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Becoming A Product Manager

Ari Glaizel recently completed the transition from world-class software developer to product manager. This can be a tough transition but one that often generates excellence in product management given the awareness of the development challenge the product manager would hold.

InsideSpin asked Ari a variety of questions to flesh out how this transition is unfolding:

What were the highlights of your career as a software developer?

I’ve been fortunate to have many highlights in my software development career. The obvious one to start, is the Novell acquisition of PlateSpin, and being aware of my direct contribution as a co-founder. However, to say this is the only one would be inaccurate. As a developer (and still now), I was always passionate about technology. More than that, I’m passionate about how what we can build can solve real problems. The other highlights in my career revolve around this passion. Whenever I heard of a deployment that netted a significant savings for a customer, or helped the customer get out of a very problematic situation – I felt phenomenally proud.

What peaked your interest in possibly exploring the role of product management?

I was coming to a point where I felt I wanted ‘something more’, irrespective of how senior I was becoming as a developer. If I wanted to stay as a developer, I would eventually need to choose to go down the development management track or the architecture/individual contributor track. While there were elements of both options that appealed to me (I did do a bit of both), overall they were lacking in a way that I still have a hard time describing. I came to the conclusion that I really wanted to have an impact with respect to the products but do it  without being involved with code. PlateSpin did a great job of nurturing a passionate and capable product management team  and knew very well what they do. I always had a good relationship with them and the time I spent working with them as a developer, made me think about joining them.

What have been your hardest moments so far as a product manager?

The road to PM while exciting had some memorable difficult moments. Most of them had to do with me adjusting to life as a PM.

  1. First encounter with extremely  unhappy customers - I remember heading out on my first visit to some customers to discuss their current use of the product and to discuss future roadmap. Within 20 minutes I was kicked out of the office and was told to ‘come back when the product actually works’. Clearly I had some work to do! We were able to turn this one around in the end, but I took that personally and the flight back home was a long one.
  2. Development interaction while not being a developer – When I started off as a PM, I really had to work hard to keep my development sensibilities in check. There were many times where I fundamentally disagreed with Development’s approach to an issue, and the time required to complete a task. I could not allow  my opinions to affect my decision making and my relationship with the team.

You've worked with some excellent product managers in your career, what traits did you see as their strongest?

Given that product management in most organizations touches a large number of groups and different functions in the company, I have a massive amount of respect for the ones that can fly up and down the technology and business stack in order to serve these very different activities.

Do you see yourself returning to Software Development some day? Why or why not?

I’ve made a clear choice that I want to build up a set of skills as a software professional, not just a software developer. The skills I’ve gained as a software developer, while they have been put on ice, I would never want to bury them completely. If the right idea and opportunity comes along that demands I sit down and write code, I would consider this.

What advice would you give someone who is looking to make a transition from a technical role into product management? What about those who want to come from other types of roles with less in-depth technical experience -- say marketing or sales?

The way this question is asked, it seems to imply that different answers might be expected. I feel that a very similar high-level answer applies to all of them. Product management requires that an individual has an understanding of not only the product, but the technology, how it's sold, how your customers perceive it, use it, what the competitive landscape is like (and so on) . Any good product manager needs to gain a higher level appreciation for all of these areas and truly works across many different groups in your organization.

My advice to anyone is to leverage your strength from your past experience to get some quick ‘wins’. This way, while you’re gaining trust of the people around you, you can buy yourself time and work on those areas where you lack experience. For example, citing my own experience when transitioning from Development, I made sure I worked with engineering on some smaller release deliverables in order to start gaining a reputation as a product manager. These were easier tasks for me, so I used the extra time that it bought me to work with sales and marketing in order to round out my knowledge. As well, if you can work directly with a more senior product manager, this can greatly help as they can help slowly ease you into the role, and provide you with some mentoring along the way.

What makes you a great product manager? Is this something you can learn or are most great product managers born with the required skills?

I’m a firm believer that any position is 50% skill, 50% passion.  The skill comes from experience you gain working in successful business environments with the right mentoring and coaching. The passion comes from within. If you are passionate about the market space you are in and the product that you are working on -- then you will be well on your way to be the type of advocate for product success in your organization that you would be viewed as a great product manager. I've been fortunate to work on some world-class products with world-class people who helped me develop myself as a business professional. Time will tell if I am to be considered a great product manager, but I do know that I am a product manager now and enjoying the transition I made.