Suzanne Abate is the co-founder of The Development Factory and online PM community, 100 Product Managers. In this Path to PM blog post, Suzanne and I discuss the "why" of PM interviewing, and how to break into product management.
How did you break into product management as your first career?
I’ve been an entrepreneur for a little over 20 years. I always describe it as a bit of “accidental tourism.” I helped technology and resource startups raise capital and get listed on the Venture Exchange up in Toronto. Through that process, I met my current business partner Andrew Bodis. He was running a marketing agency at the time with a B2B focus.
We decided to partner together and focus on our web development capabilities. We put a really simple name on it, The Development Factory, and offered reliable digital production services to brands and creative agencies. 11 years later and now we’ve evolved more toward product-based work and ultimately away from project-based work into this more integrated "Team-as-a-Service" model that services businesses and startups with product and technology goals.
You also founded 100 Product Managers - what inspired you to start this community?
Through my work as a product consultant and product management instructor, I’ve discovered that there are a lot of questions about what product management is. Companies and individuals wonder if they’re doing product management right, and how to do it even better. While I have a tremendous amount of expertise, it’s only through the lens of my experience.
Thus, the 100 Product Managers community was born out of a desire to demystify the world of product management. We accomplish this goal by sharing perspective and lessons learned by product leaders from all stages of business and across industries. 100 Product Managers also has a weekly podcast that I host.
As you know, Exponent is all about helping product managers land their dream job. What do you find to be some of the common mistakes that product managers make in their interviews?
The biggest mistake that I see is people applying for jobs without being really connected to why they are applying for that job, or whether they even want it at all. I always encourage candidates to be really clear: what kind of organization is going to be the right kind of environment for me to try? If you don’t have a “why” for being there, that’s going to show up in the interview, and it’s not going to make you a memorable candidate.
Any advice for breaking into the industry of product management for the first time?
You know, after asking this question to several product leaders, I’ve definitely heard a lot of answers.
One of them is definitely side projects. If you don’t have the experience because you haven’t been given that official product manager title, there are actually a lot of ways to go out into the world to demonstrate your passion for managing products. Places like General Assembly are awesome ground zeros for creating little teams, building an app, or just trying out an idea. To be able to leverage that kind of experience is super important.
Another piece of advice is to potentially pivot your way into a role. For example, let’s assume that you have a tremendous amount of customer success experience. To break into product management, you could then find an organization that you’re really excited about being involved with. Leverage your "product management adjacent" experience in CS to make yourself available to help support the product team. Product teams always need more help, and they’re always happy to get it. Make clear to others your desires to become more product-minded. I believe that that kind of initiative and performance is typically rewarded in the form of opportunities. It’s often much easier to get an opportunity from within than being an outside person.
How do you answer the “What’s your favorite product, and why?” common PM interview question?
The Amazon Kindle. No matter where I am, I almost always find myself extolling the virtues of the Amazon Kindle. I love the ease with which I can find any book whenever I need it. I love that the battery lasts forever. I love that I can read in the dark, and I love that I can read in the light. I love that it’s super light to hold and I never have to think about whether or not I should pack it in my bag.
What is a book you would recommend for an aspiring product manager to read?
Oh gosh, there’s so many. I’m super fond of Nir Eyal’s Hooked. It really gets you thinking about the psychology and behaviors of customers. One of the book’s aspects that I particularly love is the manipulation matrix. The book not only gives a framework for how you can potentially exploit people based on brain mechanics but also provides a moral compass on how to use those powers for good or evil. It’s a super interesting deconstruction of what makes products “sticky” and what makes them exciting.
Who is a product manager that you admire?
I have to give a shout out to my friend Margaret Jastrebski who was recently SVP of Enterprise Products at ShopRunner in Chicago. She got into technology when it was not popular to do so. And certainly not popular for women to do so. She’s worked with big organizations like Orbitz and API Product Management, and she's worked as a quality assurance person. She's a brilliant leader and a super kind person, and I always say, “When I grow up I want to be just like her.”
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