5 ways software product managers can develop their personal brand

We as software product managers spend a lot of time figuring out positioning statements for our products to ensure that the product brand will stick. But how about our own personal brand? Have you ever thought about your own state? After all are you not a product? – what about your own personal brand? How are you promoting it? Let us face it – vast majority of us are not going to be working for the same company for the full length of our careers – so we need to make sure we spend some time building our own personal brand.

Here are five ways you can start building your brand.

1) LinkedIn:

Are you on LinkedIn? If not, get there right now and sign up. LinkedIn is one of the premier business networking sites and you have no reason not to be there. I have used it so effectively in my last two job searches.

Now if you are on LinkedIn,

  • Is your profile up to date? Does it reflect who you are, your key accomplishments and experience that prospective employers might be looking for?
  • Do you have recommendations from people who you have worked with in the past. I like to get recommendations from different constituents that I have worked with – my bosses, my peers, development managers, QA engineers, customers etc. Your recommendations should give a 360 degree view of what you have done as a product manager. However, do not ask for recommendations from everyone you have worked with, get the bare minimum you need. More connected and more reputed these folks are on LinkedIn, more weight their recommendations carry. For example, it is very unlikely that your Marketing VP or your past CEO is going to dole out recommendations by a dozen, so a recommendation from him/her will carry more weight than from say an individual contributor. I would also stay away from recommendations that are “if you scratch my back, I will scratch yours”.
  • Look out for questions that are posted on LinkedIn to which you can provide valuable answers based on your knowledge.

2) Have a personal blog related to product management

Content used to be the king, now “fresh” content is the king and the juice that drives Google (more about that in the next bullet). Having a blog where you talk about product management related topics makes your employer convinced that you do indeed know what you are talking about. Plus the blog is testament that you can write and communicate well. Then promote your blog. But remember blogging takes commitment and time – it is easy to start a blog and then lose interest. If you are not passionate about it, don’t do it. Last thing you want to have is a dead blog.

3) Speak at conferences or meetings

Speak at user group conferences, product management conferences or product management association meetings. This will not only help you improve your presentation skills, but also help you meet other software product managers and also get your name out. You never know, hiring managers may be in the audience. You get to speak on a topic that is dear to your heart, what is more cooler than that? Please don’t leave right after you are done speaking, mingle with the audience and make new connections.

4) What does Google think about you?

If someone does a search on Google on your name, what comes up? If it is some old posting that you made on some niche discussion forum five years back, it is hurting your brand. This is where your blog (more fresh content you have, more Google loves you) and speaking engagements can help. Events publish their agenda online and these get indexed by Google.

Your profile on LinkedIn, Facebook and other social networking sites also gets indexed by Google.

5) How well connected are you?

Just being on LinkedIn does not help you. You need to start making connections. As they say, don’t wait to dig the well until you are thirsty – don’t wait to make connections until you are embarking on your job search. Here are the many ways you can start making connections:

  1. LinkedIn – colleagues, friends, acquaintances.
  2. Local product management associations
  3. Local communities
  4. Social networking – I use twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn

Share, share, share – Give a whole lot without expecting anything in return. If you do this, more people will be ready to help you when you need something – whether that is an introduction to a hiring manager or a decision maker for your product.

I am sure you have other great ideas to improve one’s personal brand. I would love to hear them, let me know via comments.

Image courtesy of TalentBuzz

Eight traits of good hiring managers

Good managers mostly hire good people and sometimes hire the wrong people whereas bad managers always hire the wrong people. This is the conclusion I have come to in my 15 year career. What do I define as a bad hiring manager? – one who does not have good managerial skills, feels insecure and hence tends to hire someone worse than him/her because they feel threatened if their hires are better/smarter than them. I have seen at least four such managers in my career based on the quality and hence the resulting performance of their hires.

So what are the traits of good managers:

1) They hire people smarter than them: The whole purpose of hiring people is to get work done. Good managers don’t want to lose sleep over the performance of their reports. They want people who can work with minimal direction, whose work will reflect their pride, who will go the extra mile to get the job done.They do not micro manage, they allow you to put your artistic touch to your work as long as you meet the business goals. They realize that ownership brings the best out of good people.

