Ben studied psychology at the University of Lincoln. Learn how he worked his way up to become EU distribution product manager, working from the Lincoln office of ECI Software Solutions
How did you get into product management?
After university I started out in retail management. I was working in a computer and technology store where we had a system of selling training to customers. This practical experience helped me move into the product support role that I then gained at ECI.
Product support is a great career path all of its own, but it can serve as a gateway into other roles at a company. I moved into quality assurance, which is a common career path for lots of people who eventually move into product management. At ECI, a lot of people in other roles have roots in our support team, as we sell bespoke software, there isn't an expectation for anyone joining the company to have a lot of background knowledge of our systems. Product knowledge in support is highly valued, which is why some people choose to move into other areas, as I did.
Is work experience necessary?
You don't need to have in-depth technical experience, but it certainly helps. Gaining internal experience at the company you are in is key - there's not generally a required level of qualification needed to move into the role, but you need a solid mixture of skills. Recruiters look for how well you can organise and work with other teams and move projects and people forward, rather than a particular set of qualifications.
What was the recruitment process like?
My current role was an internal promotion. A good skill to have is the ability to present ideas to people. I attended one of ECI's roadshows prior to the interview to learn from my peers - these skills are important and they're looked for in that stage of the process. For most of the day-to-day work, you need to be explaining an idea to people, so you need to be able to get across the key values of something quite complex, quite quickly.
Other than that it was very much the usual interview questions.
What's a typical day like as a product manager?
Working days can sometimes be very long. There are multiple deadlines to meet if a new product release is coming out or if new initiatives need to be met for a certain time.
Day-to-day, I keep up communications with various product teams so we know what is happening, track what feedback we are getting from our customer base and how we can move the product forward - at ECI we look after quite a few products, though this might differ elsewhere.
I also need to ensure that we have good communication with the wider business, so they know what is happening with our various projects. This could be customers or suppliers for example, so they know that the product is moving forward externally and on target.
Alongside these organisational tasks, there is an element of creativity involved as well. It's important to ensure you have time to build out products and features that people actually need and are simple to use, and make sure teams are working well together.
What do you enjoy about your job?
The process of watching a project go through, from start to finish. A lot of work goes into the process of just pushing out a new or upgraded feature, let alone a completely new product. Often there are hundreds of hours of work from various teams, and it's rewarding to be at the centre of that, especially when it comes out and is in the hands of our customers. All this can happen on a regular basis as we have multiple software platforms and regular releases.
What are the challenges?
Taking an idea or a vision to a completed feature or product involves a number of other departments in the business. You have to be convincing enough for other managers to follow your lead and invest their teams time and effort - there are no shortcuts in product management everyone has to be on board with their concerns met.
Alongside these internal challenges, it's very much an external role. Keeping up communications with external stakeholders can be quite taxing on time scales as there are a lot of factors to balance. That said these challenges really are what makes the job so interesting and rewarding.
What are the top 3 skills that product managers need?
- communication skills
- people skills and teamwork
- organisational skills.
How is your degree relevant?
Software is focusing a lot more on the user experience now. Often, we have to make an educated guess on how people will behave when they are interacting with our software. Information can be gathered from qualitative interviews or by surveying our customers to capture the right feedback. Being able to make those assumptions, and raise concerns about how it's going to be used are important. A lot more psychology is going into software now, and the way it is marketed too. I only expect this to grow.
What are your career ambitions?
I'm very happy in my current role. Within a company it is a great 'end-goal' job. That’s not to say that working in product management can't lead to other positions higher up in the company, such as heads of research and development, for example.
Tell us about the challenges facing product managers today...
The way that people use software is changing, and this always needs to be considered if people are making a feature or a product. If people don't use it how you expect, a seemingly well designed piece of software is rendered useless. It can be quite easy to lose sight of that user perspective sometimes - what might make sense to a highly skilled and technical development team might not work as well in the client's hands.
COVID-19 is also a challenge. There is going to be a lot of extra pressure across the whole product management industry to make sure we're getting things right the first time. Resources are tighter and returns need to be solid. This makes it slightly more difficult to get those adventurous ideas out of a development team or product, but not impossible.
How do I get into product management?
Don't be afraid to be proactive. Take on tasks outside and above your current role, as this may lead to more opportunities in the future.
I'd also recommend taking it upon yourself to show your passion by learning around the subject and connecting with others in the industry. There are a lot of books, blogs and literature on product management. Read up on it and get experience with the processes. There are also lots of industry meetings and groups. Mind the Product is a great global resource for example.