Episode 05: How to Break Into Product Management in Tech, with Diego Granados
On this episode, you’ll hear from Diego Granados – a Mexico City native, Microsoft Product Manager and YouTuber. On this episode, Diego tells us exactly what it means to be a product manager in tech, how to break into this career path, and what it takes to be successful in the role. Diego reassures any aspiring product manager that you don’t need to have a “technical” background or MBA to break into this path – and his YouTube channel, PM Diego Granados, dives even deeper to help people pivot into this fulfilling and exciting career path.
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Diego: You have to be a good storyteller as a PM. As a CEO, yes, you have people reporting to you, but as a product manager, you don’t have anybody reporting to you. So you have to convince them. You have to influence them to make a product, to make changes, to change the priorities. And you do that through stories.
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killin’ it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, have you ever thought about breaking into product management or wondered what a product manager in tech actually does? This is the perfect episode for you. Today I interview Diego Granados, who is a successful product manager at Microsoft, and he will break down exactly what it takes to break into this path no matter where you’re coming from. Diego is a Mexico native, he was a joy to talk to, he has an MBA from Duke Fuqua and he was originally trained as an engineer, but it turns out you don’t need either of those things to actually become a product manager. So tune in, and if you want to learn more, check the show notes on my website to make sure that you check out his YouTube channel, where he really goes in depth and helps people break into product management.
Priscilla: Hey Diego, welcome to the show!
Diego: Thank you so much Priscilla for inviting me. I’m super excited about this opportunity.
Priscilla: Of course, I’m super excited to dive into your path that led you to now be a Product Manager at Microsoft. So let’s dive in, and why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background really quickly?
Diego: Yeah, absolutely. Hello everyone. My name is Diego Granados and I am originally from Mexico City and I lived most of my life there, I studied electric engineering and I always thought that I was going to be working in building computers and new cell phones and video game consoles, but very fast I realized that it was not for me and I can tell you more about it, but all I can say is that now working as a PM, there is absolutely no traditional path to get into product management. And that’s one of the things that really excites me about this role.
Priscilla: Yeah. So why don’t we start with just defining product management? There seems to be lots of different terms for what it is to be a product manager. Can you tell us a little bit about these titles and what they mean?
Diego: There are different definitions to product management and depending on the book or the website that you cite, it’s going to be different yet similar in a way. But in that sense, if I can summarize what PM’s do…so, as a product manager, yes, you’ll be in the middle of technology and business and customers. And starting with the customers, PMs have to talk a lot with customers for many different reasons, right? Like from getting ideas and feedback all the way to testing or even to do a simple ideation phase where you run surveys and interview customers to figure out pain points. And that’s one of the beauties of being in product management is that you have all of this input from all these different customers. Then, product managers are also storytellers. And this is one of my favorite things that I keep talking about is you have to be a good storyteller as a PM. You have to make sure that the stories that you tell and how you convince people and how you write documents and product requirements or even presentations, they have to convey a story because like I was saying, as a CEO, yes, you have people reporting to you, but as a product manager, you don’t have anybody reporting to you. So you have to convince them, you have to influence them to make a product, to make changes, to change the priorities. And you do that through stories. And the stories are a combination of customer input feedback, data that you take and input from management and input from other teams. And you have to make a story out of all of this. So product managers are storytellers. And you also have to communicate in different languages. That’s another skill that PMs need to have. I’m not going to talk in the same way to engineering that I do to marketing or legal or finance. I have to constantly switch these quote-unquote languages so that I can be effective in meetings and be effective in the things that I write to convey that story. So we also have to understand and be empathic with not just customers, but with our different colleagues. We also have to talk about business, right? I think we always talk about improving products and having these successful features into the market, but we have to make money out of it. So you always have to think about the business and how are you going to price it and what’s the cost and is it going to be a bundle? Is it going to be attached to another license? And you have to deal with all of this ambiguity of the business itself. And finally people think that sometimes you do it alone, but in reality, it’s a dialogue or a conversation with your teammates and absorbing all the feedback from everyone and the customer. So you have to navigate in this ocean of ambiguity to basically in the end answer three big questions: What are we building? Why are we building it? And a combination of how and when is it going to be delivered? We could go into many more details, but I would say at a high level, this is what a product manager is. And just to finish answering your question, in general, the title is always, or almost always product management. There are a few exceptions, like for example, Microsoft still calls their product managers, program managers, but outside of Microsoft, I have not seen, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but I have not seen other companies mix those titles. And sometimes companies also just make it a little bit more specific by saying technical product manager versus business product manager, or just regular product manager. But that will be the only difference. Everything else, like project or program manager, again, except for Microsoft, it’s a very different role that sometimes gets confused with product manager and product owner, which is another title that is out there. But to summarize everything, I would say many companies are still confused on the title. Many companies still don’t adopt the product versus program manager like Microsoft, but in general, most of the time should just be product manager or technical product manager.