2) Their success is defined by the team’s success: They are fully aware that their success is determined by their team’s success. They work to remove the hurdles limiting their team and to ensure that the team is marching forward.

3) They identify and credit their team members in public for job well done: They don’t take any credit for the work done – they identify in public the people who toiled to get the job done. They relish their team’s success. They make sure that their team members get the visibility in front of their superiors or executive management. You will see them use “we” more than they would use “I”.

4) They praise in public and advise in private: People need constant encouragement and direction when things go wrong. Managers work with team members privately to reflect on mistakes and work out an action plan to fix it going forward. They use the feather to slap one’s hand and never the hammer unless they are forced to. They give immediate feedback good or bad so that successes get repeated and mistakes get corrected.

5) They train their replacements: Good managers want to move their career forward. They realize that they cannot do this until they groom someone to eventually replace them in the current job. They realize that they owe it to their current employer if they choose to leave the company.

6) They never treat all of their direct reports the same but fairly: They realize that people are different and hence one cannot treat everyone the same. Some need more assistance than others. It is more important that they are fair and transparent in the decisions they make. They set goals for their team members and reward good performance and more importantly penalize bad performance. The process is transparent and the team members don’t hold any ill will on decisions made.

7) They treat their direct reports as human beings: After all, it is not just all work. They encourage their reports to take time off to recharge themselves. They remind them to get a life outside work. In essence, they care about their team member’s well being because it directly impacts your productivity at work.

8. They cut their losses when they make hiring mistakes: When they make those bad hiring decisions, they cut their losses when it is clear that things will not work out in spite of their best efforts. They are not afraid to admit their hiring mistakes. This sends message to the rest of the team that good performance is valued and everyone is expected to equally share the workload.

So how do you find out during the hiring process if you will be working for a good manager or a total jerk? It is tough because it is easy to hide but you may be able to get some early warning signals. Here are eight ways you could possibly find out:

1) Ask the hiring manager directly about their management style.

2) Ask them about some of the successes of their team – see if it is all “I did this, I did this” and not “we did this” – do they name people on their team while they talk about the successes?

3) Ask others who you would be interviewing with (in an indirect way) including those who would be your peers about the manager’s management style. If someone takes issue with this, it may not be a good place to work after all.

4) They let you ask questions during the interview that let you get a better understanding about the job and about their management style.

5) How much do they grill you to make sure you are the right person for the job? Good managers want to make sure you indeed have the “smarts” or “skills” that you claim in your resume.

6) How well do they talk about the company’s success and work that needs to be done?

7) How long is the interview process? In good companies, interviews are likely to be multiple rounds because the company cares a whole lot about their hiring process.

8. Are they excited when they talk about what the company is doing and what the team is accomplishing?

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Working with recruiters – set the ground RULE !!

Once I finished my previous two posts on job hunting tips, I was asked by a friend who is now looking for a job on how to work effectively with recruiters during a job hunt. I have recently spoke to some HR Directors/Managers where this issue has come up as well and hence It occurred to me that this is something worthy of a post.

Here is what I have learnt about recruiters (and if I have a wrong perspective, I encourage recruiters out there to send in their comments so that I can get it right :-))

1) Recruiters are hired by companies usually only after their own recruiting efforts have failed – why – because recruiters need to be paid a hefty fee – usually a good percentage of the first year’s salary of the candidate they refer and gets hired.

2) Recruiters are in the business to make money – they work for the client more than they work for a job candidate – they are getting paid to get the best candidate to their client who hired them and not to make a case for you into a role that may not be an absolutely perfect fit (hence my comment in the previous blog post of “you need to be a round peg in a round hole”)

So what could go wrong where you as an innocent job hunter gets caught between a rock and a hard place – here is a typical sequence that could get you into trouble

1) You apply for a job at company X by sending in your resume (through a friend, apply directly etc.)

2) You get in touch with a recruiter who asks you to send him your resume. Unknown to you, he has been hired by company X to look for candidates for the same position as you have already applied for. The recruiter sends in your resume to company X.

3) You get hired

4) Controversy breaks out – who got you to company X first – your friend/yourself or the recruiter.

I have been told by HR managers that this is their worst nightmare when it comes to working with recruiters. I have also heard about companies getting sued by recruiters for just the above scenario. Last thing you want to get involved in as a new employee is this mess with your new employer.

