How I stumbled into my dream job as a Product Manager
I still remember my first internship as a web developer. The summer after my freshman year, I entered the office of an Indian unicorn laptop in hand, ready to code and change the world.
I had just finalized my major as Computer Science and I was excited to apply and learn all the skills I could during this internship. Eventually hoping to transition into the hot fields of AI or Big data. But within two weeks, I realized this was not the role for me. I did not have the passion or discipline to pursue a role as a developer.
While I was coding, my mind always drifted into the why of everything.
Why am I coding this?
Why is this feature needed?
I wanted to learn about these features from all parties involved, communicate, and share my ideas with them. I never got the answers to those questions, the focus as a developer was always on What and How.
So after that summer, disappointed with the fact that I wasn't cut out for the most popular roles in the industry, I decided to try out other types of roles and industries. Maybe something would stick?
Two years of trials and errors ensued. I did everything from strategy consulting, digital marketing to being a business analyst. And although each role gave me valuable skills and experience, I was never satisfied.
Consulting was got me answering, my ‘Why’ questions on steroids, by digging deep into problems for the clients, but the tradeoff was my time. And to me, my time was worth more than the money, or the fancy hotels. I didn’t want to burn myself out within the first few years of my career itself.
Being a business analyst was great to exercise my communication skills. But I wasn't able to participate in the tech at all. Which was always my passion.
Digital marketing kept me closer to tech, but it was too overwhelming for me with all the parameters and strategies. It was too specific for me, and I wanted to be more generalized.
Whatever I did, something was always missing.
To be honest, I didn't even enjoy studying Computer Science in my first three years of university. There was intense competition amongst the students, the foundational courses were a huge struggle. The way the courses were graded focused entirely on a paper-based exam structure. Even after my third year, I wasn't confident about programming at all, . Only in my final year, when I self-taught myself python to create ‘allison’, my voice-based AI chatbot that performed musical therapy for individuals going through anxiety and depression, I realized that it shouldn't have been so hard. We were just learning the wrong way.
I honestly wish the way we were taught programming in university was more engaging and application-based. I would give anything to go back and relearn those things properly. But that's a rant for another time. The basic point of that digression is, that, as I crept closer to the final year of my undergraduate degree, I knew that being a developer or software engineer was not going to be a career option for me, but everything else that I tried didn't make me happy either.
So now what?
Here is when things start to get a little interesting.
In university, I was doing an additional minor in entrepreneurship, so I took some courses for it every semester. Participating in them was the one thing I always enjoyed. I was extremely passionate about activities like finding problem spaces, doing user surveys, brainstorming solutions, creating MVP and prototypes, and finally pitching it to an audience. Each aspect of this journey was extremely exciting for me.
So this means the only job I would be happy in is being a Founder/CEO…
Where do I apply for that? Which companies are hiring a wannabe CEO right out of university? Lol
As a college student, especially at an engineering-focused university, having your own startup is the dream. It means you actually had the conviction in yourself to escape the status quo and do something different. It is also one of the toughest experiences since you and your idea are constantly judged by everyone around you, including your friends, professors, and even mentors.
Since I had no other options left, I decided I had nothing to lose and started this journey towards the end of my third year. I co-founded Speccasa, an online B2B marketplace for eyewear and lenses, that focused on eliminating the middleman wholesales between the business owners in developing countries and the production factories in China.
One of my main responsibilities within the company was to get our online platform built. We hired a development firm to build it, and I was constantly communicating with them to explain the requirements, functionality, and expected UI/UX we wanted.
I loved doing this so much, my whole third-year summer flew by. While all my other friends were working in banks trying to secure a full-time job, I was actually hiring interns to help us with our work. We had to get the platform built and rush to release. Even though I was not coding, I was still heavily involved in the technical implementation, and this seemed like the sweet spot for me.
And we went live as I entered my senior year. Once the initial orders on our platform started rolling in, I decided to take a break from Speccasa, to focus on graduating from university, enjoy my final year a bit, and also explore more options.