Priscilla: Yeah. And obviously the word product is pretty general, right? Like people could be working on a software or a hardware product, you know, what should people kind of be thinking about as they think about that role in choosing the product that they’re working on?
Diego: I would say search for the word technology on the internet and whatever pops out, I’m sure there’s a PM role for that. And it just doesn’t just extend to things like just hardware, software, or cloud. If it goes within industries, not the same to be a PM in a software business like Microsoft than to be a PM in the healthcare industry. That’s completely different in terms of the technology. The role might be similar, but the technology is going to be completely different. Right? And so, as you think of the PM role, the soft skills, you’re going to carry those with you along different products, different technologies and soft skills, again, being a storyteller and influencing others and all that. The technology, no ledge. It’s going to be easier to ramp up on that than the soft skills. So if you start to be in a hardware product, that’s a PM for manufacturing cars, that doesn’t mean that you can not end up in a hardware product in a software company like Google and working for Google home because you have that expertise of hardware and you also bring all the soft skills. So I think for aspiring PMs or for any PM in general, I think it’s about what is really exciting to you. What are the things you’d like to be working on? Do you like the B2B side of companies? Do you like business to consumer? Do you like products that are on a windows shop in retailers? Do you like medical devices? But there’s opportunities for it to be a PM in so many different technologies and products.
Priscilla: Yeah, definitely a lot to consider there. So in terms of qualifications, I know that you have an MBA, but have you seen that an MBA is necessary to become a product manager?
Diego: Not really. And that’s one of the things that I mentioned earlier, which is, I love the fact that to become a product manager, there are so many paths to get into this. Most of the PMs that you see out there, like me, have an MBA, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only path to get into product management. It’s just one way to get into PM.
Priscilla: Got it. So from the product managers that you’ve known and worked with, what do their backgrounds usually look like?
Diego: Honestly, it’s all over the place. I have friends who used to be in the army. I have friends who used to be architects, or friends also in sales or in finance. So really there is no traditional path. I think we call it a traditional background when we say a tech background or an engineering background, but really again, it’s just one way to become a PM. There are so many product managers that don’t have a technical or an engineering background. And that’s, again, one thing that I really like about this role, because it’s about what can you bring to the table? How can you help the team and that diversity of thought and backgrounds. I think it makes it a very rich and unique role. And yeah, there’s no traditional way. Having an MBA is just one way to do it. Having an engineering background is just one way to do it, but there are other ways to get into product management.
Priscilla: That’s really good to know, and really encouraging for people who are really interested in breaking into product management. So from what you’ve seen, what are some of the traits that the most successful Product Managers have in common?
