5 Steps To Becoming A Product Manager As A Liberal Arts Major

This article was originally featured in PM Insider, a leading Product Management publication run by Alpha HQ.

As Preston Smalley pointed out in this article, there are as many pathways to Product Management as there are career stories.

A former classroom teacher turned Product Manager I’ll be sharing my story and 5 steps you can take to land your ideal PM role if you’re coming from a non-tech and non-design background.

1. Analyze Your Career And Personality DNA

At first glance, my path into Product Management simply follows Preston’s outline:

  1. M.A. in Romance Studies (French), LMU — University of Munich, Germany

  2. Marketing experience across the public and private sectors while in college

  3. Language Teaching career (German) in France (university) and the UK (private school) and private tutoring experience via a well-known online tutoring platform

  4. Marketing Manager at a private tutoring agency in London

  5. Product Manager, overseeing the delivery of their bespoke, bilingual tutoring platform to streamline business processes and enhance the customer experience

Although “speaking” is what comes to mind when we think “Languages & Linguistics”, there is a lot of mathematical logic happening in the background.

Ever since my university days, I have particularly enjoyed the grammar part of studying French, which, when it comes to French, falls under “creative problem-solving” in and of itself.

To me, creative problem-solving is what Product Management is all about. Building a product is as mathematical as it is creative: Scenarios are mathematical statements and hypotheses (“If this then that”), each User Story is a subcategory of a specific Epic. Analytical and creative thinking skills are equally as important.

Building a product is as mathematical as it is creative: Scenarios are mathematical statements and hypotheses (“If this then that”), each User Story is a subcategory of a specific Epic. Analytical and creative thinking skills are equally as important.

As you can see, it’s not just about your job title — it’s about your personality, your upbringing, the underlying interest and all the strengths that make you ‘you’. ‘Analytical thinking’ is not listed under “achievements” on my resume. The ‘ability to combine linear and fragmented thinking’ is not listed under “credits” on my diploma, yet these underlying strengths have been fueling my career all along.

Being grounded in who you are will help you understand and explain your interest in Product Management, which will make you stand out and help you find the perfect PM role and the right employer for you.

Action Step

  • List all the components that make up your career trajectory and all your relevant personality traits. Connect 2–3 of them to Product Management.

  • Example: Marketing experience helps articulate features and benefits in order to define the product-market fit.

Note: If you’re a Creative/Liberal Arts Major struggling to define your career DNA I encourage you to read this article by career coach Laura Simms.)

2. Position Yourself As An Industry Expert

As you can see from my example, I offer a blend of language study, classroom teaching, private tutoring, and marketing experience. Therefore, stepping into an EdTech PM role to build a platform localized in English and Russian has been a natural career progression for me.

The industry knowledge you bring to the table is your value proposition — combined with empathy it will make you relevant for the right company, even if you do not have PM experience yet.

Action Step

  • Write down any industry knowledge you have and research companies (small businesses, startups, corporations) that could use those insights, be it FinTech, EdTech, Manufacturing, Retail, E-Commerce, Hospitality — you name it!

Note: If you are a recent graduate/still in college, your area of studies, internships, projects, and entrepreneurial pursuits are your areas of expertise!

3. Monitor Your Favorite Brands

During my university years, I used to participate in market research focus groups on a wide range of products and services across a variety of industries. From magazines to yoghurts, from mobile operators to soap operas: Weighing in on the product lines of well-known brands, such as Danone or O2, allowed me to gain a first glimpse into Product Management from one of the most important perspectives for a PM — that as a customer, and to practice the most important skill for any PM — empathy.

To this day, I fill out feedback forms whenever a business wants my opinion and monitor digital products from a user perspective:

  • “TransferWise app has an improved UI — Noted!”

  • “The hotel I stayed at on my last business trip has launched a new app — Let me check it out!”

  • “Eventbrite customer support does XYZ for their customers — Noted!”

Even if you don’t have any idea of the Design and Engineering aspects of Product Management –- if you practice empathy you will have plenty of examples and even case studies to mention in the interviews and, more importantly, you’ll be showcasing your ability to put yourself in the customer’s shoes.

Action Step

  • Pick 5 websites, apps or favorite brands, follow them on social media and keep a log of new functionalities and product development trends. Ask yourself what you would differently and what area of improvements you see as a consumer.

4. Define Your Ideal PM Entry Role

In my role as an in-house PM at a small business, I have sourced a full-service design and development agency to liaise with.

In this case, the agency’s Project Manager tracks the timeline and the budget, co-writes scenarios/user stories, liaises with the UX designers and developers and advises the in-house Product Manager.