So how do you protect yourself – set one ground rule right upfront before you engage with any recruiter- THEY CANNOT PRESENT YOUR RESUME TO ANY COMPANY WITHOUT TALKING TO YOU FIRST AND WITHOUT GETTING YOUR PERMISSION. Get them to agree to this before you send them your resume.

Good professional recruiters will know very well why you are asking for this and they will be more than happy to comply – the last thing they also want is the nightmare described above – unfortunately like every other profession, there are a few unscrupulous recruiters out there looking to make a fast buck.

If a recruiter does not want to agree on the above ground rule, don’t engage with them – it is not worth it. After all, your resume is your prized marketing material about the greatest product you have – YOU !! So you have the right to demand where it goes

Happy job hunting !!

Job hunting cheat sheet

In my previous post, I referred to a 1-2 page cheat sheet that I used to create for each company (say Company X) to which I had applied. Here are the key things that I used to have in the cheat sheet.

1) Market space – what industry is Company X in? What is the market growth?

2) Product line – what is Company X’s product line? What problems are they solving? Do you believe that these problems exist (remember the dot come era where companies created businesses to sell vitamins on the web?)

3) Competitors – who are the company’s competitors? Is the segment fragmented with many competitors or has the consolidation already happened and the competition is well established? Where does Company X stand?

4) Management team – Who is the management team and what is their track record? Have they done this before or what are their past successes?

5) Company info – how long has the company been in business. What is the current sales? Public or private – who are the investors and how much funding have they put in and how many rounds?

6) Position description – I copy and paste the job description and then highlight the sentences which call out the skills that are my strengths – this highlighting helps me to hit upon each of these strengths during the phone interview – the job calls for this, let me tell you about what I have done in this area ….

etc.

Here is a Cheat sheet sample that I had created for one of the companies that I was looking at – Mall Networks. I did get the phone interview, but did not hear back from them since (even though I did follow up :-))

Ten job hunting tips for a product manager

I had mentioned in my last post that I would post tips from my experience looking for a job as a product manager – in fact I had to do this twice in the last 7 months. So here is what worked for me … Remember one thing – job hunting is nothing but a marketing and sales job of a single product – You !

1) Don’t respond to job postings unless you want your resume to end up in a pile.

2) Get your foot in the door: Instead, if you find a job in a company X that you want to apply for, use social networking sites such as LinkedIn (this is the only one I use) to see if you are connected to someone who works there or if one of your connections knows someone who works there – then get recommended. You are looking to get a foot in the door and get the first phone call. Candidates who have been recommended by internal sources will at least get the first phone call – it is up to you to take it from there. If you know someone at the company, it will also give you an inside scoop – what is the real story, how is it to work there, anything about your future boss you need to know about – his/her management style etc.

3) Call the hiring manager: If you are not connected to anyone, again use LinkedIn to see who the hiring manager could be – I look for titles such as VP of Product Strategy, VP of Marketing, VP of Product Management etc. If LinkedIn does not have it, look at the company’s website under the Team/Management section. Then call the company and ask for that person – if you do get the person on the line (tough because people are travelling or are in meetings), tell them who you are and why you are calling. If you get the standard response of apply for the job and send it to HR, be frank and tell them that you are trying to get your resume visible and ask if you can send the resume to him/her so that he/she can send it to the hiring manager. There is nothing wrong in asking, worst response you can get is a No. A lot of times this will work and it also shows your initiative and strong interest. Then email your resume within a day so that your name is still fresh in the other person’s mind. Followup with the person via email (no phone calls) after a week if you have not heard anything.

4) Email the hiring manager (long shot): If you do not get hold of the hiring manager over the phone, then try the long shot – you need to figure out if you can get his/her email address. How do you know if it is roberts@xyz.com or robert.smith@xyz.com or smithr@xyz.com – look at the bottom of the press releases at the company X’s website. The company’s contact for the press release typically puts his/her email address at the bottom – this will get you the syntax. Again, sending a cold email is a very long shot and may get you a response only if you are a very strong candidate. I will not follow up on such an email because you don’t want to spam the person.

