Product Management and The Liberal Arts Degree

I’m in the job-search phase once again. It’s full of excitement, anxiety, elation and disappointment and sometimes all at the same time. With interviews expected in the upcoming weeks for entry level product manager positions, I’ve been reflecting on the skills I learnt over my summer internship.

1. Influence without authority

PMs manage the product, not the people building it. As a PM intern, I had even less authority. I had to learn to convincingly make my case for every major design decision. People did not adopt them because they had to, but because I presented a strong argument.

2. Product design, wire-framing and design review

At the beginning of my internship, I had little to no design/UX experience. But I ended up doing a lot of front-end design work and wire-framing for the tool I worked on. I also conducted design reviews for my own tool and observed reviews for other work.

3. Developing v1: Prioritizing

In about 12 weeks of time, my fellow software intern and I had to create version1 of a tool from scratch. I worked on gathering requirements, creating design and writing specifications and then co-ordinating with the SWE team while they were building. With so much to do and so little time, we had cut and slash our long list of great ideas to decide on a minimal viable product. I really learnt to prioritize based on requirements,resources and time.

4. Making decisions in uncertainty

There was a lot of data and feedback I wish I had had, but it simply did not exist. So I had to make several design decisions when I had incomplete knowledge of the situation. I became more comfortable making these mini-bets in the face of uncertainty.

5. Communication

Talking about new ideas is difficult. When you’re devising a new framework, the vocabulary to discuss it does not exist. Even when you’re using the same words, you and your teammates may not be referring to the same thing. So it’s important to establish a common base and be aware of these difficulties throughout the discussions.

What’s interesting is that my Philosophy degree, which is exemplary of degrees which don’t get you jobs, actually teaches me three of those core skills involved in being a product manager.

  1. Communication: Philosophy is often abstract and is presented with the same obstacles that I observed in my PM internship. Every discussion in class, every paper I write in Philosophy requires this kind of communication.
  2. Deciding in uncertainty: Ask any question in Philosophy and every imaginable answer has been seriously proposed and explored by someone. These answers cannot be tested empirically, and the best one can get is a convincing argument.  I learn to consider several compelling answers and yet not be paralyzed in my decisions. It is always a choice between great and great, and I’m learning to make my calculated bets.
  3. Influence without authority: The most important part of this is to make compelling arguments which take all positions into account, and I don’t think I need to explain how Philosophy teaches this.

So here we go, I have found a job where my liberal arts degree is undeniably useful!