Jack had a proven track record and passion for finding customer solutions, but he lacked formal product management training. After doing some research, Jack decided his best option was the part-time Product Management Bootcamp at General Assembly. He’s been able to apply principles like prioritization, user research, and validation to his job at Bonfyre, and as a result, has taken on more responsibility and PM projects! Read Jack’s invaluable advice about juggling full-time work (and parenting) with a bootcamp, working for startups versus large companies, what it takes to move into a Senior Product Manager role, and how to collaborate online at a bootcamp like General Assembly.
How did you get started in product management?
I spent the majority of my career in Chicago working in digital advertising and technology, focused on digital advertising strategy and client management. The part of my career that I loved was being able to work with clients to come up with creative ways to solve their problems and achieve their business objectives. Through that work, I would find myself working on product solution-type projects. I advocated for the customers to understand what they needed our product to do and then worked with our developers to figure out how to make it work.
I became an Account Executive at Google where I built a support team for large hospital systems and health insurance companies. In that role, I liked being on the cutting edge of a lot of different technologies. I got to lean on more of the type of work that would be considered product management. We had to understand the needs of the market, and then decide if we could fill the needs with what we had or if we had to add into our wide suite of Google products.
Even though working at Google was a wild ride, I knew I wanted to go to a smaller company where I could have more opportunities to work on a product. The blessing and curse of working for Google is that you have all of the resources in the world, but a company of that size designs products for the largest possible subset of customers. That meant the things I wanted to work on and the projects I wanted to tackle were never going to be picked up.
I found out about Bonfyre, and I liked that they were a smaller team with fewer layers of division between the customers and the product team, making it much more nimble. I joined Bonfyre, and went from one of the biggest companies in America to a 30-person startup and I loved it.
Since you already had some on-the-job experience, what inspired you to enroll in General Assembly’s Part-Time Product Management Bootcamp?
When I was first looking at bootcamp programs, I was actually researching coding bootcamps. I’ve been interested in learning to code for several years and I’ve done some self-teaching. The reason I ended up at General Assembly for product management instead of coding is because of their admissions advisors. When I spoke with the advisor about what I was looking for, she recommended the Product Management course because the topics I wanted to focus on were the core responsibilities of a product manager.
Although I had been doing product manager work throughout my career, I never really had the vocabulary to describe that work. After completing the product management course through General Assembly I now feel like I can speak confidently and effectively in interviews for PM roles in the future.
So instead of searching for a new job after the product management bootcamp, you’ve actually stayed with Bonfyre and been able to shift roles – how was that transition as you learned at General Assembly?
It’s been a fairly smooth transition, and the result has been a more satisfying role. I’m a Customer Solutions Architect at Bonfyre, and the product management part of my job is directly related to what I learned in the course, including speaking effectively at our roadmap meetings about what we should be doing as a team. Before General Assembly, I was focused solely on client success and now my time is split between client success and product. Going through the bootcamp, my skills have improved, and more opportunities have opened up for me to focus on the product since I’m more efficient. Bonfyre has been great about creating opportunities for me, which was one of the reasons I wanted to work there. I’m doing product management work, but I’ve also gotten a lot better at my client management role.
What was the General Assembly application process like?
I think it varies depending on your experience-level. It was easier for me because I had already been doing informal product management work throughout my career, which made it easier for the admissions advisor to say I was eligible to enroll.
What were your bootcamp instructors like?
I was extremely happy with my instructor, Cait Porte — she is fantastic! Cait has 15 years of direct product management experience and what she brings to the classroom is irreplaceable. She is now the Head of Product at a company, so you know she’s a high-level professional who does this every single day. I don’t know about other product management bootcamps, but speaking from my own college experience, I’ve rarely had an educator at that level like Cait. If you have a question, Cait gets back to you and she doesn’t just give you the answer; she gives you guidance, but also challenges you to push a little further to come to a solution by yourself.
Did the teaching style match how you learn?
The Product Management bootcamp at General Assembly is the first classroom experience I've had where the two hours flew by and being in class was amazing. I’ve dealt with ADHD for my entire life, so school has always been something to overcome. Growing up, I did well in school, but it was through sheer will and studying. I can’t just listen to someone talk and then remember it — I have to like what I’m learning. The difference between a typical classroom and a bootcamp is in how the bootcamp class is structured. The fact that the bootcamp is structured with class-time and project-time was beneficial to me.
The bootcamp is a mix of informal presentations and then breaking out to do exercises and practice. After that, they add the next concept that builds on what we just did. This made the classes impactful. Another important factor is that the course is structured around projects. Throughout each week, you apply what you learned to the product you’re developing for your final project. I’m impressed with the amount of content, information, discussion, and practice we get through with just two hours twice a week.
Were you able to collaborate with your instructors and classmates even though you were learning online?
The bootcamp is very collaborative. There were eight people in my class and we did a ton of group exercises. When we do group exercises, we break out to discuss a plan before bringing it back to share with the instructor. In each class, we do a 15-minute breakout to brainstorm solutions to an issue a business is having and we all work together.