5) Work your network – there is a great book of “Dig the well before you are thirsty” that is worth reading – basically don’t try to create the network just when you need it – keep your network alive, help others when they are in need and they will help you when you have a need.

6) Get involved in local product management associations – present at conferences on product management topics – you want to be seen as a subject matter expert – you need to do things (good things !) that will let you stand out in the crowd.

7) Always keep looking for a job – you never know what opportunities come along your way – but you don’t want to be switching too often either – pick a job that broadens your experience, stay there for a while, succeed and then think about making a career move.

8. Research, research, research – Get to know about company X as much as you can – as if your life depended on it – you need to comb through its website and know everything about them – where have they been (look at company history, look at old press releases), where are they going (job postings may give you an idea about their future direction), read about the company in the news – what else are others saying about the company (don’t just believe what the company says about itself). Last thing you want to be is a candidate who is not prepared.

9) Company cheat sheet – Prepare on companies you have applied to as if the phone could ring at the very next second for an interview. I created a 1-2 page cheat sheet on each company I applied for so that I can have this information at my finger tips (in case the phone rang).

10) Company’s customers – Can you find a way to talk to some of the company’s customers? If the company has a discussion forum, you may be able to find customers there – what do they think about the company? How are the company’s products perceived? What is the future of the company in the eyes of the customer? If you do talk to their customers, mention this during your interview – it shows how well you research something, how comfortable you are talking to customers etc. – good companies value this and if they don’t, it may not be the right place to work after all.

What about recruiters? I did not have good luck with recruiters – not that they are bad – but they are hired by companies when their own recruiting efforts have failed and hence recruiters only look for a round peg in a round hole – their clients give them specific requirements and recruiters cannot flex them too much to accomodate a candidate’s qualifications.

Tools that I used effectively:

1) LinkedIn
2) Indeed.com – it compiles jobs from different job boards and emails you a digest daily.

I did not find ladders.com useful – it costs a whole lot ($30/month) and it was not of much help.

There is nothing called “too much preparation” in job hunting. So prepare, prepare, prepare ….

Joined salary.com

After 6 months of working at RSA, I decided to pursue another career opportunity that came my way. On Friday, I joined salary.com as Director of Product Management. I find it very refreshing to get back into the internet space. So for the second time in 6 months, I am going to be drinking from a firehose, but something tells me that this time it is going to be easier and more fun than last time where I had to come to terms with encryption, cryptography and enterprise software. I am very excited about this new position. Given that I successfully found two jobs in the last 6 months in product management, I intend to write about some job hunting tips that I found useful. So stay tuned. I expect to write about it in the next week or so.

State of You?

As a product manager, you are quite busy doing product roadmaps, gathering requirements, working with cross functional teams, getting the messaging right,writing positioning statements etc. You are busy trying to do all the work with less time and resources available at your disposal. In the midst of this chaotic professional life, have you taken the time to evaluate how well you are doing growing your career, building value for yourselves such that your market value is increasing? Yes, the first and foremost thing we should focus on is building value to our employers (that is what we get paid for), but it is also important that you spend time adding value to yourselves. After all, I doubt that most of us want to do the same thing and work for the same employer for the rest of our working lives .

One technique that is useful is creating an honest assessment of the one product you are in full control of – YOU!!. The way I did it the other day was to create a list of all the skills an ideal product manager should have (if you don’t know the full list, read a bunch of job descriptions for product managers in your industry and look at the requirements or skills being asked for and then create the list) and then made a honest assessment of where I currently stood on a scale of High, Medium and Low (High = strong, Low = weak). I also did an assessment of what my personal interest is for each of these skills. For example, as a product manager, one is required to help legal with contracts – I consider this as a necessary evil that I as a product manager has to live with, but not something I want to get very good at. On the other hand, product positioning or market sizing is something I have great interest in and should have a strong skill.

Once you do this exercise, your strengths (High skill set, high interest) and weaknesses (low skill set, high interest) is going to stare at you. Now you need to create a roadmap on how you are going to work on your weaknesses and figure out what projects you may want to take on (read “initiative”) at your current employer to add more value to your employer and yourselves.

I have done mine and found this very useful and I intend to use this once a year to evaluate my progress and analyze the State of “Me” going forward. The above technique can be used by anyone – engineers, scientists, doctors etc. and not just product managers.