July 31, 2021

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5 women share their journey into product management and advice for others looking to enter the field

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By Nancy Wang, Jenny Wolochow, Melody Liu, Terri Czerwinski, and Saummya Kaushal.

Product management has emerged as an essential role for any company seeking to deliver outstanding user experiences by creating products that people enjoy and find valuable. The product manager (PM) is the person who identifies the customer persona and leads a team to build a product that makes customers’ lives better while also meeting business objectives for the company. Successful product managers have a wide array of competencies, including everything from user testing and strategic planning to market research and revenue modeling.

With only 34% of product management roles occupied by women today, there is an opportunity to help more women envision themselves in this impactful field. To build a product for a diverse audience, the builders themselves should have diverse experiences. Women PMs can bring different perspectives and encourage intersectional thinking, resulting in better products that are more inclusive of broader audiences.

Today, women PMs are making tremendous impacts across industries and around the world, and they’re inspiring new generations of women to enter the field.

For this post, we’ve brought together five PMs, including Nancy Wang, instructor of the Real-World Product Management Specialization and founder of Advancing Women in Technology. Along with Nancy, joining us for this round table discussion are four Coursera product managers: Jenny Wolochow, Melody Liu, Terri Czerwinski, and Saummya Kaushal.

They discuss what it’s like to work in product, the impact you can make in the field, and why you, too, should consider a career in product management! 

Let’s get started with our first question!

[Nancy] Take risks. 

When I became a people manager at Google at the age of 24, I had so much self-doubt—that sinking feeling that I should not be a manager. That was the first thing I had to overcome. To realize that age is an arbitrary number and that career success comes from hard work, rigid determination, and good judgment. Those are often the themes of my mentoring sessions with the members of Advancing Women in Tech who are interested in their next promotion or raise. 

Take the risk of growing your scope and influence and double down, no matter how strange it feels to you and no matter what your detractors say. 

[Jenny] You can become a successful product manager even if you come from a non-technical background! As a PM, you don’t need to know how to write code yourself, but you should feel comfortable working closely with engineers every day and learn the lingo so you can become an effective translator between technical and non-technical teammates. Before I became a PM, I took some online courses (of course!) to learn about SQL, Python, and agile product management methodologies. I developed transferable skills while working in product-adjacent roles at Coursera, where I got to know our users and product very well and gained experience working with cross-functional teams.

[Melody] It’s important to find your skill-to-role fit when you get into a new PM role. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to product management. Every company, team, and product requires a slightly different skill profile to succeed. For example, PMs at early-stage ‘business to business’ startups need to deeply understand enterprise buyer personas, while PMs on the growth team of a top consumer app need to be masters of funnel analysis and experimentation. We need to adapt our approach and grow our skillset to serve our customers, teams, and company. We also need to keep in mind the unique value and strengths we bring to the table from past experiences. 

[Terri] Product management is amazing, but it’s not an easy career.  We need the courage to take the heat from an angry customer in order to understand and empathize with them, the confidence to negotiate with skilled engineers about topics we only partially understand, the tenacity to evangelize a new and unproven product vision to unconvinced leaders, and the resilience to get up the next day and do it all again.  We have to give ourselves permission to be imperfect and to not internalize or personalize the challenges of the day. It’s not just about successfully getting through meetings each day. A PM should strive to become a thought leader.  A mentor of mine once said that PMs run the risk of being short-order cooks, delivering on simple requests with the intent of giving each individual customer exactly what they asked for.  

PMs need to be chefs, building an experience that delights all customers and delivers something new and unique that you can’t get anywhere else.

[Saummya] Don’t be afraid to question or challenge existing assumptions or ideas, even if they come from your leadership team or CEO. Make sure you feel confident in the problem you’re solving—why it’s important, as well as the solution approach. It’s also valuable to find opportunities to work in areas that wouldn’t traditionally be considered part of a product manager’s role, for example, business development, analyzing profit & loss, and more. Having experience in these adjacencies can enable you to take on more leadership roles within product management and influence cross-functional leaders.

[Nancy] My advice is the same advice I’d give to an applicant for any other job: show your interviewers that you can already do the work.

I’ve hired a number of product managers and interviewed many more. What I look for are people who can be productive on day one with minimal oversight. That’s generally true across my company, at Amazon Web Services, and across many companies in the industry. Accomplishments from school or other fields are not enough—not when there are already plenty of experienced product managers from within Amazon and the technology ecosystem applying to my job openings.

[Jenny] Join communities where you can meet other women product managers — either in-person or virtually. I get inspired every time I hear stories from women who transitioned from a different career to become a product manager, and it helps normalize that experience. Here are two that I’ve been involved in: The @womenpm organization has an active Facebook group and puts on a great annual conference as well as local chapter meetups. There’s also a thriving Slack community for @womeninproduct, where people ask for help and find mentors. Both organizations also post job opportunities. 