The in-house PM, on the other hand, oversees the product delivery on the whole, including:

  • planning the overall big-picture strategy and budgeting;

  • liaising with internal stakeholders;

  • aligning business requirements with customer needs;

  • defining the initial product-market fit;

  • co-translating product specifications into user stories, prioritizing features in liaison with the agency’s Project Manager, UX/UI designers, and Software Engineers;

If you’re coming from a generalist Project Management background, are detail-oriented and enjoy the variety that comes with working across different industries, Project Manager might be the perfect entry role to apply transferable skills and transition into a Product Management role over time.

On the other hand, if you already have specialist expertise in a particular industry and enjoy ‘big picture’ roles, a Product Manager role will allow you to apply your specialist knowledge from the outset.

Action Step

  • For your entry role, decide whether you want to start out as a Product Manager (strategy and big picture) or Project Manager (detail-oriented execution) and research suitable agencies and/or companies.

5. Educate Yourself On All Levels

Product Managers are considered to be generalists, yet a lot of businesses prefer to hire specialists with a background in UX Design or Software Engineering to ensure the new hire is ‘fluent’ in design or tech.

However, there is more to a viable product than tech and design: Sales and Marketing, Customer Service, Growth and Business Development all influence the UX. As a PM, you have to educate yourself both on a micro level — i.e. UX, Design, Software Engineering — , and macro level, i.e. Business Development, Marketing, Sales, Customer Service, Growth. It is only by connecting the dots between all those components that you can shape a viable Product.

Book Tip: Entering StartupLand” by Jeffrey Bussgang (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017) offers an in-depth overview of all the business aspects described above — highly recommended, even if you don’t want to work at a startup.

How to become a confident speaker in any language (Originally published @medium)

Every language learner and expat eventually gets to the point when it’s time to start communicating with native speakers. Yet all too often, we wait until we feel confident enough. We feel too self-conscious to start because of an idea about how we are supposed to sound. Speaking a language means connecting with people — something that we all want — , and being accepted by native speakers and local communities is important to many of us. Yet we hold back and choose to keep quiet until we feel “ready” and "good enough", out of fear of not “fitting in” and feeling exposed. The key to overcoming self-consciousness, however, is to start generating that connection not by fitting in, but by accepting our language skills at any given moment and start using what we have right now. 

Find your sweet spot

When we think of ‘fluency’ we tend to focus on that elusive ‘native-like’ accent. Yet many languages have different varieties in different parts of the world and each variety can be considered native and correct. Instead, it is much more efficient to focus on sounding like you and feeling good while you’re communicating in the language. I have always been applying this approach in my life: I don’t try to sound British, American, Parisian or Argentinean — instead, my goal has always been to sound like me. Sure, it is important to articulate clearly, but in terms of accent I choose the one that comes naturally to me. So, try on different varieties and find your middle ground by picking and choosing the bits and pieces that resonate with you.

Focus on the essentials - don't worry about your accent

If you are worried about your accent, you are most likely worried about being judged. Take care of the non-negotiable pronunciation rules and don't worry about the minor, variety-specific features.  How do you normally articulate? Does this feel like you? Focus on feeling good, not on feeling accepted. 

Start small

Take the pressure off yourself to produce an elaborate speech from the get-go. Instead, start with one or two short sentences you really want to get off your chest during a conversation. Articulate the sentence silently to yourself and say it out loud, once you feel ready. It will feel uncomfortable at first, but that’s normal and all part of the process. Now that you’ve started you can keep adding more and longer sentences to your speech and become more confident the more you practice.

Accelerate

Finally, I do believe that every person has to reach a certain degree of readiness in order to take the first step to fluency in a language. However, an efficient way to accelerate the process is to set an urgency goal for yourself. This might be an exam, a presentation or a job interview — anything really specific that you want to work towards and that will inspire you to move forward.

What about you? Have you ever struggled with the dreaded speaking barrier? Share your thoughts below and sign up here to receive more tips from moi!

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Guest post for Cambridge Conversations (Cambridge University Press ELT)

 

Since winning our Unlock competition last year, in which we asked teachers to tell us how learning English had unlocked their potential, Anna Ostrovsky has found herself a new post, and is about to embark on her dream teaching job in the United Kingdom. Today, she offers some advice on how other non-native English speaker teachers can unlock their own potential, and overcome challenges to find a job.

1. Recognize and accept the fact that we are in a marketplace

Most of us non-native speaker language teachers want to pass their passion for the language on to their students. We know the value we bring into the classroom, and it can feel disheartening to see the evident favouritism of native-speaker teachers in the language teaching space. The best way to educate employers on the benefits we bring to the table is to show them exactly what we have to offer and why their students need us in the classroom. Like any other profession these days, language teaching is an industry with different businesses covering different needs. We can resist this reality, or we can choose to accept it and see it as an opportunity for personal and professional growth. The truth is, in a competitive marketplace it’s not about being better qualified anymore – it’s about being unique. Many non-native language teachers are equally qualified in terms of certifications and language skills, but this is just a small part of our profiles. What makes each profile unique is the personality of the teacher – and it is up to you, as a language teacher, to reflect on and to show recruiters your uniqueness.

