Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How did YOU get into Product Marketing?

I'm hosting a session at the Silicon Valley Product Camp on 24-March, entitled "How to Break Into Product Management and Product Marketing" and I'd like your input (and some voting help, too!).  Neither Product Marketing nor Product Management are degreed or certificated disciplines which begs the question: How do you become one? 

This became an obvious question to me during last year's Product Camp when I was approached by an attendee looking for advice on how to get a product management job.  I mentored him over a period of weeks, helping him update his resume to better reflect his PM skills and experience, how to work with recruiters, etc.  He eventually landed a PM gig a few months later and is happy in his new role.  This got me thinking about all the other attendees looking to get into the profession, my own circuitous path and those of some others I know.

My Own (Brief) Story

Not to bore anyone too much, but here's my own story.  For years I thought that I was a sales guy, though I hated cold calling and sucked at hard-core negotiation.  What I found, though, was I was good at channel sales - where you get people who don't work for you to work for you - and creating the marketing and sales materials my channel partners needed to be successful.  I knew that's what they needed because I often created my own materials when I was selling.

My last year carrying a quota was eventful.  They raised my quota 3 (!) times during the year and I was still 180% of the final number.  After the third quarter in a row coming home from Urgent Care with bronchitis, my wife said very clearly, "Don't get me wrong.  I love the money but I'd much rather have you around to spend it with me."  Quite fortuitously, the company shut down the channel role I had and moved me into a role they called Solutions Architect.  I wound up doing all sorts of Product Marketing stuff for a very technical team and discovered that was really my calling.  I've been doing it ever since.

Another Story

Another very effective product marketer whom I had the pleasure to work with had a different route to the profession.  When I first met her she was in the training group of a software company I joined.  She spent most of her time writing sales training materials, working closely with the PMM group and eventually creating new materials on her own.  She was an elementary school teacher by trade who moved into training when her job got cut.  She also found her calling in product marketing and is now doing well at a large media company in their interactive division.

Your Stories, Please

So now it's your turn.  Please tell me how you got into product marketing or product management and what skills or experience helped you make the jump.  I plan to use this as background information and advice for my session attendees. (If it gets enough votes. Hint, hint!)



  1. My journey is a tale of doing stuff I enjoy and drifting into new areas with no sense of career planning or foresight.

    But looking back it makes total sense to me.

    Left University with a management/maths degree.

    First job hired to assist management / strategy planning, but they needed someone to work on computers. that got me into IT for many years. I loved building stuff, but it was frustrating seeing business not knowing how to make best use of it. So I focused more on IT/Business account management.

    Kept on moving up the IT hierarchy and needed a change. Big adventure next. From selling IT internally to business, I left UK for Silicon Valley as a product manager helping them with a new line of business-focused products for their IT technology.

    They had no product marketing, so I ended up doing a lot of that even though I did not know it was called product marketing.

    1. Giles,

      Thanks for jumping in and helping out a mate!

      I can relate. My take is that "Product Marketer" is what you are (like a teacher or a cop) more than what you do. Not sure any kid has ever said they wanted to grow up to be one, though.

  2. Hey Tim, fun post. I'm not a product _marketing_ guy, but I am a product (management) guy. Happy to add my story to the mix.

    I was doing custom software development for enterprise clients (ERP, with "more customization" than you would imagine for a COTS product). My title was often "technical consultant" and the nature of the role was to be "on-site development" with the client. Really, about 1/3 of the work was requirements elicitation, and the rest was coding and design work.

    At some point, the vagueries of staffing projects put me in a role where I was doing 100% requirements work (with others on the team writing the code), and I was hooked. From there it was program management, reporting to a product manager. The way we split the work was that his focus was "across customers, over time" and mine was "for this customer, right now." I knew then that the next step for me would be product management - understanding the "problems that scale" - the ones faced by multiple customers - became my focus.

    1. Understanding the "problems that scale." If you could teach that concept to some executives that might be your next stop. (And you'd make a lot of money) The short sighted focus sometimes can be maddening. Different topic though.

    2. Scott,

      Thanks for the post. Yours seems to be a common route but also, knowing your mindset and your comment about 'problems that scale," I can easily see how it's your calling.

  3. Tim, here's my path:
    Graduated from university and got an EE gig doing what I wanted, building the highest of tech HDTVs in the early 90s for government and medical apps. I met a product marketing guy and thought his role was pretty cool. He was out talking to customers, understanding their problems, and then coming back to the office to spec out next generation products. I had a lot of fun dreaming up ways to prototype and simulate stuff he wanted to prove.

    Fast forward 5 years and a semiconductor manufacture was looking for a software product marketing person during the dot.com bubble formation. I had no software experience, I had no marketing experience either. I thought I had very little chance at the position. I was really just seeing if I could get into the company because I wanted to do their app support. Well I did get hired. The whole reason was that I used the competition's products and was a customer of theirs. My boss wanted that insight to the customer. So I started down the technical product marketing path.