[Melody] Start to think like a PM when you use tech products in your personal life or at work. What problem does LinkedIn uniquely solve for job seekers? Why would or wouldn’t you pay for Spotify premium? When you see a bad UX in JIRA or a Software-as-a-Service tool that you use at work, how would you change or fix it? What could make Clubhouse 10x more valuable? These are questions that you will encounter in your future PM career and possibly in a PM job interview. 

Forming a habit of product thinking can help build your PM skills and intuition before you even start working in the field.

[Terri] Find a mentor (or two!) and grow that relationship over the long term. A mentor will help you build the many nuanced skills that are needed to thrive as a product manager and advance within the profession. A mentor is also a critical member of your network, opening up career opportunities and helping you to weigh the pros and cons of each career decision that you make. The best mentors push you out of your comfort zone and challenge you to dream big and confront your weaknesses.

[Saummya] The best way to learn is by doing! The best PMs don’t wait for someone to tell them about a problem or an opportunity. Identify an opportunity at your company (or even in your day-to-day life), validate the problem statement, come up with a test or solution, roll up your sleeves to make it happen, and measure impact. This should give you a flavor of what it’s like to be a PM. It can be a tough but rewarding role, so it’s good to get some experience to get a sense of whether you truly enjoy it. Additionally, if you’re able to successfully fill a gap that might exist at your company today, this can ultimately lead to transitioning into product management when a role or a new opportunity opens up.

[Nancy] One challenge is when no one at your level looks like you—when other tech leaders are male and have decades more experience. I had to wrestle with and control my self-doubt. 

My way of approaching those obstacles was to have amazing mentors and sponsors who saw my potential and took risks on their own careers to advocate putting me in managerial and leadership roles. Eventually, your track record overwhelms others’ preconceived notions, and other leaders in your industry will welcome you as one of them.

[Terri] Early in my career, I was uncomfortable with conflict. I focused on trying to solve everyone’s problems. This approach never got me into trouble, but I came across as lacking conviction and confidence. With the help of some great mentors, I explored and refined my brand so that I kept my core strengths of curiosity and empathy, while improving my influence and leadership skills. I also took the time to understand human psychology and the variety of motivators that drive people. These skills have allowed me to advocate for my ideas effectively while continuing to be my authentic self. 

[Melody] Shifting from “doing” to “leading.” As a startup PM, I formed a habit of trying to “do it all,” filling in for cross-functional gaps and having a strong bias towards actions. However, as my scope grew and changed, my work became more complex and chaotic—the “doing it all” mindset became an obstacle: it forced me to commit unsustainable work hours and made me feel guilty for compromised quality; in some cases, me “doing it all” took away the opportunities for other people to grow and covered up a potential system or process problem. I later learned that this habit would prevent me from becoming a true product leader. 

Rather than focusing on individual contribution, a good leader delegates, empowers teams, and drives system and process improvements. 

To resist the urge of “doing” and shift my mindset to “leading,” I adopted a few great tips from my mentors and leadership books: 1) keep a not-to-do list and just let go, 2) invest time in delegating—formulating vision and direction instead of falling for the immediate gratification of “doing,” 3) understand people’s motivation and competencies to delegate and show people that you trust them and recognize their work, and 4) keep an eye out for patterns of system and process problems. Over time, I noticed the questions in my head started to shift from “how, what, why,” to “when and who.” I was able to develop stronger leadership skills and empower teams to deliver greater results.

[Saummya] While there’s been a lot of great work recently on inclusivity, I had faced some challenges to make my voice heard and be recognized for my work, especially as I transitioned into more senior roles. I found it valuable to create a support network of peers and leaders in my organization whom I felt confident would not only provide me with candid feedback but were genuinely motivated in helping me grow. Being able to have candid conversations with a support network helped me figure out how to navigate tough situations. 

I’ve learned that while every challenging experience is a learning opportunity, it’s also equally important to be on a team that values you!

[Jenny] Women are half of the world’s population, so why wouldn’t they be involved in creating products?  

When creating products for a diverse set of users, it helps to have a team that represents the people you’re creating products for. 

There are many examples of how a failure in representation during product development ends up causing issues for end-users, for example, when facial recognition doesn’t work as well for women and people with dark skin. 

[Melody] Jenny said it well! I’d just add that it’s also critically important to have more women in product leadership roles. Gender shouldn’t be a factor in whether a person can be a great leader. Yet, the percentage of women in leadership roles is painfully low. The low presence of women in leadership, in many cases, discourages qualified women from taking on leadership roles. We need a change to break the cycle.

[Terri] Product managers are in a good position to influence the culture of the company where they work. Women PMs have an opportunity to evolve the company culture to find the right balance of policies, communication styles, and decision-making approaches that work well for both men and women. Those of us already in the PM position, or other influential roles, should lean in and help to promote equal opportunities for women and to promote diversity overall. 

