Nnamdi Azodo is a Senior Product Manager at FairMoney. He has worked as Head of Product at Alat, NIgeria’s first digital bank. Nnamdi transitioned from doing loan analysis to becoming a skilled product manager. Nnamdi shares his experience which would be helpful to everyone seeking a career in product management.
There is a perceived notion that it is difficult for beginners in product management to land their first role. About a few days ago on twitter I asked aspiring product managers to share their career challenges and it turned out that most people said their biggest problem was landing an internship or junior role in product management. Outside of twitter, a few people have also been asking me this question, how do I land my first product management role?
I agree that there’s some sort of difficulty in landing a first job as a product manager. Let’s say you want to apply scrum in working for a project. In a typical squad, if you’re using scrum, it recommends less than 10 people. In that 10 people, you’d most likely have one product manager, one scrum master, and the rest will be developers. So that is like 10 percent of the team being the product manager. So for every one product manager hired, about 9 developers are hired. This sort of makes it difficult for people to break into the field as product managers.
There’s also the unexplainable opinion of some people who claim that they don’t need product managers as some untrained members of the team could just handle the product management. That’s like attempting to build a house without an architect and just sets the team up for disaster.
In addition it’s also very difficult to measure what young product managers will bring to the table. For Developers, you can look at their codes and confirm that it runs and doesn’t break. For user experience designers, you can look at their design portfolio. What do you look at for a young product manager?
Personal Journey to Becoming a Product Manager
I did the compulsory 1-year National Youth Service after graduation at a Bank in Lagos. After the service year, I was asked to stay back, working as a loan analyst. I did that for about 3 years while trying to read up and understand everything I could about the job. After 2 years, I was starting to feel uneasy even though I kept on trying to do my best. About the third year I came about some consultants that were talking about digital stuff, software engineering and product management.
Back then product management was not as organized as it is now with structured physical and virtual courses available. At that time, they were just scattered bits of information across various platforms of the internet. So, I had an idea but not the entire picture of what it entailed. In December 2015, I walked into the office of the head of department and told him I wanted to be a product manager. He agreed to do something about it and that I could start as a product manager the following year in January. So he said I’ll oversee some part of the loan book as a product manager. Unfortunately I didn’t know a lot about product management and I had not expected him to accept. So, January 2016, I started my role as a product manager.
Tips to help you land your first job as a product manager
My experience might not be the same for everyone because different routes lead to the market. The first and easiest place to get a product management role is within the organizations where you work. Let’s say you work as a customer service personnel in an organization, you can read up a bit about product management, take some courses and align it with your customer service skills.
These skills could be your ability to interact with customers. You can assess these skills and figure out how to use them to help your organization and the engineering team as a product manager. Go straight and ask just as I did. I know it might not be so easy for some people but that’s the first thing I recommend. The worst that could happen is that you’ll get a No and you’ll go back to your desk and continue your job.
For getting a job in an external organization, I recommend two steps to get you started
1. Take a product management course
Firstly, take a product management course. Thanks to Ingressive for Good, a good number of people have access to entry level product management courses. I am not particular about the course you take or the institution you take it from because the real learning of product management is on the job. There are some free certification courses that are also useful. The certificates will be the evidence that you have gone through the training.
If you check my Twitter profile I compiled notes from a product management course I teach. It’s a pinned tweet on my page and you can feel free to download those notes. It would be a guide to help you get basic understanding about product management.
2. Apply to different companies
After this, you can go ahead and start applying to different companies. However, the companies you are applying to also receive a lot of other applications. So how do you stand out? I have been a preacher of permissionless work. Last month I ran a PM challenge on twitter. It was simply to get people under a 7 day period to pick a company or product that they like, carry out user research, find out improvement suggestions, then prepare a deck or video and share with the company itself. The whole idea behind that is to encourage you to do jobs that you don’t have to take permission from anyone to do. Create a product from suggestions, create a user flow. Do research for companies that you want to work for.
A few people who participated in the PM Challenge did some impressive user research and about 3 of them reached out to me that they have gotten jobs from those companies that they reached out to. Say for example, you’re interested in working for Piggyvest, instead of just sending your CV to them you can study PiggyVest, interview other users and find out the challenges they have and craft out a solution. You could go to the app reviews on playstore and note the common issues people complain about, interview people and discuss solutions to help the product solve user problems, improve user perception or grow their customers. Put this together and share with the company or better still put it online. Post it on twitter, linkedin or publish it on medium.
