The rising role of the product manager, and how to build the in-demand skills
Nancy Wang, founder and CEO of Advancing Women in Product (AWIP) and Nancy Gessler, senior manager of Learning Products, AWS Training and Certification, spoke about their work together in the new course, Real-World Product Management specialization. The goal of AWIP is to help women and minorities get the skills, training, and support to advance into exciting roles and career opportunities. Nancy and Nancy shared their thoughts on the in-demand product manager (PM) role and how the course came to be.
Nancy Wang (AWIP) – Nancy, it’s great to talk to you, and thanks for participating in Advancing Women in Product’s Real-World Product Management specialization! It’s wonderful to have you be one of the instructors in the course and bring your expertise in not only training solutions, but also product management (PM), new product introduction, and product-focused engineering in very fast-paced environments.
Nancy Gessler (AWS) – I am excited to be associated with, and actually be a contributor, to this project. In my opinion, there is such a need for what you and your organization are doing. And that leads me to my first question for you, Nancy, what was the impetus to create this course?
Nancy Wang (AWIP) – If you look at macroeconomic trends, there has been a huge spike in the demand for product management. A recent study calls this the “Golden Age of Product Management,” citing a 32 percent increase in PM jobs from 2017 to 2019, which is 5x the increase of all other jobs (at 6.6 percent).
So where is this demand coming from? The answer is individual employers, acting independently, whose aggregate actions over time created this trend. And if you look at those industry-level trends, you’ll see that from a balance sheet perspective the technology sector has outperformed energy, banks, industrials, and all other sectors in their hiring of PMs.
Since the PM is an important and highly visible role at technology companies, the CEOs of technology companies will continue to recruit them, and the CEOs from other industries will continue adopting the management techniques of technology companies, including the evolution from a department-centric organization to a product-centric organization. Most companies will need to staff their newly product-centric organization with product managers.
Finally, the PM field is quite new, and individual managers’ expectations might vary greatly. Unlike the bar or CPA exams, there is no reliable PM certification that validates your skills to a hiring manager. And while an engineering hiring manager can administer a live coding interview, a PM’s expertise is much harder to evaluate with precision during a 45-minute interview. This credential gap is a major part of AWIP’s mission: to provide our members the substantive, skills-based training that empowers them with the knowledge, tools, and confidence to advance in their careers.
I’m always fascinated how PMs got their start. How did you get started, Nancy?
Nancy Gessler (AWS) – I segued into training product management around 2016. Like you mentioned, I saw the opportunity in the marketplace, particularly when I noticed the concept of “product” becoming more commonplace: for instance, mortgage products, financial products, and other things that were more abstract. My orientation around product was always related to something physical that I could touch or feel. This new concept of “product” got me curious. Prior to entering the training “product” domain, I wasn’t sure how traditional PM methods would apply to non-physical products. But as I got into it, I realized it was all the same: the formalization of new features, ensuring alignment with customer need, measuring success or failure of adoption, the application of agile development, the concept of backlog, etc. I enjoyed being able to talk a bit about my background and the work our teams are doing in AWS Training and Certification in the course, and I hope that it is inspirational to others.
Nancy, how did AWIP get its start?
Nancy Wang (AWIP) – I founded AWIP in 2017 as a meeting of product managers in my living room. Back then, I was the first female product manager in my division at Google. I noticed there were virtually no female role models from whom to learn or emulate. That realization motivated me to build my own network. So I started inviting other female product managers and allies of female PMs to network and sharpen our skills. So, that’s the origin of AWIP’s emphasis on people of underrepresented backgrounds.
We quickly outgrew my living room and became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Word spread as we offered workshops for companies in Silicon Valley. Membership grew as branches of AWIP emerged in SF, Seattle, London, Paris, NY, and most recently, India. We also formed our Ambassador program of executives who mentor and lend their voices to the underrepresented in their own organizations.
We’ve spent years gathering insights and producing content to create the ultimate learning resource for PMs. That’s why we created this course. I’m proud of the more than 30 AWIP Ambassadors and volunteers who contributed their knowledge to AWIP’s Real-World Product Management specialization. Through Coursera, we will reach even more individuals, level the playing field, and help them attain professional success. We are thrilled to support women and minorities all across the world to grow their careers and develop the skills necessary to become leaders today.
I know advancing inclusion and diversity is an important part of AWS culture and a business imperative. How do you see that showing up in your PM work?
Nancy Gessler (AWS) – There are many things going on at all levels of the organization, from tenets designed to help lead the business, affinity groups sponsored by leadership, and company-wide goals. It’s a tremendous focus for how we operate, which is why I am so proud to be aligned to the program that you are driving. From an AWS Training and Certification perspective, my team and I—along with our talented curriculum designers and instructors—look at how we can make cloud skills training inclusive on all levels, and create a diverse workforce of builders.
We’ve talked a lot about how this course opens up access to PM training and levels the playing field. What can learners expect from this course?
Nancy Wang (AWIP) – Our course is for anyone who has a desire to learn or sharpen their PM skills, and launch or grow their PM career. We teach the PM skills that hiring managers are really looking for, coupled with applied knowledge. Our original and core focus is on real-world applicability: learning what real PMs at leading product-centric organizations do to succeed. We developed this curriculum in collaboration with a professor from the George Washington University who has experience creating online educational experiences for business schools. He implemented a teaching style commonly referred to as “See One, Do One, Teach One.”
We guide learners through the types of assignments they’ll see again and again in interviews and on the job. In our course, learners will see PM skills in action, practice those skills themselves until they have mastered them, and then, in order to complete the course, they must also teach each skill to someone else. Not only do they benefit from solidifying those concepts for themselves, but they also get to help their classmates.
Finally, we prepare learners for their job interviews, by giving them opportunities to practice interviewing each other. They have access to more than 200 interview questions used by the top companies looking for highly skilled PMs.
Nancy Gessler (AWS) – Nancy, I’m so glad our paths crossed! This is an awesome opportunity you’ve created. There are such great benefits waiting for those who take it. And I hope we get feedback from folks who take the course and they share stories about their entrée into product management.
Nancy Wang (AWIP) – Likewise, and thank you, Nancy! We’ve received great feedback about the course so far, especially from other organizations who see this as a way to help upskill their existing PMs, and build their pipeline of new talent. We expect more than 200,000 learners by the end of the year and are eager to replicate this course for other job functions to help advance the careers of women and other minorities. Thanks again for supporting this course as one of our expert instructors!