[Saummya] Could not have said it better than Jenny, Melody, and Terri! A cross-functional role like product management can really benefit from diverse points of view. Not only does this help build better products for the end-users, but it also helps a company succeed by reaching a broader base.

I mentioned earlier that experienced product managers from within Amazon and the technology ecosystem are steadily applying to my job openings. That insularity is what motivated me to work with Coursera and AWS to create the Real-World Product Management Specialization

Now, for the first time, Coursera learners around the world can take our course and come to a product management interview—we focus on Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft interviews specifically—with an entire portfolio of over 20 product management work products that align with what employers are looking for. I wanted to increase opportunities for those who are not already PMs. 

Product management has become an influential and lucrative career track. We want learners who complete this Specialization to have the same skills and knowledge as an MBA graduate interviewing for a PM opening at a top tech company. More generally, we want to level the playing field for all women and minorities who are interested in pursuing product management as their career path, even if they don’t have the time or money to pursue that MBA. Our course director, Gordon Yu, was on the faculty of a Tier 1 MBA program before he joined Amazon. Throughout the program, he and I teach the real-world PM experiences and successes of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and other leading companies.

I founded AWIT in 2017 with the goal of getting more women and minorities into tech leadership roles. We do this through our skills-based workshops and our executive mentorship program. Even if you’ve finished the Real-World Product Management Specialization, we encourage you to come join AWIT for more exciting programming at advancingwomenintech.org

We believe that the future of tech leadership is roughly 50% male and 50% female. We also believe in supporting male allies and welcoming all people, no matter their background, and that aspiring leaders need to put in the substantial study and work in their industry and organization to become ready to lead.

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We want to take this opportunity to thank all our contributors for their insights, guidance, and inspiration. Product management is a vital and dynamic field, and it’s no surprise that skilled product managers are in such high demand. Every one of us here at Coursera benefits immeasurably from the incredible work that our product managers do every day and their commitment to our community of learners is unshakeable. 

As we learned from the responses above, mentorship is a critical part of career development, and we hope you found inspiration in the advice these leaders shared. You can get involved in product management by joining AWIT and exploring resources shared in this post, like the Real-World Product Management Specialization on Coursera.


About the authors

Saummya Kaushal

With the exciting number of learners turning to Coursera as well as the growth of our product offerings, Saummya is focused on finding ways to enable this growth across all products through scalable support systems, platforms and machine learning-driven solutions at Coursera. Prior to Coursera, she was leading product development for new products & geographies at OnDeck. She is passionate about using technology for good and what better way to do that than democratizing access to education.

Terri Czerwinski

Terri Czerwinski is the Principal Product Manager for Coursera for Campus, which skyrocketed onto the Coursera scene in 2020 – expanding to thousands of participating universities since the product launch a little over a year ago.  She started her career as a Software Developer, but quickly discovered that her true calling was product management, working first within Enterprise customer relationship management companies, with a pivot to education technology.  With a family full of educators, Terri believes in the ability of education to transform lives and is thrilled to be at Coursera, helping millions of learners from around the world thrive.

Jenny Wolochow

Jenny Wolochow has worked at Coursera for over 7 years and is currently a Senior Product Manager on the Core Platform team at Coursera. She focuses on the educator experience, building authoring and admin tools that partners use to create and manage their courses on Coursera. Before becoming a PM, Jenny worked in University Partnerships and Product Marketing at Coursera. Jenny is passionate about civic engagement and education, and is excited to put the power of technology to good use serving learners around the world. 

Melody Liu

Melody is Senior Product Manager responsible for technical learning & content authoring experience at Coursera. She has been instrumental in launching and scaling Coursera’s latest hands-on learning platform — Coursera Labs, which has reached millions of learners within the first year of launch and was voted as #1 platform innovation by educators. Outside Coursera, Melody serves as a volunteer executive for a K12 non-profit and was previously building artificial intelligence products at two early-stage SaaS startups in the Bay Area. Melody is passionate about democratizing access through education and technology and building lasting business ventures that positively impact society.

Nancy Wang

Nancy Wang is a global product and technical leader, having led P&L, product, engineering, and cross-functional teams at Silicon Valley tech companies like Google and Amazon, as well as at unicorn startups. She is currently a General Manager at Amazon Web Services, having scaled a brand new service (launched in January 2019) from prototype to multi-product data protection platform spanning the entire AWS cloud, achieving a run rate of hundreds of millions of dollars in under 2 years. 

Nancy is also founder and CEO of Advancing Women in Product (AWIP), a global 501(c)(3) nonprofit with over 16,000 members that partners with leaders at Fortune 500 companies to provide women and minorities equal opportunities for career advancement. Nancy started her career with the US Government, where she built the platform that united zetabytes of healthcare data from agencies such as the NIH and CDC. She earned a degree in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania, which awarded her its Trustee’s Scholarship.

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