Breaking into Product Management: Office Hours with Jen Hau

Welcome to Merit Office Hours! This week we're talking with Merit mentor, investor, and advocate Jen Hau. We do a deep dive breaking into product management. Jen shares her own experiences both as a lawyer-turned product manager and now as a hiring manager who interviews aspiring PMs.

Photograph of Jen Hau

Jen Hau is the Director of Product at Nava Benefits. After taking a non-traditional path into product management, she has spent the last ten years in product, holding leadership roles at Compass, VenueBook, VTS (formerly Hightower), Troops, and Better.

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Rachel Spurrier: You studied political science before receiving a JD at Boston College Law School, and then you joined Compass as an expansion PM. What was your path into product management, and what are some of the other paths that you've seen into product management?

Jen Hau: It's not on LinkedIn or my resume, because it's no longer relevant in my life, but I was a practicing attorney for about a year after law school. It was particularly stressful and also exciting, because I was really a pencil-skirt-wearing corporate litigation attorney and miserable.

People come from different backgrounds and they want to get into product, so people ask me this question a lot because of my background. I always tell people that I got really, really lucky. I just want to be very clear about that. I ended up at this weird open house Compass hiring bonanza. They were coming out of stealth mode. They needed a lot of bodies [laughs] and smart people to run operations for them, because they had just gotten this huge seed round.

I showed up, pretty sure in a pencil skirt [laughs], with my resume and a little leather-bound folder, which is what you do as an attorney. I had no idea what I was interviewing for or what I was going to say or what I could do there. The screening person who opened my folder looked at my resume and said, "Oh, you're a lawyer." At this point, I had gone to a couple other interviews and had gotten really weird reactions to that.

I always tell people also that you have to be used to getting “no” a couple times, and sometimes for really silly, irrational reasons that you won't be able to understand. For me it was, “No—because what do you think? That you're better than us?” because I had a law degree. People at startups, they can have complexes [laughs] about that stuff.

So when she paused and said, "Oh, you're a lawyer," I already had my defenses up. I was ready to go into this whole spiel about how this was always the plan, etc., etc. Then the really lucky thing was that she said, "Oh, I was a lawyer too.” Then she sent me to the next person I interviewed, who I happened to get along with really well.

I mentioned that story because you're going to try, and you're going to get told no sometimes. You have to keep trying, keep refining your story, and keep being persistent. I didn't start as a PM, either. When I started at Compass, I was basically a glorified data entry person.

When trying to become a product manager, you will get told "no" more than once. Don't give up and be persistent.

Breaking into tech was one part of it. Breaking into product management once you're in a tech organization is another part of that I think is much easier once you're there. I sometimes also tell people to get your foot in the door if you can, if you're willing to accept that you're going to have to work really hard and grind. I was much younger; I don't know that I could do it today, to be totally honest. Back then I was like, “Yeah, I'll do whatever, and I'll just work on being really excellent at this job” that I was honestly way overqualified for at that time. Basically I was answering emails and doing administrative work.

Become indispensable in your area, especially if you’re at a growing startup that's figuring a lot of its stuff out. Like I said, they need bodies and they need consistency, reliability, and ability to trust that someone can handle stuff. You have to become that person and then be very, very opportunistic.

Breaking into product management can take two steps: 1) getting hired at a tech company and 2) breaking into product management at that company. 

RS: My experience was similar where I got really lucky. I didn't study anything related to tech in undergrad. I went to a school in Texas, which at that time didn’t provide a lot of paths into the NYC tech scene. I met someone at an alumni event in the city whose company had just closed a massive funding round. They needed bodies. I joined as a customer success manager. I ended up in data entry, which I was also probably overqualified for. But I decided to be really, really good at that. Because I was good at that, I started working on more difficult data-related projects. A couple hops later, I was in product management.

I don't think that I would've gotten hired straight as a product manager. It took joining a company that needed humans and being good at what I was hired to do, even if it's not what I really wanted to do in the long term.

JH: I always tell people my story is a combination of luck and then grind—and also knowing the business. My angle similar to yours; I was joining in an operations-heavy role that required me to interface with many different people in the company and the customers. You eventually become so immersed in that world that you sometimes end up with more subject matter expertise than some of the people on product.

That's what happened at Compass, basically. They started hiring a product team with people from great places, like Google, but they didn't know real estate. I didn't know real estate before I joined the company, either, but I had to learn trial by fire, because people were yelling at me all day [laughs].

Once you become that source of knowledge, suddenly people start asking you questions. These product managers who received no onboarding, because it was a startup, were messaging me: “What does this acronym mean?” “What does this term mean?” “Can you talk to this customer?” because they were scared of some of these customers [laughs] and needed those bridges.

That happened naturally for me, and I didn't intend to do any of it. But when I tell people who do intend to go down this path, be opportunistic by making the right relationships, trying to position yourself adjacent to the product org, and being empathetic to product managers. They are people who, by the way, get shit on all day. Every day they're stressed; they have decision fatigue. Often they don't get much help or empathy.

I've seen this at almost every organization that I've ever been at, and now that I sit on the hiring manager side, I see it too: my team of PMs will form these partnerships or relationships with people on the ops or customer success side and kind of mentor them—an informal mentor-mentee relationship. It'll start with “Hey, do you want to help me like review this?” or “Do you want to help me gather a couple of trusted stakeholders in your neck of the woods for a meeting and facilitate that?”

And then inevitably, when I'm hiring, I think, "Oh God, we need another PM." It's my PMs who then tell me, "Don't hire someone else; bring in this person, because this person has been doing the work with me, wants to be a PM, and they are kicking ass, both in their current role and in their partnership with me."

