The unlikely origin of my career in product management: a jazz band
Almost every week someone asks me how I got started in product management. This is a good question, as there is no single path or prerequisite required to become a PM.
The answer I usually give is: after majoring in analysis and interning in a web position, I started my career in a technology leadership training program for new graduates with a focus on product management. It’s technically the truth, but it seems spurious – because I know I started honing my product skills years ago, in the basement of a freshman residency at Babson College.
When I arrived at Babson College in first grade, I brought everything I needed: clothes, toiletries, snacks, a soft blanket, and my vibraphone. However, my excitement about joining the school orchestra was quickly dashed when I learned that Babson did not in fact have any school operated bands. So I pushed my 70-pound instrument up the hill to the arts office and talked to the staff about the possibility of making one. They agreed to provide access to group equipment, rehearsal space, and funding if I could help put a group together.
That spring, the Babson Music Collective was launched with four musicians. I didn’t know it at the time, but the next three years of running a small campus group would teach me many real-world skills that I would need to thrive in my product career.
How to stand out in your first product management interview
- Creatively leverage past experiences where you’ve identified the right issues to solve.
- Show the hiring manager how you brought the right solutions to life.
Skill 1: How to Influence Others When You Have No Formal Authority
For full-time students, the jazz band was not our top priority. But it was something we were passionate about, so we had to balance the rehearsals with competing priorities. As a group, we decided that a two hour rehearsal per week would be required to perform in the shows. We then had to hold ourselves (and the new band members) accountable for our commitment to the band by aligning with the goal of putting on a great show every month.
Professional product managers spend a great deal of our time building relationships and aligning stakeholders and engineering teams. Although product managers have no formal authority, we can use shared goals and responsibility to build trust and influence others. My time in the group has taught me to meet my colleagues at the intersection of our values to accomplish our common goals.
Competency 2: How to achieve product-market fit
I can tell you from experience that jazz is not a hot musical genre that kids listen to these days. At our first gig, we performed in front of an audience of four, and all of them were our roommates. We quickly realized that no one would come to our shows unless we changed something.
First, we moved our shows from the theater to the school pub. The pub was a relaxed environment with food and drink, where the students enjoyed socializing and relaxing after a long day. Second, we adjusted our setlist. We’ve incorporated jazz-inspired 90s pop, rock and grunge into our standard jazz setlist. Almost immediately our monthly concerts drew crowds of over 50 people, pushing the pub to capacity! It only took a few modern songs in our set to totally change the mood of our concerts. Over time, we have built a real fan base on campus.
I learned that it didn’t matter that we were the best (and only) music group on campus if we didn’t deliver an experience that our clients (the students) were looking for. The same goes for product management: it is imperative that we find the problems worth solving and bring the best solutions to the market.
How I capitalized on these experiences in a product career
When I interviewed for product management positions as a new graduate, I worried that I didn’t have enough experience to differentiate myself from other new graduates interviewing for the same roles. During my interviews, I looked for creative ways to leverage my experience in problem solving and influencing others while leading the jazz band to demonstrate my product skills. I am convinced that this experience, coupled with relevant courses and internships, was a major factor in landing my first job in a product.
Product management is a difficult career path to take. Recruiters are often looking for an experienced unicorn who can do it all. To make matters more difficult, there is no set standard for the certifications or degrees that a product manager should have.
To set yourself apart from other candidates, creatively leverage past experiences where you identified the right issues to solve and show the hiring manager how you brought the right solutions to life.