This story was contributed to TechCabal by Afeez Ajigbotosho.
Decades ago, the title of product manager (PM) was uncommon. This doesn’t mean there weren’t product-oriented roles; marketers, brand owners, CEOs, and engineering leads were, contextually, product owners. With these multiple roles taking responsibility for different parts of the product, products often didn’t solve or meet all of customers’ needs. Today, the product manager—who, if you read twitter threads, is a “mini CEO”—helps companies develop and deliver products efficiently. While the multiple product-oriented roles still exist, the product manager is something of a focal point for companies.
There are many questions about getting into this hot new role, thanks, in part, to the rock-star status of some PMs. Should you take certification courses or just jump right into learning? There are no wrong answers. Generally, the easiest and quickest route to getting into product management is an internal transfer process of some kind. Being able to create and deliver value within a team even without holding the title of a product manager goes a long way.
In Nigeria, it’s difficult to get into product management because there are few large-enough startups with the right processes capable of bringing on an inexperienced product manager; and founders—rightly—still want to be involved in the nurturing of their product since they often understand the problem they are solving better than anyone else on the team. Onboarding could take months before the product manager can even begin to deliver value to customers. . Importantly, nascent startups are also fighting to stay afloat in a turbulent market, so it’s often not urgent to hire a product manager since product-market fit hasn’t been obtained yet.
The difficulty in getting into startups as an inexperienced PM has made product management schools the go-to since they can simulate actual and almost hands-on product experience. When choosing a product school it’s important to choose one that offers hands-on and real-world product development simulations either by placing the product manager within development teams or even offering internship placements. When I started out working as a product manager, I read a lot and completed quite a few certification courses so they definitely have immense utility.
Yet there’s a helpful counterpoint: the more clarity I had about my responsibilities, the less important these courses were. What does the customer want? How do they want it? When do they need it? These questions influence the entire product cycle and it hardly matters if you achieve these goals using a lean or agile product management methodology. When it comes down to brass tacks, what really matters is product efficiency and customer satisfaction.
Additionally, as a tech operator mistakes are common and these mistakes are learning points when building a resilient product. With product management courses these experiences are not available and generally do not offer these types of curveballs when building products. In my current role as PM at a fintech startup, a ton of things change everyday: payments fail, payment partners change the rules without warning, and you’re always trying to stay on the right side of complex compliance and anti-money laundering guidelines. This is the backdrop against which we are building for a diaspora market with customers who have unending needs. Amid these constant changes, one big lesson is that customers are the best teachers when you pay attention to them. They know what they want, how they want it and why they want it. My job is to guide them and to help them articulate their problems better and another part of my job is discerning when to listen and when not to listen.
What my experience has shown me is the power of consistency when it comes to learning and working on a product. You become what you do over the years, and it’s important to remember this when you work in technology startups which may not strictly define job roles and pull you in whatever direction survival or growth is dependent on at the time. If you learn one thing, at the end of the year your knowledge and skill compound, and as the years go by, you become an experienced and better product manager. So, if you don’t have a ton of experience and you’ve been thinking about getting into product management, your primary takeaway should be that it’s okay to start small.