also keeping your finger on the pulse and being flexible.

The beauty of the product discipline is that you don’t necessarily have to move companies and get a shiny new title every year or have the goal of CPO in mind. If you really love product management, you’ll still have opportunities for salary progression without having to go up the rungs to do it. You could stay as a Senior Product Manager for 5 to 10 years and still be progressing without a title change. It’s just about what you enjoy and what you find fulfilling.

Within product, there isn’t a benchmark for roles. Every company calls their role different things, so you could be a Product Manager in one company, but in another you’d be a Lead Product Manager. So, people in Product will move roles and, on the surface, it may look like they’ve downgraded in title, but in reality, they’ve got more responsibilities; it’s not an upwards, linear means to progression. Think about what YOU want, rather than focussing too much on the title of your role.”

I recommend doing market research every now and again even if you don’t want to change company, to keep yourself up to speed on salaries and broader trends in the discipline. If you find that current company doesn’t fulfil your aspirations anymore – make a pivot.

What advice would you give someone who is looking to make a transition into product from a different field or background?

“I think that’s really difficult to do right now, so for people who are looking to transition into product need to understand it’s going to be a difficult journey.

That being said, there are a few things you can do. First, they could look at transitioning within their current organisation. Whether you’re in support or engineering, marketing or sales you can transition into product. It’s easy to do within the existing organisation because you already have a knowledge of the clients, the market and the product. From there you can work out the product management foundations, which is largely common sense and logic.

The second thing that people can leverage is if they have knowledge of a particular domain. So if for example, I worked in telecom for 15 years, I know the ins and outs, the problems faced by the client – I can leverage this knowledge and transition to become a product manager. This specific knowledge would particularly help startups who know the problem they want to solve, but don’t have enough knowledge or experience in a particular industry.

The first advice I’d always give if you’re transitioning from a completely different space is almost to take any job in a tech company. Of course, it will be a few years before you can go into product management, but entering first as a subject matter expert and then making your move is a good way to do it.”

How important is mentorship and sponsorship in crafting a career in product management?

“I think ideally you should have both a sponsor who would help you succeed within the company, and an external mentor or even multiple mentors. That way, you’ll be able to get different views and perspectives of different companies and industries.

Particularly with a sponsor, it’s about having someone that can champion you within the business. A tricky thing with product is that product managers work with engineering teams, sales and marketing to deliver the product, but there are a very small number of artefacts where you can say ‘this was done by me personally’. Success of the product will be rightly attributed to everyone who was involved. So having a person who can champion you within the company, who understand what your impact is, helps you to demonstrate it and correctly position yourself is really important for career progression and recognition within the company.

On top of this, make sure you have people in different functions who will champion you as well. You need to build your network of supporters within the organisation and make sure that when they are asked about your performance they will shout about your achievements.

Finally, I’d recommend everyone to have a mentor. There are hundreds of mentorship programmes and most of them are free. I’ve noticed in my mentorship sessions is that in many cases it’s about giving them confidence in their decisions and reassurance that they’re on the right track. Mentors will also challenge your biases and will provide alternative opinions, based on their experience. Mentorship is a powerful tool for self-confidence and broadening your expertise.”

Get in touch

In this insightful interview, Head of Product Anastasia shared her expertise on the product management field, and how she recommends utilising both mentorship and sponsorship as a means of growth within the product industry. Anastasia also highlighted the current challenges being faced within product, advocating for greater diversity within the industry. Finally, Anastasia gave advice for aspiring product managers, encouraging them to leverage domain expertise as a way into the product industry.

These blogs are all about connecting people, so if you liked what Anastasia had to say, connect with her here. Alternatively, if you’d like to feature in a blog or would like to chat to me about product roles, drop me a message on LinkedIn here.

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