Diego: Communication is key. Like I was saying before, we speak different languages, but the way you write your emails or text messages or user stories or product requirements, communication is super important for product management, because you are going to be talking all the time to different stakeholders, not necessarily in the meeting, but constantly talking to others. So that’s one thing. Leadership is definitely another important one. You are going to be leading without any authority. You have to influence, like you were saying, and that you have to make sure that your leadership style is helping the team. You don’t have anybody reporting to you. So how you, through your leadership, influence others. Dealing with ambiguity is a big one. Since day one that you join any company as a product manager, there’s going to be ambiguity. Tons of it. And you have to make sense out of that ambiguity and it’s your role to help the team understand the ambiguity on requirements, customer feedback, what’s the roadmap, what are we launching in the next two, three, five, six months, one year. Being a storyteller like I was mentioning before, it’s not just how you write an email, but it’s what message are you conveying to the team and how you’re communicating with these customers. And empathy. Empathy with customers, empathy with teams, understanding motivations and incentives. These characteristics are super important to product managers to make sure that it’s successful. And there are many others like being able to listen and presentation skills and how you’re going to put a presentation together. All of these, it’s important, but in general, the ones that I mentioned, like communication, leadership, dealing with ambiguity, storyteller, customer empathy, I would say those are big for a PM to have.
Priscilla: Yeah, so let’s transition a little bit to your own story and how you broke into product management. I know that you started out your career as an engineer at IBM, and then you moved into business intelligence consulting for five years. Tell me about why you decided to leave consulting to then get your MBA at Duke.
Diego: One thing to know about the consulting life is that in most cases, not all the time, but in most cases you finish a project, you give the project to the customer and that’s it. Then you start another project. And having that closure, I always felt like I needed to see what’s next. What happens next? Having that next set of next steps was missing for me. And. It was always interesting to learn from different customers, but at the same time, at some point it got repetitive. It was look at the data, understand the problem and figure out how best to represent and give them insights and then start all over again. So I was looking for what is next? What’s the next step for me?I knew that I wanted to change jobs, but I wasn’t sure exactly what type of job I wanted. And after debating, whether I wanted to simply switch to another company or maybe doing a master’s degree in the end, after talking to both people in different industries and alumni from MBAs, I realized that the potential for a master’s degree was beyond just switching a job. It was actually learning many more things about, for example, marketing and strategy and finance and all these other things that, as an engineer, I never had a formal education of those. And that’s what led me to start thinking about, okay it’s time to do an MBA.
Priscilla: So when you got to Duke, did you start off knowing you wanted to do product management or did you explore other options?
Diego: When I joined, I said, I know about consulting, why not be in a top consulting firm? I want to be in McKinsey, Bain, BCG. I want to be a management consultant. And it sounded really exciting and I put that in all the papers that I sent to Duke. And then the second day of classes, I realized that consulting was not for me. I was always thinking about my own experience as a consultant. And I said, no, I want something different. I want that closure. I want to be able to launch the products, but I didn’t know what kind of role will help me with that. So I went through the obvious ones, like marketing or operations. I was like, maybe this can help me. That was until I joined the tech club. And we started hearing from our second years who came back from their internships and they started talking about product management. And that was the moment when I realized that the role existed before that I had no clue that product management was a thing.
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Priscilla: So during your business school experience, you got to intern as a product manager. Tell us about that experience and what was it like?
Diego: My first product manager role was my internship at Cisco in California. I was super excited. It was sort of a nontraditional Cisco role. So I was not working on routers or switches or access points. I was actually hired for my internship to do sort of like a business case around a new product that was cooking at the time. We know that through the network that Cisco deploys, the wireless network, we can detect phones, tablets, computers, anything that is connected to wifi. How do we make a product that helps customers think of a hospital? How do we help them to track where phones are or wheelchairs or anything that is connected to the network? A lot of equipment is very expensive and so how do we help them with that? Since we already had the infrastructure, we can build a platform for it. And so that’s what I was working on, the business case I was working on for my summer internship.
Priscilla: Very cool. So what was the hardest thing for you to adjust to as you were trying out this product manager role for the first time?