You need an advocate. That's what happened to me; that's what happened to almost every person that I've brought in from customer success or operations. Either I've been their advocate or someone on my team has been their advocate.

Have empathy for product managers and try to build partnerships with them if you can. When a product role opens at the company, you could be an internal recruit if you’re well connected to the product org.

RS:  One of the things that I hear a lot of people mention when they talk about wanting to break into product management is they list the things that are "transferable skills." What are some of those transferable skills?

JH: The ability to communicate effectively and concisely and the ability to tailor communication depending on your audience. That is definitely something that can be played up in kind of any role. If you are able to say that you communicated really well to your boss or laterally to your peers about results of a project, status updates, etc., that is something that PMs have to do every day.

Another one is organization. Organization provides a little bit of relief. Otherwise you've got chaos and instability for your team.

Organization doesn't necessarily have to look like binders and Excels and tabs. It can look like someone who can create from ambiguity something that is bite-sized, understandable, and comprehensible. Organization is something people can demonstrate across a lot of different roles, like account management, customer success, operations.

RS: What are some pitfalls or reasons that someone might struggle to become a product manager?

JH: I'm going to say right off the bat that there are still structural inequities with our profession. There are a lot of false gates that have been put up under the guise of, “Product management is special,” and “Not everyone can do it.”

And then there's all the more insidious stuff: bias about certain types of people who can do product management, certain types of backgrounds that end up favoring certain demographics.

I want to state that first: there are lots of reasons why. Know that it's not going to be easy, unfortunately. You need to build up persistence if you want to do product management.

Secondly, getting that first product manager title on your resume is often the most difficult part. Once you do that, it can be quite easy to leverage that into other roles and leadership responsibilities, whether you're ready for them or not. I became a PM at Compass, and then right after that, I was a director of product. Did I deserve that? Absolutely not [laughs]. I had no idea what I was doing. I was cramming every day so that I didn't look like a complete fraud.

There's also just this sheer volume of people want to be PMs. At almost every org I've been at, there is a steady stream of people who want to become a PM. Not everyone can get a role, not because they're not qualified, but because there's not as many seats as people who want to do it.

Standing out becomes a big thing. That's where having an advocate becomes really important.

A lot of people want to become PMs without excelling in their current role. That is a bit of a red flag. Even though I said to be opportunistic and come in through the back door of a company, you also don't want to be obvious that “Hey, I'm coming into this role and I hate it, so I'm going to not try very hard.”

There is some degree of needing to prove yourself in your current role and having a really good reputation with your current team and your current manager.

Getting your first product management job is often the hardest part. Once you’ve become a PM, it’s easier to find new opportunities.

RS: I want to ask this in a way that doesn't sound negative. You mentioned that some people want to become product managers, but maybe not for the "right reasons." What are some of the reasons people want to become product managers that might indicate they're not going to be set up for success?

JH: When people don't fully understand what the role is day-to-day. There's a tendency to think PMs are high-level strategy people who make iPhones and cool stuff that gets a huge, Apple-style demo.

I'm exaggerating, of course. But I have heard people say, “It just looks so cool to be able to tell engineers what to do” or “I want to be the one to decide what to build.” That sounds like so much power. That is usually an indicator that someone's going to be disappointed. There is going to be mutual disappointment. There will be disappointment from the product org side and also disappointment from the individual once they realize that the “PM is the CEO of their subject area” isn’t accurate. I hate that phrase, by the way. I think it sets people up for unrealistic expectations.

Don't get me wrong, being a PM is a great job. You can have a huge impact, but it's not in that dictatorial way. You have to know when to be humble. You have to take a lot of different inputs and make hard decisions that are not going to make people happy.

Product managers can have a big impact on companies, but they don’t call the shots or dictate to others. Humility is an important quality of a successful PM.

RS: You’re never going to make everyone happy. You have to influence people; you have to convince them; you have to take them along with for the ride with you. You might have to change your mind, which is okay.

JH: You have to be accountable too. As unfair as it may seem, as the PM, everything that goes wrong is my fault, and everything that goes right is to everyone else's credit. If someone gives off this impression that they think it's all going to be wins and accolades, it's going to be a hard awakening because there are times when you have to say, “I messed up; I've really messed up. Here's exactly why; here's what we're going to do to prevent the next one.” Then you still somehow pick yourself back up and do it again.

RS: Absolutely. I think in a way, a product manager has to be a leader without being a manager. They set a lot of the tone for their team. The buck stops with them when things go wrong; they share the credit when things go right.

In terms of helping people learn about the day-to-day of product management or what the work really is, what are some of the things that you recommend people to do to get a better understanding of what it is to be a PM?

JH: If you are working at a place where you have a relationship established with the PM, it's always great to ask if you can shadow so long as it's not disruptive to you, your team, and their team. It's a little trial period for both sides. You get to see the veil drop, because sometimes, product, engineering, and design teams are like a black box to everyone else.

If you can, shadow multiple PMs. Every team has a different way that they do things, or PMs have different preparation methods. It’s not one size fits all.

Try to be on the lookout for as many frameworks as possible. PMs love their frameworks [laughs] so much. Frameworks are part of the whole taking chaos and ambiguity and trying to turn it into something concrete.

Have multiple tools in your toolkit. If you can only do RICE prioritization, what happens when you go to another company? Be able to choose different tools depending on the type of product, the maturity of the product, who you're talking to.

When breaking into product, learn as much as you can by asking to shadow product managers in your org and researching product basics and frameworks to build up your toolkit.

Not to do a plug, but things like Merit that enable access to working people who are doing the job and who have no ulterior motive other than to help are great.

If you still have questions on how to break into product management or level up your product career, talking with a mentor can provide advice and clarity. When you sign up for Merit, you immediately get access to hundreds of mentors you can talk to for free.

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