    TPM at the company was a hybrid. It was classified as inbound marketing. Not knowing enough about what the different roles were (product manager, product marketing, product marketing manager, program manager, project manager, product planner, etc.) I embarked on a self education that continues today about these product roles. Ultimately I realized that my strengths were doing product management. I also wanted to keep some connection to the technical side. Pure marketing seemed too expendable, IMO.

    What I've come to realize is that everyone sort of gets or can conceive what marketing is. Product management, because they don't understand, it is expendable. This is a shame in some ways. In others though I'd rather go where it is understood, appreciated, and a valued part of the team.

    Sorry for the long path and soap box comment or two.

    BTW, I have gotten the question about how to get into PM several times as well. My suggestion is to work your way into it. The dumb luck that I had has past. You worked your way into it. I've had a person or two lament about a marketing need they see. I've dangled the "take the initiative" carrot in front of them to see what they'd do. They are afraid of doing someone else's job or stepping on a toe. I explained there is some social grace you have to approach this and couch as assisting someone. Who's going to fight a hand at making them look good? People will see though and eventually you'll get the tap.

    Good luck with the session.

    1. Larry,

      Excellent points and a wonderfully colorful path, as well. Product Management is not well understood in the main but how much of that is individual product managers not executing on "Self as Product?" They spend time on defining how & what a product needs to be successful, ignoring the fact that they are a product themselves.

      That's probably fodder for another post but is also part of the premise for the #svpcamp presentation.

    2. Hmmm, "Self as Product". Great concept, but I suspect it is hard to accomplish in practice. The fact that even with a fluid role description, Product Managers are one armed paper hangers, too over taxed, and over extended to polish this message.

      I suspect that what you really need to do is find a senior level management leader, and work to get them to help promote your highlights.

      BTW, Self as Product leads to a poor acronym, "SaP"

  4. Tim,

    Great post and thanks for sharing your story.

    After getting an engineering degree only to figure out that I didn't want to be an engineer, I was lucky to get a start in IT through technology consulting. After spending close to a decade doing everything from software development to enterprise architecture planning, I wanted to move to more of a business related role.

    I took the business school route to make the change and after finishing changed to a product management/marketing role.

    It wasn't the fastest path but it is the one that got me here!


    1. Josh,

      Thanks for commenting. How many other people get their degrees, only to find they don't want to do that but just stay miserable?

      How did the business school degree help you make the move? Was it some quality you brought to the table or an equalizer?

    2. I think I could have made the move at some point without business school but in my case, it helped accelerate the progress.

      I did debate going back to consulting but the idea of being a part of the team that was responsible for bringing new products to market sounded too good to pass up.

  5. Hi Tim,

    I am neither engineer nor marketer but somehow fell into Product Management after managing a Billing and Fraud Team for Australia's largest ISP.

    During my time, I enjoyed improving the product's billing capability and somehow my next role after about 4 years in billing was in Product Management.

    Having studied Economics at University, Product Management was far from my universe of economic theory, public policy and econometrics.

    But the reason I walked into Product Management was my passion for delivering great customer experiences and strong subject matter knowledge about ISPs.

    In my early days as a Product Manager, my knowledge about the Product Management professional domain was pure gut feel. I 'somehow' knew that we had to create a product that was better than the competitions'.

    I now run a Product Management consultancy business. Go figure!


    1. I love the varying paths into our profession. Adrienne, I bet the management accounting and econometrics background and perspective really helped you with figuring out "what's important" and how to measure it. :)

    2. That's the first I've heard of an economist coming into PM. Makes it easier for building a business case, I should think!

      Thanks for posting.

  6. Hi Tim,

    My story is pretty straight forward I believe.

    In the final stages of receiving my Bachelor Degree in IT I landed a position as a UX Designer at a small software company in Delft (the Netherlands).

    After a few years of steady growth in that role, ultimately being responsible for the core product and working directly with the Dev team, I kind off rolled into a product management job. The company was adding another business vertical to their portfolio and needed a PM.

    After 1 1/2 years I landed a job at a global classifieds company, and I've been learning ever since.

    My path to becoming a PM is one I hear often here.

    The thing that strikes me is that, in my opinion, the PM role does not 'require' a pre-defined degree or education but more of a personal skill-set that makes someone qualified to be a PM (if that makes sense).

    Good luck with your Product Camp!


    PS: For some reason I cannot sign in with anything else then an old training blog ;) So don't pay much attention to that :)

    1. Martijn,

      Thanks for the comment. And yes, it does make sense that there are many paths but several core skills sets or personality traits that are key for both product management and product marketing. You have to like solving puzzles, you have to be able to write, listen and present and you have to enjoy tech but you don't have to be an engineer.

  7. Tim,

    Great topic. My journey began benignly. I was a process engineer at a wafer fab. I was the "instrumentation" guy, so I would start up new analytical gear that we bought, and develop recipes and processes. One day I was doing source acceptance, and I made an offhand comment about how I knew more about the machine that I was testing than the people from the vendor did, that they should hire me. Naturally they did.