And that's when I took Human-Computer Interaction as an elective.
Basically, this course single-handedly changed my perspective on computer science as a field of study. Programming is an important aspect of it, but that’s not all it is to it. This course gave me deep insight into the importance of user experience, design, and usability as an important complement to the functionality of any tech product or service.
We designed product roadmaps from start to finish. Nothing was off the table since feasibility was not a limitation. It was all about solving the problem at hand and dreaming about the best way to solve it.
I loved every minute of it since it gave me an outlet to show be creative in my own way. We did many fun projects like design an ordering app for restaurants, conceptualize a mixed reality wearable for hiking enthusiasts, and even used robots to help out during a typhoon.
My final project for this course, SleepSmart was voted the most innovative idea as well.
Simultaneously another interesting piece of information came to my knowledge.
While looking around for jobs, I came across the description of a
Never have I ever felt giddy reading a job description, because it literally described the exact sweet spot I was working at during Speccasa and HCI. I wanted to apply immediately.
But learning more about this role, made me realize I was getting a bit ahead of myself.
Everywhere I looked, the requirements were always against me,
- Minimum 2–3 years experience as a software engineer
- MBA or equivalent degree
- Product Management experience at a previous company
And it was clear to me that it’s not so easy to become a Product Manager.
But, here is a silver lining. If you already know, like me, that you want to become a Product Manager, many well-established companies have slowly started taking that risk with university students and hire them as an Associate PM or Junior PM immediately after graduation.
A random email in my inbox told me about a Junior PM job opening at a company that later turned out to be the biggest e-commerce company in Japan — Rakuten.
If they found the right candidate, they were willing to relocate them to Tokyo and provide them a pretty decent compensation and perks package for an undergraduate. They did have work experience as a requirement for hiring a PM, but it was honestly the only opportunity I wanted to actually try for. I hadn't applied for any other jobs aside from that.
And well, I was offered the role ten minutes after my interview ended, being selected as one of the four PMs they hired from all over the world for their team.
Fast forward to now, I just finished my tenth month as a Product Manager at Rakuten. It’s been an amazing experience. Not a single day has gone by where I am left unsatisfied with the work I do. This role is extremely intuitive for me, sometimes, and I wouldn't have been able to it any other way.
Thinking about this journey has given me a lot of time for reflection and I can say with extreme certainty that this is the job I want to do for the rest of my life.
However, this role came with two more unique caveats —
- Majority of people still don’t know what a Product Manager is
When I told someone I was a Product Manager, the majority of people, either students or not working in tech, confused it with being a Project Manager or didn’t know what it was at all. It is still sometimes hard for me to explain to them what I do since its such a versatile role and no two days look the same.
2. Becoming a Product Manager is not as straightforward as most other roles.
University doesn’t teach you how to become a product manager. Most of the skills required to be a product manager are inherited through experiences and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone while having a deep passion for creating positive change through technology. And as a potential candidate for this role, you are expected to showcase all these skills within the limitations of the recruitment process.
So what's the point of this Tanmay?
If you have read until here, I salute you. It was a long read, and maybe you are wondering why I would write this.
Well… Based on the above two insights and gaps in people’s knowledge about this role, I wanted to start this series of articles.
Although I am no authority or champion of product management, I do love this role and wish to promote it amongst my network and further from my point of view.
A CS graduate turned product manager right out of university and exploring this field from a youth’s perspective.
I want to talk about what my definition of the role is, what my day-to-day looks like, and what you can expect in this role, and maybe even how to apply for these roles and prepare for them.
Further and more importantly, I want to talk about the skills one needs to do well in this role, and what are some good ways to enhance those skills.
So if you read this and found yourself at the same place as me, stay tuned for more detailed stories. Feel free to reach out to me and we can chat more about careers, tech, or even life in general.
And finally, if you are looking for a career as Product Manager, you can also reach out to me for a referral. We are one of the few companies still hiring actively during COVID!