2. Show your uniqueness

First, let’s take a closer look at your motivation to teach English (or another language). Ask yourself the following questions: Why do you teach? What was that pivotal moment in your life that led you into the teaching profession? Be specific and avoid vague answers, such as “I went into teaching because I love seeing students grow” or “Because I fell in love with the English language.” How exactly did that happen?

Next, think about the way you teach. How do your backstory and your past (teaching) jobs impact your teaching style today? Again, be specific and illustrate qualities such as “creative” or “innovative” with successful projects you’ve done in the past to show your teaching approach. Make it as tangible as possible, so that a potential recruiter gets a feel for your (teaching) personality – not just your formal credentials.

3. Position yourself – for the right teaching job

You now have a unique narrative that you can tap into to articulate your uniqueness, including your non-nativeness.

Now, once you’ve found an exciting teaching position ask yourself why you feel compelled to teach in that particular environment? What makes you think that you are the perfect fit for this position? The right working environment for you is the one in which you don’t need to hide out, where you can be fully self-expressed and completely yourself. And if you truly believe in your non-nativeness as the core benefit, try to articulate why and how exactly it is going to benefit their students. Be specific: general qualities like being able to speak their students’ L1 may sound persuasive to our colleagues, but recruiters want to hear and see concrete examples.

This self-assessment requires a lot of honest self-reflection, but the clarity that comes from it is worth the time and effort. Being clear on your uniqueness you can seek out the employer who wants to hire you precisely for your personality – because you are the language teacher his clients need.

So what makes you unique? Choose one aspect of your story or your personality and post your answer in the comments section below.

 

Guest Post for Cambridge Conversations (Cambridge University Press ELT)

How to help your students to stop struggling and start speaking

Our first post of 2015 is from Anna Ostrovsky, winner of our Unlock competition, in which we asked teachers to tell us how learning English had unlocked their potential. Today, Anna shares some ideas on how to get students speaking in class.

For me, as a language teacher, getting students to speak up in class and motivating them to participate in discussions is a challenging task. But, as a language learner I know that speaking a foreign language can be a vulnerable, scary and stressful experience. Whether in a class setting or in real-life situations with native speakers, under the pressure of “having to say something”, a lot of language learners start feeling self-conscious and insecure.

As someone who has spent her entire life as an expatriate in multilingual environments, I still feel this way in certain situations, and I believe that there are certain underlying issues that need to be addressed, in order to encourage language learners to speak up, and to engage them in conversations.

Figure out the reason behind their speaking barrier

The first step towards encouraging learners, without leaving them feeling pressured and inadequate, is for language teachers to understand the different types of communication profiles their students represent, as well as the challenges they might be experiencing.

Since not all students experience these insecurities to the same extent, it is crucial to understand the root of the speaking barrier for the quieter ones: Why are they quiet? Do they lack the necessary language skills they need to express themselves? Or are they lacking confidence, and if so, where does that stem from? There is also a difference between people being shy and people being quiet. The first group are insecure by nature, no matter what language they’re speaking. The latter group are observers by nature: they accumulate and absorb information during their silent period, before going out into the world and starting speaking. As a language learner myself, I am definitely the observant type of learner: I’d rather wait and keep quiet until I have acquired all the information I need and feel comfortable enough to express myself correctly.

Honouring that initial silent period, and the degree of readiness that a certain type of quiet language learners might experience as a natural part of the learning process, is an essential strategy that I’d recommend to any language teacher.

Stimulate their desire for self-expression

When I first started teaching oral expression in German to undergraduate students in France, I was asked to choose topics centered around the German news. As you can imagine, motivating a group of people to talk about topics that aren’t part of their world was quite challenging and felt tedious. However, once we got sidetracked and stumbled upon other topics, my students started to speak and engage in discussions. Those engaging topics had nothing to do with German politics, culture and economics. Instead they had entirely to do with funny stories my students wanted to share with me. It could be a comment that would make them think of a funny experience they once had in Germany or a similarity between our everyday lives that came up during our discussion. Those were all topics they could relate to and, most importantly, they wanted to share them with me. And that is key: their desire to share has to be bigger than the fear of embarrassment. The more they can relate to the subject, the more they are willing to express themselves.

This approach certainly requires a lot of empathy, flexibility and experimentation from the teacher, but I believe our students deserve a gentle and empathetic guidance towards fluency.