The backstory to my getting a job is this. After my first year as a loan analyst, I did a study on the loan portfolio and found a pattern of people that are more likely to default, pay etc,. And gave a report suggesting a way to handle that. This included dynamic prices which are now very common. I submitted this report to the head of the department who I later went back to and asked to become a product manager. So go ahead and do such work without permission.
Imagine two people seeking for a product management role and one person carries out a detailed report and submits a solution alongside with his/her application and the other just sends a CV. Who do you think would be hired?
3.Share your work online
I also recommend writing about your experience online, sharing what you know and what your interest is. It is underrated on how the internet can open the doors of opportunities to people. You can decide what you want to do with your social media handles but it helps to make it a little bit more professional and talk about the things that are relevant to you.
You also need to be very specific about where you’re interested in working. For the past 15 years I have been working in financial companies and I might not be the best candidate to work in a healthtech company. But if you have experience in the health sector, or you have your undergraduate degree in a health related course you might be more suitable for a health tech role as a product manager. So figure out where you fit more, where you have more advantage and then focus your applications on those areas.
Applications and job interviews
I notice that a lot of people wait for companies to be hiring before they apply. Many times by the time you hear there’s an opening they usually have a lot of applicants already and probably some candidates in mind. So clean up your CV and share. You never can tell when they’ll be hiring or thinking of hiring.
I also observed that when people apply for entry level or junior product management positions, they take the same CV and apply for the same job in different companies. When you see a job opening, write out all the job requirements and figure out how your current skills and experience speaks to that job requirement and once you’re done writing those things out, take your time to update your CV.
You need to be prepared for the interview. This applies whether the interview is physical or virtual. Besides reading up for a company and the role, you need to actually prepare for this role. From my experience sitting both sides of the interview table, most product management interviews follow a similar pattern. Either you’re being asked an estimation question or a metrics question or a problem solving product improvement question or a design research question. You need to practice for each of these. An example of an estimation question is how many bank accounts are there in Lagos? On the surface, it’s difficult to say the exact number. The interviewer is not looking to hear the exact number rather how you approach complex questions and your thought process. You can approach this by mentally estimating the population of Lagos as perhaps 20 million people. Let’s say half of those people are 18 and above, that becomes 10 million people. Financial illiteracy level is about 40 percent so you can assume that only 60 people are included in the financial banking systems and have bank accounts in lagos. This is hypothetical. So you need to figure out how to approach such problems similarly
There’s a very common metrics question. For example you’re the product manager for Kuda overdraft. What are the metrics you’ll use to measure how the overdraft is performing? Another would be product improvement questions like: Suppose you’re the product manager for debit cards on the fair money app, how would you suggest we improve these products. First you get clarity. What in particular are we trying to achieve here? Are we trying to get more people to request and activate the debit card or to get more people to start using the cards they already have? After this, figure out a way to solve it. You’d also have product design questions like what’s your favorite product and how do you improve your favorite product. These questions require you to have prepared a pattern before this time.
On my profile on twitter, there’s a link to a free guide to product management interview questions and answers. Check that out and share to others who’ll need it.
Q. What advice would you give for one with an Art background and wants to become a product manager?
One very good thing about product management is that it doesn’t require any specific background. One of my product managers in the past studied child education and did really well in product management. So, irrespective of your background, I’d suggest that you put into practice the principles in the presentation
Q. Must one have design skills e.g UI/UX to be a PM?
You mentioned doing non permission work for companies you desire to work on before you apply. How do you advise we go about it in a way that wouldn’t take too much time to achieve? Because doing that for each role might be a bit stressful
I suggest you time yourself. Maybe, give yourself 1 or 2 weeks to start and finish. That said, good things take time.
Q. How can a PM successfully define their scope of work in a company inorder not to find themselves doing what is not related to their role?
You can only try. From experience I can say that things will pop up. The goal is to limit interruptions not to stop them. Product Managers are usually dragged in different directions since the role is a cross functional one.