Starting in Product Management

January 29, 2019 • #

This is a brief series for those interested in getting into product management, in four parts. This first post is about how I got into this line of work and the beliefs I’ve formed over the years on the discipline. Enjoy!

I never set out of college to get into product development. I was a geography guy with a penchant for maps and wanted to learn how to make them. I bounced from an engineering major over to geography early in school because I was passionate about it, with no clue what the ultimate career destination might look like. After some time with the university IT department, managing servers, computers, and AV equipment, I joined up with a civil engineering firm and worked there for a few years.

I started out with Spatial Networks to work on building a GIS data platform. We had terabytes of GIS datasets, geotagged photos, and video content that needed organization, enrichment, hosting, and staging for our analysis work. At the beginning it was 75% GIS / data management, and 25% systems engineering / devops. Not long after getting integrated with the team, though, it became clear that our engineering group needed domain knowledge to steer the development of our software platform in the right direction. I took my technical background, mapping experience, and past work in civil engineering and other GIS projects and started to help educate our team on end-user expectations. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was my entrance into product management.

Product management requires a unique skillset to do it well; It touches many areas of a business and requires a diverse range of knowledge to do it right (and a lot of trial and error to calibrate this balance over time). A great product manager lives at the intersection of several disciplines:

  • Project management
  • Problem identification
  • Problem solving
  • Engineering
  • Communications (maybe the most critical of all)
  • Human engagement
  • Writing
  • Empathy

And I’m sure there are more you could include there. I didn’t get into this discipline intentionally, and certainly have no formal education in it. Everything I know about product I’ve learned by doing and sometimes failing. But it’s one of the most rewarding professions around. It’s excellent for someone with “build stuff” tendencies like me, but also diverse interests in the business-running aspects, marketing, and team collaboration to work in a space where flexing all of those muscles is an advantage.

In the next post I’ll talk about our first real product, Geodexy — how we approached it, what we built, and how that all shook out.