Diego: I joined and my manager and the senior PM that I was working with at the time were like, well, so here’s the idea and we need to find out if it’s feasible, if we can do it, if we’re going to make business out of it. So yeah, we need you to give us an answer. And it was overwhelming. It was exciting at the time too, because it was like this huge problem and there was no clear structure or no clear way to perceive. And it was part of my job to figure that out and talking to customers and talking to partners and talking to other parts of Cisco, just to make sense out of the, hey, should we build this or not? And that was super exciting, but super challenging too. What made me comfortable was that I was always uncomfortable because I thought I was not making progress, but the more I talked to people, the more the engineering thing asked me questions and I was able to solve them. I realized that I actually was making progress. I was actually able to answer their questions in meetings where managers would say, hey, do you have data to back up our assumption then I’ll be like, well, I’m not sure if this is enough data, but here’s what three or four customers said. Here’s the survey that we run. Here’s the studies that I found online. Here’s the competitors. So I would just be putting this data together, but it was the first business case that I would do in that sense. I was always not sure if it was the right way to do it. And in the end, what would happen at the end of my summer internship was that I left Cisco to go back to school. And then I got the offer to come back full time. And when I accepted my offer to start at Cisco after graduation, one of the PMs that was close to my team said, Hey, by the way, just so you know, they took your business case and they made a product out of it and they started building it. And then now you’re going to go back and continue working on the project. So even though I felt that I didn’t have the confidence where I was unsure all the time in the end, it was a great experience for me.
Priscilla: Yeah. That’s really cool because it goes back to what you were saying around consulting, not being able to see the final product from your work. And it looks like you really got that even through your internship, which is pretty rare I would say for a lot of interns to come back a year later and see that your project is being implemented. So that’s pretty amazing.
Diego: Yes and it was super exciting to see how something that I built, a presentation because in the end, that was my deliverable. It was super fun to see, oh, actually they did something with it and I’m going to go back and continue working on it.
Priscilla: So how did you make the jump to Microsoft from Cisco?
Diego: After two years at Cisco, I was still working on the same product. We were still making it bigger and launching new features, so I had the opportunity to see the whole spectrum of PM from ideation, all the way to launching a product. It was very fun and very exciting. But I realized that if I wanted to continue growing at Cisco, I had to start thinking of taking a more traditional path in the company. What I mean by that is that I had to understand the trends of Cisco. Like for example, routing, switching, and access points or wireless, were kind of the bread and butter for the company and I had to transition into those products for me to learn more about the company and continue growing. But being a young millennial PM, I was not very excited about those products and I had to be honest with myself and say, yes, I could learn a ton of it, but I was just not very excited about it. So I started to plan, okay, what’s next in my career and the one thing that I decided to do was I was not just going to leave Cisco for the sake of leaving Cisco. I was going to leave Cisco to another company that was really exciting for me, that I could work on products that I could be excited for and I could show it to the world, to my family, to friends and be like, yes, that’s the thing that I’m building. And I started my research and after interviewing with different companies like Amazon and Microsoft and Google, the one that was really exciting to me and I love the team and I love the culture of the company was Microsoft. And I’m a huge gamer. And I love new technologies like AR and VR. And at a company like Microsoft, what I’m working on today, even three years or five years, I want to switch to another place that gives me that opportunity to test really cool things, Microsoft is a place for that and that’s part of why I’ve decided to join Microsoft in the end.
Priscilla: That’s a really good point. And I think it’s great that you were able to be reflective and figure out which kind of product would get you really excited. So tell us what excites you the most about what you do today at Microsoft?
Diego: I work mostly as a technical PM, not fully technical, not fully just business, sort of in the middle, working on AI and machine learning. So what I do is I work with my AI team on building machine learning features that go into other Microsoft products. So we work closely within dynamics 365, the B2B product family of Microsoft. There’s one product called customer insights and they do have some AI capabilities and my role is to help bring those capabilities to life. I work on machine learning predictions and how we put those as features into that customer insights product. And I have to say before that I knew nothing about machine learning, so it’s also been really exciting from a learning perspective. It’s definitely a new world to me and it’s something that once you are working on it and you see the possibilities and even the challenges it’s really exciting to work in AI and machine learning.
