Interview with a Product Manager at Microsoft | Hacker Noon

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Felix is a Product Manager at Microsoft in the Azure cloud services organization. He’s got a very cool background: he’s started his own company and has gone to business school amongst a lot of other things. I had the chance to ask him some questions about his job.

What does an average day look like?

Every day is different, but I generally spend my time doing one of three things:

  • Creating clarity on what to build
  • Guiding Execution
  • Reporting Progress

The role is highly collaborative so I’m constantly partnering with Engineering, Design, and PM colleagues. On an average day, I’ll have at least 3 meetings. Here’s what it looks like:

At the start, I meet with my Engineering Manager (EM) counterpart for an hour. We discuss our roadmap and realize we may need to cut a couple features because some work took longer than we planned. We review our backlog and discuss potential features to cut. I agree to get customer feedback to revise our prioritized list of work if necessary.

Before my next meeting, I review customer feedback and notice there’s a bug in one of my features. I contact the customer via email to provide a workaround and add a task to our team’s backlog. I reply to a few emails before my next meeting: a 15 minute stand up with the engineering team.

We discuss the current status of work in progress. One engineer has a question about a feature and I realize the requirements could use a bit more detail. I set up a working session for later in the day to clarify what needs to be done.

In the hour before my next meeting, I continue my work on a new feature. I need to provide feedback on mock-ups from our designer. The options look great! I leave some comments and set up a meeting with the designer to review the final decision. I also schedule a meeting for the following week to get feedback from engineers and other PMs on the team.

Next, my EM and I meet with a team we are partnering with to deliver a feature in a couple months. The other team explains that there will be a two week delay because some higher priority work came up. We decide on a new timeline and agree that the project is not significantly at risk.

To wrap up my day, I review a PowerBI dashboard that displays usage data for a feature we released 3 weeks ago. 40% of users have adopted the feature and 95% of user surveys are at least 4 out of 5 stars. This is great news! Our target is 50% adoption within 3 months and 90% ratings of at least 4 star ratings. I write a status update, include screenshots of the report, and send it to my manager and our engineering team.

After I finish the meeting to clarify the work discussed during standup, I write some SQL queries to gather data to support another feature I’ve been working on. I end the day noting my thoughts on how the data highlights the problem we are trying to solve.

What does a non-average day look like?

I have no meetings! I may spend the day refining my specs, scheduling talks with customers and planning our roadmap. On days like this I like to do big picture thinking and develop the vision for my feature area based on new market research or customer feedback. My vision document includes details on what I think are the biggest opportunities for my team to improve our product for customers.

Sometimes I’ll block my calendar for an entire week with back to back interviews or focus groups with customers. I develop a combination of questions, design mocks, prototypes, and surveys, then partner with User Research, Design, Engineering, and PM peers to execute a research study. I use the results of these various activities to discover the biggest challenges my customers face and add new ideas to my product roadmap and vision document.

What’s your favorite part about the job?

I love working with people and building consensus. It feels good when I get to talk to customers and we reach an understanding about how my product can serve them better. I enjoy when I can take that feedback along with product data to create alignment on what my team should build. Holding a meeting with multiple stakeholders and getting to see the nods of agreement as we develop a collective vision of success is energizing.

It’s also great to look back after a feature has been shipped and recognize the impact that has been made for customers. It feels good when I’m reviewing customer feedback and the comments express gratitude for my feature and how it helped them.

Do you think being a PM is beneficial if someone wants to start a company later on?

Absolutely! A business exists to create value for customers. The PM role provides great experience in discovering, prioritizing, and solving problems for customers.

Starting a company also requires hiring and – potentially – fundraising. So you’ll have much to learn, but being a PM will definitely provide you with useful skills.

Are there things you don’t like about being a PM?

Project management! This often involves tracking bugs, and features in backlog management software as well as writing status reports for my team and partners. While I don’t love this part of the job, I appreciate the value it provides in keeping the team on target and communicating our progress. Without this work it would be difficult to manage all of my responsibilities.

What advice do you have for someone looking to build a career in Product Management?

Go build something! Product management is one of those things you have to learn by doing, so go build something, anything, for someone else. As you’re building it, resist the urge to start with the end product. Instead, focus on what problem you are solving and why. Talk to a representative customer, discover their needs. And before you start building, think carefully about how you’ll measure success. Going through this process will give you experience with the essence of product management.

If you already have experience like this, great! Prepare your resume with results-based bullet points about your experience. Read the book, “Crack the PM Interview”, and practice interview questions with an experienced product manager. Then use your network (or build one) to get referrals into your target companies. My MBA program helped guide me through the resume preparation, interview practice, and networking process. Without an MBA program, all these things are possible, it will just take some persistence.

I noticed you studied Computer Engineering (and also worked as a Software Engineer) and now you work as a PM – how important is this technical grounding you have to your role? Could someone succeed without it?

My technical background is important to the extent that it is a part of me. Each PM has a different style and mine is based on my blend of technical and business experience. On a typical day, I communicate with both technical and non-technical teammates, go deep on technical discussions to unblock my team, and perform data analysis to measure success. And these things are not the essence of PM – the essence of PM is solving problems in a way that creates value for both customers and the business. If someone is comfortable learning from and communicating with the technical stakeholders involved in product development, they can succeed.

That being said, a product manager who builds machine learning models for a social media application may need more technical skills than a product manager who builds the web interface for an e-commerce application.

Previously, you founded a startup (Hansel). In what ways is being a product owner at Microsoft similar to building something from scratch?

PMs and entrepreneurs both need to understand who their customers are. I had my first experience running focus groups for my startup and I’ve executed several more since becoming a product manager.

Both also need to understand the market and the competition. As a founder, I spent a lot of time researching, speaking to, and using products of competitors. As a product manager, I don’t often get to speak to competitors or use their products directly, but I leverage any online resources I can find to learn about their products and what customers like about them.

Finally, both require effective communication with various disciplines. In a big company there are many specialized roles: design, engineering, marketing, sales, legal, research. As a PM you’ll need to work with them all at some point. As a founder you’ll need to perform some if not all of these functions yourself, especially in the early stages. And at some point, you’ll need the help of others to be successful.

Finally, how helpful do you think your MBA has been towards your PM career?

My MBA was extremely helpful in helping me transition from engineering, while providing a foundation of business knowledge to complement my technical background. The MBA provided me with tools to pitch my transferable skills and a network to help me land and succeed in interviews.

Additionally, the MBA taught me how to analyze business opportunities, develop business strategies, and collaborate effectively with cross-functional teams. I use these skills daily to be effective as a PM and an MBA is just one way to gain them.

I hope you enjoyed reading this interview. Check out my website CareerFair where you can learn about jobs by people who’ve done them.

You can also read case studies about tech careers. Don’t forget to connect with Felix on LinkedIn.

Previously published at https://www.careerfair.io/reviews/interview-with-a-product-manager-at-microsoft

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