Moving into Product Management

by Darcy Kelly

Darcy tells her story of using mentorship as a way to transition into Product Management…

I had been thinking about exploring product development as my next move within my company for a short time. This was based on what I saw other people within the organization with “product” in their job title do, that I liked. Some worked as middle men between the “field” and the “developers” to pass along feedback, needs, and errors. Some “owned” new products or enhancements and played the part of a subject matter expert when deploying the product to the field. I watched them present via train the trainer sessions as well as meet with clients to gather feedback. I liked the collaboration piece as well as the project management aspect.

When I was delivered news of a lay-off in January of 2018 I jumped at the opportunity to try to make the change a reality. Albeit sooner than I had planned.

I started doing all kinds of research on what non-developer related product jobs there were at my company. I searched job openings on the portal, went thru the company directory to see org and reporting structure for people I knew in product roles to see what their titles were. I looked those same people up on LinkedIn so I could see a better summary of what they actually did as well as what jobs they held before.

The questions I was trying to answer were: Does someone with my background fit the mold of people who are successful in product roles? What degrees did Product Managers hold? What certifications carried weight? I reached out to as many people as would talk to me. Where are the teams based? Can you work virtually? Who do I need to know to get my foot in the door? Is this going to be an option for me? 

Some signs said no in a pretty big way: I was told our company was moving away from remote workers. Down to 1 person per team max. I was also told that product people need to be co-located with their team and there are no product teams in my City (moving really is not an option).

But some signs did said yes: my 10 years of experience at my company, my background working in the product on a day to day basis on the front lines with Clients, my experience working in sales as a business consultant selling the products and hearing from decision makers what is important and what they need. My project management experience. My Pioneer/Influencer standout strengths. My go-getter personality. And the fact that there really isn’t a college degree that can prepare you for the role.  So I didn’t give up!

I started looking for product people in Charlotte, NC and found Misha Ghosh. Profiling Misha brought me to to one of his direct reports, Dominic Gadoury. Dominic is (among many things) a Product Management leader with 19 years of experience and mentions virtual mentoring on his linked in page. So boy did I jump on that! I reached out to both Misha and Dominic and pleaded my case. Both welcomed me with open arms. Misha all but hired me on the spot and Dominic offered to be my mentor without hesitation.

Over the next 12 months Misha and Dominic gave me the opportunity to be involved in so many exciting things: Business Development for new products, Product development for new products, Client advisory councils, and Ideation were just a few. They introduced me to the right people and exposed me to the product world. I feel so lucky to have met these two guys, but have to remind myself that I put a ton of work into all of this as well. These things weren’t just given to me. I asked for them. And I had to prove day after day that I was worthy of the opportunity. I had to juggle both these opportunities as well as my day job. I used my PTO and my own money to travel to be able to take advantage of the opportunities. I’m fortunate to have the ability and the support of my husband to do so.

Dominic and I have met at least once a week since our official mentorship started. At the beginning he was just showing me the ropes. Explaining what he does, what Ventures is, what products they were currently developing, who’s who in the organization. He explained to me what his career progression has looked like and what lead him to be in the position that he is. Not only did Dominic get me started out directly towards my goals but he made me a better person too. He encouraged me to get involved in activities that give something back to the community. He encouraged me to take chances. He asked my opinion and made my opinions feel valuable.

I also met with a few of the data scientists that were on Dominic’s team. I wanted to get to know them, understand their background, what they contribute to the product and how I would interact with them as a product owner/manager. The biggest take away I learned from the various roles within a product team is that most of the roles only know their roles. I’m sure this varies by team, tenure, etc but I’m interested to work with other product teams to see if most stay in their swim lane or if they should also try to think like a product owner. My gut says they should know the big picture.

I also met with the business development folks on Dominic’s team. The one person I met with wasn’t as willing to share information with me. He wasn’t unfriendly, just distracted maybe. Probably with trying to make sales, I get it.

In this mentorship I was also exposed to new software that is used in product management: Trello, Aha, Rally, and Jira as examples.

Here’s the list of questions/talking points I made for my first official mentor meeting I had with Dominic on April 13 2018:

How should I get started? Learn to do something. Take risks. Focus first on personas and user stories.

Where can you best help me? When can I practice? With minimal risk?  Dominic gave me a mini project to work on having to do with identifying talent supply and demand in different geo-locations.

 As part of this project, I learned about NDA’s and working with our legal team. I also learned about how data drives so much of the world we now live in. From the fluctuating cost of a hotel room to the new bus routes to the suppliers a hospital uses for purchasing latex gloves – they are all driven by data and algorithms.

I also learned how to conduct a SWOT analysis. I learned what an OKR is and how to define them.  I learned about all the Tier 1 Consultancies such as McKinsey, E&Y and Deloitte to name a few.

What would I advise others in finding the right mentor?

Dominic was my first official mentor that I didn’t know before our mentorship started.  Sure I’ve  had lots of people in my life that I’ve gone to for career advise or I’ve looked to for help in different areas – others I would call a mentor, after the fact.

I suppose there are all different types of mentors. Maybe you’re being mentored by the President of Sales, 5 levels above you. He can make time for you once a month for 30 minutes cause he’s a busy guy and has a lot of demands on his time. Maybe your mentorship is very casual and meant to build a personal relationship which might lead to other introductions.

Mine was very specific. Find someone who’s doing the job you want and willing to take you under their wing. That’s exactly what Dominic did for me. Again, I truly won the lottery in terms of finding the right person. He really took the position seriously and had a deep seated investment in my future. (Maybe he knows something I don’t? :))

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