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Four top product manager alumni from across the country recently gathered at Chicago Booth, at an event co-sponsored by Booth Technology Group, to speak with students about technology product management: how to snag the job, how to be good at it, and how to love it.

The key, said Chad Young, ’11, a product manager at Amazon, is understanding the customer. He and his fellow alumni shared their insights at an event sponsored by the James M. Kilts Center for Marketing.  “Know what they need, and then build that thing,” he said. 

It sounds simple enough—but sometimes, even when you build exactly what the customer wants, the project will fail.

Young recalled one of his earlier projects where he experienced this.

“I came up with an idea to build a community platform, and it was going really well,” he said. But a few years later, the project had not scaled the way they hoped—so he had to shut it down.

“That will happen to you: you will build something really awesome, and it doesn’t quite hit where you wanted it to hit, and it will go away,” Young said. “You have to be prepared for that.”

In fact, understanding those failures could be key in scoring your next product manager role.

During an interview, you should be able to explain how you brainstormed solutions and how they worked; or, if those solutions didn’t work, what you did about it, Young said.

These interviews can be key, as each can lead to bigger and better positions, said Zimran Ahmed, ’03, product manager of games for Facebook.

He suggested starting out with an apprenticeship-driven job at a large company. Or, he said, you could look for a product manager role at a startup or Series B or Series C company with good growth. But always remember that as a product manager, you are not the mini-CEO.

“While I fully embrace the ownership and accountability element, the notion that you have the direct power is not true,” he said.

Instead, a product manager dabbles in every part of the business, from the engineering to the customers, bringing neutrality, quality, and insight to the company and to the product.

It’s important to remember this holistic view of the position, said Nayana Singh, ’10, principal product manager at Microsoft. She emphasized the need to defuse situations when executives have difficult questions, rather than argue with the feedback.

“As a product manager, you will be faced with so many situations that you’ll be unprepared for, and you have to think through it—you can’t react,” said Singh.

Despite the pressure, not to mention the long nights and the weekends that go hand in hand with a product manager job, there are many positives.

Tim Trampedach, ’08, president of Torqued, a San Francisco–based motor sports and racing ecommerce company, said he loves getting nearly real-time feedback from customers when launching new features or products.

“It’s super fun because you can sometimes know within five minutes whether it’s good, awesome, or you’ve screwed something up,” he said.

Also, Trampedach said, as soon as you have “PM” on your resume, you’re bound to get inundated with LinkedIn requests. And he says career hopping isn’t bad in Silicon Valley—in fact, it can be a negative to stick around too long at companies that are failing, perceived to be subpar, or have fallen out of favor.

He left his first job after only six months—and never looked back.