Path to PM is a series of interviews with product leaders about breaking into product management. In this session, we interview Jim Semick, co-founder of ProductPlan. ProductPlan develops product roadmap software for product managers.
1. How did you break into product management?
I've been in product management and new product development for about 15 years. Before that, I had a background in corporate training and technical software documentation. That experience gave me really great skills for becoming a product manager.
Like most product managers, and I actually do think it's most product managers, they "fall" into product management. Rather than actually seeking a product management role, they're working with a product in some other capacity and then they stumble into a product management role. And that's exactly what happened to me. I fell into product management, discovered I loved it, and been doing it ever since.
2. What did falling into product management look like for you?
I started working for a startup in Santa Barbara. Their current product was failing, and they came to me and said they had an idea for a second product, but first, they wanted to ensure their new product would be successful. So they tasked me with market validation work. I was responsible for finding potential customers to interview, conducting the interview, leading a small team to discuss our findings, and eventually writing up the product requirements document (PRD) for the solution.
That product turned out to be GoToMyPC which was one of the very first software-as-a-service (SaaS) products in the market. And this was in the early 2000s so SaaS was a novel idea. I thoroughly loved the process. I enjoyed going from a complete blank sheet of paper to developing a minimum viable product with messaging and pricing validation for it. That for me was so thrilling. Fortunately, the product was successful, and I went on to become the first product manager for GoToMeeting, which eventually got acquired by Citrix Systems.
3. How has product management changed since your first PM gig, which was over 15 years ago?
When I first started, there wasn't a path for a product management career. The role of product management wasn't well known. There were project managers and program managers, but only a few product managers. Since then, the role has become more well-known, more formalized, and there are more resources available for product managers.
I also think the process around product management has changed substantially. When I wrote the product requirements for GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting, we were developing the software using the Waterfall Methodology. This process was slow, and required long back-and-forths with the engineering team. In today's world, that model is completely changed by Agile Methodology, with a focus on launching and iteration, which is a far quicker process, and allows a lot more flexibility and discovery.
4. Why is ProductPlan something product managers need now more than ever?
We solve a few key problems that all product managers have:
- Communicating the strategy widely within the organization so all stakeholders are on the same page.
- Getting alignment around that strategy to begin with. Why are you developing certain features?
ProductPlan helps formalize the process of prioritization and communication. For VPs and Directors of Product, their problem is standardizing a process within the organization, which ProductPlan also helps with. This better process not only helps develop a better product, but also saves hours of time every month.
5. What are some of your top questions for assessing a product manager's ability?
I never ask questions that are the type of question you might find at Google when you're presented with a problem and asked to find a solution.
I'm more interested in understanding the process for making decisions. How would you prioritize A vs. B? Because in the product management world, you have a thousand things you could work on and you need to prioritize.
So, what does that process look like? Who do you need involved in the decision? How do you decide the minimum version of that product? How do you know it will provide customer value?
6. What advice would you give to a current PM interviewee?
One key angle for breaking into product management is working in your dream industry, but in a different role. I've seen people move into PM-ing from customer success roles, engineering roles, and even from sales roles. Put yourself in the right position to learn about the product, learn about the process, and then look for opportunities there. That's a great way to just get started.
I do see a lot of engineers moving into product management, and I think that's a great way to get started, because they can understand technical feasibility, which is critical for effective product management.
7. As someone building a prioritization product like ProductPlan, how do you stick to your own personal priorities?
It's very easy to fill up your day with tasks that, at the end of the day, or at the end of your life, don't matter a lot. I work very hard to not work on those tedious tasks and think more strategically. I focus on things that really matter and eliminate the metaphorical clutter in my life.
8. Who's a product manager you admire?
I love Marty Cagan and his book, Inspired. He's been a product manager and product management executive for many years. I admire his approach to product management, and the way he describes developing software.
9. Any other books you'd recommend for an aspiring product manager?
Steve Blank's books and website are terrific. His writing is focused more on startups, but he also deeply discusses products and product management.
For more great product management prep, visit Exponent's PM Interview Course.