Priscilla: Amazing. Amazing. So, Diego, will you tell us a little bit about your YouTube channel and the work that you’re doing to help people break into product management?
Diego: Yes. So when I was in business school, I would buy, you know, any book that was out there at the time or watch videos or read articles about how cool it was to be a PM. And the books were mostly about interviews, right, and they would give you like, oh, here’s a question and here’s a simple answer. And I would read those and I was like, that’s so cool. That’s a great answer. I have no idea how to get from where I am to that great answer. Like how did they come up with that? So after graduation and after working as a PM and after interviewing a lot of folks to get into product management at Cisco, and now at Microsoft, I started understanding more about the interview process, the things that we look for in candidates, and also just by listening to so many answers from candidates, it led me to realize that. A lot of them were having the same issues that I had, which is yes, that was a great answer in that book. But when you are in real life and in an interview, it’s hard to craft that answer. So I started helping some folks online with one-on-one sessions, especially through LinkedIn. And at some point it was impossible for me to keep up. Besides working in Microsoft, I’m also studying a second master’s degree and I just didn’t have the time to meet with as many as I wanted to help them through creating resumes and preparing for interviews. So I started thinking what’s the best way to help them. And that’s how I started with my YouTube channel. And I want to focus my channel on helping people to first of all, understand more about PM and second help them de-mystify the steps to get into product management and that is breaking down here’s what a great answer looks like and here’s how you build to that answer. And that’s why I created my YouTube channel.
Priscilla: Great. So last question. What advice do you have for aspiring product managers, other than checking out your invaluable YouTube resources?
Diego: There are many ways to get into PM and I’ll try to summarize it super fast in this answer, but essentially you have to understand that if you’re trying to go from your current role into a new company, as a PM, it can be really tricky because you’re changing probably industry, you’re changing role and company. The more variables you’re trying to change, the harder it becomes. So one way to get into product management is change the company. Like for example, if you’re interested in Google or Microsoft or Amazon or Apple or any company you want, try to change to that company in a role that you are doing today and then navigate your way into product management by networking and building side projects. But that’s one option. Another option is if you want to do it in your same company, networking with product managers and see how you can help them. That’s a second way to transition into PM. A third one is if you don’t have PMs in your company and you’re struggling to prove that you have the PM value, and this applies to both working, uh, you know, professionals and students, start building side projects. For the engineers out there, it’s not about just coding. For the non-engineers out there, it’s not about coding. It’s about thinking like a PM, building the business case, interacting with users, building a portfolio and showing to the world, hey, I can be a PM. I built this project from scratch and here’s how I would approach it if I were a PM. All of those are going to be just extra points in your resume and through the interviews. And finally, I would say, courses are going to help you understand more about the PM world, but there’s no certification, at least not today, there is no certification that is going to prove to the world that you can be a PM because certifications are not about proving the skills, it’s about proving the knowledge and PM is about skills. So the more you do versus learning and getting the certifications, the more you do, the better or the easier it’ll be to talk to recruiters or other PMs about yes, you can be a PM. So in summary don’t feel overwhelmed by the fact that you’re not getting a PM role today. There are so many paths to get into product management and reach out. There’s always somebody to help to get you into product management.
Priscilla: Diego. This was so helpful. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Diego: Thank you, Priscilla. This was awesome. I really enjoyed it. And for anybody out there struggling, feel free to reach out on LinkedIn or my YouTube channel. I’m here to help you guys. I was struggling like you a few years ago, I broke into PM, and now what I’m trying to do is really demystify the process of getting into product management.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves Podcast! Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community! And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Have a great week!