    I spend 2.5 years as an applications engineer. Flying around the world, working with engineers (our customers and users) to qualify, and setup their new systems. Got a great feel for how to live in the shoes of a customer/user. We didn't call it UX back then, but I certainly lived it. The turning point was the development of a new product. It was a very small company, and it was without a doubt engineering lead. They had solicited input from one customer, but were building a product that had no attractiveness outside this one customer. I fought, wheedled, pleaded, but in the end, it was a turd.

    Almost magically, at this time I got a phone call from a recruiter for a "Product Marketing Manager" position. I jumped at the chance, and 15 years later I am still in product marketing/product management land.

    1. Geoff,

      Thanks for the story. There's that "I didn't plan to be a PM but now I are one" theme again. Like Martijn said, it's more like traits and skills and predisposition than training.

    2. Funny, I was looking through my blog postings on my origins, POSITIVE that I had told this tale before, but came back empty. Will have to rectify that. The career after the first role has been quite interesting.

  8. Interesting that nobody started out wanting to be in marketing...

    I graduated from the best program at the best engineering school in Canada - the idea was that I would be a programmer. I realized the world is full of talented programmers and competing with them every day kinda sucks. I knew I was a better communicator than the guys in my class but I had no idea what a communicative engineer could do after graduation.

    I took a job in QA because they made me the highest offer and I had debts. QA stank so I looked around the company trying to figure out who had the best job. The product managers seemed to be having a good time - flying around talking to customers, negotiating with development and marketing (I thought those marketers were a bunch of fluffy dough heads) and the exec team. I unsuccessfully lobbied to transfer into product management and when they turned me down I jumped ship to a small software company as a "Technical Evangelist" A couple of years later I was running product marketing and it's been a really good ride so far.

    At a certain level I stopped being a product marketer and started just being a marketing exec (with PR, comms, product marketing, sometimes product management, AR, sales enablement, etc. reporting in to me). So I guess in the end I am one of the dough head marketers. Funny how that all works out :)

  9. Hi April, I too started out wanting to be a marketer, and still am "of sorts" in product marketing, long story.

    I began work a few years out of college as a technical consultant in several large organizations. Later started my own firm, doing the same consulting but for smaller companies (those without people like me on staff).

    Sales automation projects brought me back to being an employee and to my first PM position. Loved the work, and the strategic elements, but yearned still for the customer stories and interactions. Voila! a start-up recruited me to head a team as a product marketing director.

    It appears we both are dough head marketers in the end!

    1. Karol,

      So long as that dough is the $$$ kind, that makes it okay. :-)

      Thanks for putting in your story. Glad I'm not the only one who 'found' his way to the profession.

  10. My story is that I have been working in the business software industry for more that 20 years in all kind of jobs: as a trainer, implementation consultant, sales consultant, product manager, service manager and sales manager. So I've seen the whole spectrum with the prospect/customer in the middle. Although I liked my sales job my added value lies in the INTEGRAL role that I had as a product manager. And as long as I had experience in all disciplines my real value is that I can make the connection between those disciplines with the product in the center. That's why I decided to return to my old job: product management and I enjoy it.

    1. Jan,

      Thanks for adding your story. That whole product/customer view is important. It's also satisfying to be doing what you know you enjoy and are good at.

  11. I feel so inadequate, compared to the brilliance of the minds who have posted before me. See, I have a degree in Sociology. Yes, a liberal arts degree. I didn't come into the world of product management/product marketing from the technical side - I came up through marketing.

    I started my career in non-profit administration (was a director at a Chamber of Commerce) which led to work in public/media relations that somehow led to putting a client online when I figured out "what the web thing can do." I soon realized that "that web thing" was more effective than brochure-ware, and learned it mattered that you spoke to your visitors differently. Somehow that became messaging and positioning and next thing I knew, I was in the world of product marketing. From there, it was a smooth transition to product management and I have floated between the two ever since.

    I don't know if anyone ever strives for a career in product management/product marketing. I believe that most product professionals fall into it because they have the right mix of skills, talents and abilities.

    But, it's been a fun and wild ride - never know where it may take you next.

    1. Jennifer, I think you're spot on with "right mix of skills, talents and abilities."

      Also - one of the better (hi-tech product) product managers I know has a degree in history.

  12. Tim,

    I never knew what Product Marketing was all about till the day I was told by my boss that, after spending many years as a field marketer, I needed a new challenge and that I was going to be put in charge of that department.

    My first reaction "why would you want me to write datasheets"? they are boring and no-one in the field use them.

    His answer: "That's exactly why we need you. You understand the field better than anyone. You also continuously annoy the Product Managers by asking the same question: why would someone want to pay for this feature. And you don't have the choice, this is your new role".

    Little to say that I had no idea what the role would entail and how much I would enjoy being a product marketer.

    I still ask the same question to my PMs and I spend most of my time putting myself in the buyer/users' shoes.

    Good luck with PCamp.

    - Bertrand

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  14. Anyone looking to help out a recent college grad who is interested in either product marketing/management?