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What Aspiring Product Managers Need to Know

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

The Harbus does a deep dive on the world of product management and shares key insights.


One of the most popular career paths historically for HBS graduates has been in the technology sector, specifically in product management (PM) roles. According to HBS employment data for the classes of 2021 and 2022, the share of students entering the technology industry has been stable at 19%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of PM jobs will increase by 10% from 2020 to 2030, but a recent slowdown in hiring and activity in the sector this year has led some to question whether the PM role is worth pursuing, and how the role compares against other popular career options. The Harbus spoke to several current HBS students to understand the ins-and-outs of the PM role and share advice on how best to succeed in the space.


What does a product manager do?

Simply put, a product manager (PM) is in charge of a specific feature or application within a product that a company is offering. For instance, Veshal Arul Prakash (MBA ’25) served as a PM at Dropbox and at a Series B telemedicine startup called Found. At Dropbox, he was initially responsible for content upload features before transitioning to handling user activation and onboarding. He explained that in this role, his primary objective was determining user needs and identifying what changes needed to be made to his “product” in order to increase user satisfaction. This involved collaborating with the core engineering and data science teams, with a dual focus on explaining the problem that needed to be addressed and evaluating various solutions that were presented.


“You need to enjoy diving deep into user needs and taking a problem-first standpoint,” Prakash said. “This role requires you to embrace meeting goals, being accountable, and leading a team, all while interfacing with senior leadership.”


Danny Delaney (MBA ’25) was also a PM, working at Caribou, a digital lending marketplace focused on automotive refinancing. Specifically, he was a Group PM, which involved leading a team of PMs. He explained that initially when Caribou was an early-stage startup, he spent 80% of his time helping remove roadblocks for his team, answering questions, and testing software. However, when he left, his role had shifted more toward building the company roadmap and ensuring ongoing projects would have a meaningful impact on business goals.


“Product sits at the nexus of almost every business function,” Delaney said. “It’s responsible for synthesizing everything happening in the company into an informed perspective on what investments the software team should make in the product given the goals of the business and the initiatives on other teams.”


Why PM?

Being a PM is a unique role, given the level of responsibility and diverse companies that aspiring PMs can work in. There are several advantages to being a PM, and students who align with these should strongly consider giving the role a look.


Nate Le (MBA ‘25) is currently in the process of recruiting for PM summer internship roles. He previously worked at a Series A fintech startup, and wants to transition to a more traditional PM role.


“I want to be a PM because I enjoy the prospect of building and iterating meaningful products that bring value to users by collaborating with members from multiple disciples,” he said.


Prakash explained that PMs are one of the few roles where you can weigh in on major company priorities while also being accountable for executing on strategy. It also provides an opportunity to work directly with users of a company’s product and work across various divisions to meet customer needs. He also noted that successful PMs can rise through the ranks and eventually join the C-suite of a company, as some of the leading CEOs in the tech industry started as PMs. PMs can also wind up in venture capital or shift to strategic roles within a company, such as in marketing or brand management.


Xinyi Ge (MBA ’25), who most recently served as PM for an eCommerce platform called Shopee, explained that one of the misconceptions of the PM role is that it’s only found in tech companies. However, she noted that one of the largest employers of PMs is Walmart, indicating that the PM role has spread to non-tech sectors such as retail and finance. This broadens the applicability of the role and provides additional employment and geographic opportunities for those with more targeted interests.


Delaney added that being a PM is one of a few roles that “makes a difference in people’s lives.” PMs get significant agency to decide what features to build as long as they can justify the problem that they’re solving.


Skills

Aspiring PMs don’t necessarily need advanced technical skills when starting out, but there are key capabilities that PMs need to succeed. For starters, Delaney emphasized a strong ability to communicate. Being a PM requires meeting with different teams across the company, managing up and down, and being able to coordinate projects. He also noted the need for PMs to get up-to-speed on the technical details of their products.


“I think the best product managers are outstanding communicators and are willing to get into the technical weeds with their engineering counterparts,” Delaney said. “They should also be well-versed on how their product is built and have an intuitive understanding of customer needs.”


He further noted that the skills required shift as a company progresses from early-stage to late-stage: early-stage company PMs need to be strong executors, whereas late-stage company PMs focus more on strategy.


Arpit Garg (MBA ‘25), who worked as a PM on YouTube’s Creator Monetization team, reiterated the need for both “hard and soft skills,” such as analytical rigor, business acumen, and an understanding of the market and competitive landscape. Furthermore, PMs need to be adept at influencing without authority.


“You depend on people that don’t report directly to you to deliver certain things at a specific time,” Garg said. “Without formal authority, you need to rely on relationship building and mission alignment.”


Ge emphasized that troubleshooting is a big part of the job, and this simultaneously requires PMs to have a clear plan to solve issues while also hewing to a specified project timeline. Meeting deadlines and milestones is important, so PMs need to be well-organized and ensure that their technical teams stay on target. She agreed with Delaney on keeping user needs top-of-mind, strong communication skills, and technical aptitude.


“Knowing how to code helps,” Ge said, but emphasized that it’s not a requirement. “It’s important to be able to understand complex business problems and translate these into technical problems for the engineers and data scientists to solve.”


Prakash added that successful PMs enjoy being in a high pressure environment and embrace accountability, along with short and long-term strategic planning.


Advice for interns and full-time hires

As HBS students prepare for internships and full-time roles, the Harbus identified a few critical pieces of advice to make the most out of the PM experience. Prakash noted that the tech industry has slowed down hiring in recent months, so it can be more difficult to find a PM role. However, job security is higher as a PM compared to other tech roles.


“Being a PM is a critical role,” he said. “The role is here-to-stay and continually evolves over time, and demand for PMs at earlier-stage companies has remained steady over the past few years.”


Le noted that he has been recruiting for roles at both large tech companies and growth-stage ventures, which requires significant networking and interview prep. The feedback he has heard from companies has been mixed - companies are hiring interns but prefer some technical background and value a referral from a current employee.


Garg emphasized that larger tech companies have over-hired in the past few years, and that it can be especially difficult for those coming with non-technical backgrounds to find a role. However, he recommended first-time PM aspirants to look at non-tech sectors, such as retail, consumer packaged goods (CPG), and travel, in order to break into the role. He added that applicants should be sure to do their homework before jumping in.


“I think a lot of people have misconceptions about what the role is,” he said. “It requires you get down into the weeds while at the same time be strategic and keep everyone aligned…and the operational nature can be jarring.”


Ge agreed that being a PM is a high-profile job and that demand for this role will be robust given the importance of startups and tech companies in the economy. She acknowledged that while it can be hard for those without prior PM experience to break into the space, getting experience at an early-stage company while at HBS can be beneficial.


Delaney explained that for those without strong technical skills, getting involved in a start-up at HBS and learning the software development process would be an invaluable experience. He noted that although one can learn the technical skills by studying, the real experience comes from doing the job and leveraging the intuition that comes with the role.


“Understanding the tech is critical to winning the respect of your engineering team, and it will make you a smarter and more proficient PM,” he said. “The best product managers are tinkerers – go tinker!”

Prior to joining HBS, Abhiram worked in Houston, TX at Ara Partners, a private equity fund focused on energy transition and decarbonization technologies. A New Jersey native, he graduated with a B.S.E. in Chemical & Biological Engineering from Princeton University in 2019. Outside of class, you can find him biking around Boston’s many trails, dominating (sometimes) at pub trivia, or trying out the local food scene.


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