As part of our Tales in Tech series we’ve been catching up with members of our tech community throughout lockdown to share the journeys, lessons learnt and advice that has helped them through their careers to date.

This month we’re focusing on the world of Product Management (PM) and sat down with Former Head of Product at WorldFirst, Dan Entwistle. Dan initially started his tech career as an Engineer before transitioning into Product and working his way up the ranks. We asked Dan whether a background in technology is essential in his role, whether paid courses are a worthy investment and the key things he looks for when hiring Product Managers. 

Tell us a bit about yourself and your role as Head of Product:

I started my career as an Engineer after I completed a Computer Science degree. When I was an Engineer, I was very interested in creating software, but as time went by I became much more interested in why I was creating it. I began to put myself in positions where I could get involved in understanding the why and influencing the what of projects. I really enjoyed it, which led to me looking for a career in product.

I’ve worked in a variety of industries: FinTech, fashion, groceries and e-commerce. I’m interested in products that have a high degree of impact on society, products that touch the core of how people live and how we can improve how we live. Right now I’m at the stage in my career where I’m extremely interested in ‘how do you create amazing product teams to create amazing products’.

Do you think having a technical background helps in your role as Head of Product?

Do you have to have an engineering background to work in product? No, you don’t, but there are a few things that help:

In PM we solve complex problems and have to think from different angles; the customer, the business and the technology. The value I get from being an Engineer previously is that I’m able to conceptualise those problems from a technology perspective, helping me to think through problems and work through solutions with the team.

As a PM your relationship with the Engineers is crucial. You have to gain their trust and respect quickly and to do that you need to be able to speak their language and understand things from their perspective. If they see that you’ve already been in their position, it’s much easier to build that relationship.

As a PM it's important to take an active interest in the technology of the product you are creating. What I mean by that is to have an understanding of how the product is built. Spend time with Engineers and question, what is the technical architecture of the product, what are the components, how does it all fit and work together? 

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your role?

The biggest challenge has been moving from a Product Manager as an individual contributor, to the Head of Product role. The main difference being, you move into a position where you’re having to not only influence groups of people to achieve results, you have to influence layers of people. I’ve learnt that communicating the purpose is much more important than ever before in my career, constantly reminding people about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and getting people motivated and engaged about it. 

How have you found lockdown and managing people whilst remote?

One of the main things I’ve learnt from lockdown is to visualise everything you’re thinking about. It’s hard for groups of people to gain a common understanding using only words, especially when you’re not in the same room as you can’t rely on non-verbal communication to get a sense of what people are thinking. I’ve found getting my thoughts out using tools like Miro, where the group can collaboratively build on them has helped a lot. I have a high emotional intelligence and that helps me a lot in my job, and this skill has been taken away during lockdown. I’m actually looking forward to working in the same room as people again!

Do you attend any meetups, or have you attended any virtual meetups during lockdown?

I go to ProductTank pretty frequently. Also ThoughtWorks run some really good leadership sessions that I’ve been to on occasion. I tend to read quite a bit and I’m often referring back to books and articles written by people like Marty Cagan, Eric Ries, Geoff Watts, Roman Pichler, and Dan Olsen. Having read The Lean Start-up when it first came out, which I would recommend to everyone, I’ve finally got around to reading The Lean Playbook which is about the practical application of the Lean Startup concepts - it’s very good. Another valuable source I’ve used during my career for exploring approaches to product discovery has been Teresa Torres’ Product Talk 

What advice would you give to someone who’s looking at starting a career in Product?

One of the hardest aspects of PM is that there’s such a wide variety of ways on how it’s practiced in organisations. The discipline is evolving fast and how to be innovative well in organisations is very rarely taught, so getting an understanding of PM knowledge and experiencing best practice is tricky.

If I were to start out now, I would read those authors I mentioned earlier to get a grounding of the profession and established best practice. I’d spend time considering what kind of Product Manager I wanted to be and what I would want to specialise in etc. I would talk to Product Leaders and build a network to find opportunities to get experience. Your current company is a great place to start. Talk to the Product Managers and Leaders about getting involved in work within your company.

If you show that you are curious, open to challenging people and their ideas, and open to contributing ideas yourself, you put yourself in a great position. My thoughts are that anyone worth their salt in Product Leadership welcomes diversity of thought and would gladly welcome people curious about PM to work on some initiatives to gain an understanding of what it’s about. In doing this remember to be pragmatic in the application of tools, techniques and approaches to PM. Lots of less experienced product people often get hung up on ideology. Remember we are here to make the business successful.

Building a trusting network is so important. It’s important when you start out to build your contacts for opportunities, but also as you gain more experience you can use the network to talk through problems with other people. Ask people to challenge your thinking. 

What about product management courses? Would you say they’re worth it?

I’ve only been on an agile best practice course myself. If you’re starting out they’re good to get a solid foundation, and later on in your career they are useful to focus on very specific topics. Courses are great to explore ideas with other people. If you’re new to PM, you can’t just do a course and expect to walk into a role. You’ll only gain real value and experience by working with the cross-functional development team.

If someone came to me as a Junior PM, I’d be looking for: are they curious, do they have a lot of enthusiasm and what’s their motivation for wanting to be in PM. I also think it’s really important to grasp the concept of lean agile product development, because living in a world of high uncertainty we need to increase the chance of knowing that we’re creating the right thing and whether customers will use and buy the product we’re creating. Understanding the principles and methodology is important to me - there are lots of books and Medium articles that articulate this really well.

A massive thanks to Dan for giving us a glimpse into the world of Product Management. We hope his insight is useful to anyone considering making the transition into Product or anyone looking to follow a similar career path. Dan’s top reading suggestions are below for anyone looking to learn more about Product Management roles:

Marty Cagan – How to Create Tech Products Customers Love
Eric Ries – The Lean Start-Up
Geoff Watts – Product Mastery: From Good to Great Product Management
Roman Pichler – How to Lead in Product Management
Dan Olsen – The Lean Product Playbook

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