Alumni Unveil the Path to Becoming Product Managers
As part of the MS in Innovation and Management’s Career Impact Seminar Series, students undergo extensive professional development, from fine-tuning their resumes to sharpening interview skills and developing their networks.
During a recent class, three MSIM alumni working in product management virtually returned to share insights for those looking to explore a career in the field. According to research, product management jobs grew by 32 percent between 2017 and 2019, making it a fast-growing profession and popular choice for tech professionals.
The panel included:
- Rahul Chavan, MSIM ’18, Product Manager at Oracle
- Nadia Ferrer, MSIM ’19, Junior Product Manager at Amount
- Chang Ge, MSIM ’19, Product Manager Associate at Advanced Instruments, LLC
Tell us about your background and how that led to your roles in product management; what were some of your interests and how did those come together to launch your careers?
Rahul: I had a background in Computer Science and then I did the MSIM program. I feel like I have been building my umbrella product management pieces without actually recognizing it for a long time since my days in undergrad. When I started the MSIM program, I had this idea that I wanted to break into product management, but I really didn’t know what that would mean or what that job really entails end-to-end. I’m currently a Product Manager at Oracle and getting up to this point was really a cumulative effort of everything I’ve done so far including the MSIM Innovation Sprint experience.
Nadia: I originally did my undergrad at Tufts in Human Factors Engineering. A lot of what I was interested in was how products are made and how to innovate things to make them more safe, efficient, and intuitive for human use. However, during my last year of undergrad, I realized I did not want to go into the design aspect that much; I wanted to figure to how to make those products that we were researching. I didn’t know too much about product management until the MSIM program and it was really aligned with what I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to understand the business aspects of making a product.
Chang: My journey started when I was an undergrad. I was majoring in Neurobiology at UC Davis. After I graduated from undergrad, I went on to work in a research lab that studies pancreatic cancer … I wanted to go into industry, to the business world, but I had purely a science background. I didn’t know how to get there, so I started looking for master’s degree programs. [Tufts MSIM] really offered the business acumen for people who have engineering and science backgrounds.
What do your roles look like as product managers? How did you go about finding more information on what the job entails?
Rahul: Product managers, based on everything I’ve read prior to starting the job, are one of the most romanticized professions in tech right now. A majority of people graduating, especially from STEM degrees, want to immediately become a product manager … The best advice I can give is to reach out to a lot of product managers in the field to understand what their day-to-day is like … Answering the question of why you want to go into product management will help you align with what you’re seeing other product managers talk about in their day-to-day and help you differentiate yourself.
Nadia: Our job as product managers is to communicate between each of these parties within an organization to really ensure that the product is able to come together in the way that it should. A lot of that is problem solving. Our job as product managers is really unblocking the team and making sure that everything is moving along smoothly. It’s a lot of hats that you have to wear, but it’s extremely rewarding. At the end of delivering a shippable portion of a product, you’re like ‘wow we did that as a team.’
Chang: Nadia, Rahul and I are probably all doing different things because we’re in different industries or managing different products, so I would say define what industry you want to go into. When I talk to others, for example my friend in the consumer product market, she’s not doing the same stuff I’m doing. Network as much as, and with as many people as, you can.
For aspiring product managers, what are some key skills to achieve success in this role?
Rahul: You have to ask a lot of questions and that will help you do anything with problem solving, estimation, etc. A good PM is always asking questions and clarifying a lot, whether it’s speaking with engineering or your customer. Essentially, asking questions is how you tackle a problem, so that’s step number one. I’ve known a lot of PMs who don’t come from typical software engineering backgrounds but are working on software products. In fact, one of my mentors is a mechanical engineer who works on a software product and he’s one of the best product managers I know personally. The reason is that he’s an exceptional communicator and is able to clearly articulate the problem space and the customer need as well as work with all different stakeholders.
Nadia: I would say the biggest two [skills] for my role are communication and breaking down large problems into the smallest pieces possible. In the interview process, they’re looking for those skills, of course, but also, how you’re able to express and describe yourself in addition to how you’re able to sell yourself. Most interviewers for any role want to walk away knowing do we want this individual, and do we need this individual?
Chang: You may not have anyone who reports to you directly as a product manager, but you will need to communicate and work with all the other teams in an organization. I’m supporting commercial teams, R&D engineering teams, the regulatory team, manufacturing, finance, etc. You’re the center of the whole business. If they don’t know the answer to certain questions, they directly go to PMs. That speaks to the communication, but another really big skill that I think is very important is being able to go into a very vague and ambiguous situation and taking initiative to solve something yourself or collaboratively with other teams.
What are some pieces of advice you have for students embarking on the MSIM program and current students who are currently in the program?
Nadia: Please be patient with yourself. Something that I’m really noticing in the PM role is that there’s so much going on all the time. Whether you’re applying or in the role, there are going to be so many times where you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. Being open about it and really trying to make every experience a learning opportunity was so helpful for me and I’m still trying to teach myself that in this new role.
Chang: In terms of applying, start early and apply! Don’t wait until the last minute would be my key takeaway if I was in the program right now.
Rahul: I think it’s important to have fun and enjoy yourself. Enjoy the ride. The MSIM program is one of a kind and I truly believe that.