I might just have had a great cohort, but people are in the Slack channel during the week sharing articles, offering feedback, and giving support for people’s projects. It’s been collaborative and open in addition to being a psychologically-safe environment.
How did you balance the part-time bootcamp with your full-time job and being a parent with a new baby?
It’s been a lot! My wife has been gracious, and has doubled down on parenting, and this has allowed me to dedicate the time that otherwise would have been spent caring for our son. I’ve also been able to juggle the bootcamp with my life because of the way the course is organized. That said, I did my homework during the time I would normally sleep in and I would dedicate time on the weekend that would normally be spent on personal interests. It’s been tough, but it’s doable!
What exactly did you learn throughout the Product Management Bootcamp?
Each week was broken down into a topic where we began with a general understanding of product management. From there, we dug into product management ecosystems, understanding the stakeholders you interact with, understanding business needs, understanding the market, identifying an audience within the market, determining which problems the product solves, and deciding which tools are necessary to create a wireframe for the product.
We learned foundational things, like doing research,conducting customer interviews, understanding the problem you’re trying to solve, and coming up with a solution. From there, we got into the nitty-gritty of validating ideas and building a product plan. For example, I’ve been working on an Airbnb project. The problem is that users say it’s hard to find a place that is unique. I conducted interviews to try and understand how important uniqueness is to a booking. I found that uniqueness is an important consideration, but users that are traveling with kids really want to know the room layouts, such as a dark room for their kids to sleep in so they don’t have to upend their sleep schedules. That isn’t a situation I had even considered and it ended up informing how I tackled the project. I got so much validation that I decided to solve that problem. That was the most enjoyable project for me.
In the last two weeks of class, we covered development frameworks, interacting with developers, writing pitches that are easy to understand, and convincing everyone to buy to make a feature happen.
What was your favorite project to work on at General Assembly?
My favorite bootcamp project was research and validation. I conducted a lot of customer interviews where I was trying to suss out information without leading the customer to what you want as a solution. That way, you find out if the problem you’re trying to solve is something people actually deal with, and whether or not your solution will solve the problem.
The most challenging project was when we started to get into the roadmap. There are a lot of steps for my solution to the problem and all of these steps need to be completed before we can test it. This introduces a lot of risks since we have to do a lot of upfront work before we get to a test that could tell us the solution doesn’t solve the problem. I’ve worked with my instructor on this to help me think of different ways to break down this product into discrete, smaller steps that can be verified faster. This will help us know quickly whether or not the idea will work.
What kinds of projects are you working on at Bonfyre?
Bonfyre works in the employee engagement and culture space, and the pandemic exposed the need for team leads and managers to engage digitally with their employees. They’ve never had to do that before, so we’ve been building a new product that’s specifically designed to make it easy for managers to interact with their team. We’re building towards a solution where we can automate reminders to managers to take specific actions. We can then measure the impact of those actions on employee satisfaction, retention, and team performance as well as having these optimize themselves. I’ve been the product manager for about 20 new features in that project.
One of the things I’ve used most since starting the class is user stories. It’s important to be able to frame what the customer wants and why you’re recommending it. It also helps when you’re partnering with the development team and you need to explain why you’re asking for something.
Prioritization has been huge in my product manager role. We have a backlog of features or improvements that have been requested. Before taking this course, I would look at the list and wonder why we hadn’t implemented some of them. The class taught me how to effectively prioritize these features we want to develop. It’s been helpful for understanding why we might deprioritize something in favor of another feature that will have a larger impact on the company.
My bootcamp knowledge has also helped me be more convincing when I talk with our development team to get a feature prioritized. I can tell them the user value, business impact, and risk of not implementing a change, as well as, communicating what it will take to pull it off. It’s been helpful when I have conversations around the roadmap. I understand everything they’re trying to tackle more intimately and I can phrase my requests in a way that makes more sense to them.
What’s the difference between working in product management at a startup versus a larger company?
Startups are much much more flexible and agile. You can go quickly from a couple of customers asking about an issue to figuring out a solution and releasing a beta process to solve it. There aren’t those entrenched structures in place so we can be more flexible.
Another benefit to a startup is more hands-on experience. At a big company, you might start as one of 40 different product managers that are all tackling different things. You might have a product you work on for an entire year while competing for developer resources. At a startup, you get more experience from research to execution and you get to do more pieces of work than you would at a larger company. In bigger companies, the research, prioritization, and UX design functions are all broken up. You might do more and bigger work, but you would probably focus on one area. At a startup, I’ve had the opportunity to work in every part of the life cycle of a product.
What are the differences between an entry-level product manager and a senior-level product manager?
As you rise up in level as a product manager, both the scope and business impact of the products you’re working on increases. When first starting, you might be working on something like Amazon’s function to show similar products that other customers viewed. Meanwhile, the senior-level product manager at Amazon is trying to figure out how to roll out shopping for Alexa. At the senior-level, you’re also closer to the CIO and CTO. You have more input in the big decisions like staff development and which development philosophy to use.
Before I went to General Assembly, companies would probably have hired me as a Junior Product Manager. After completing this General Assembly course, building up my vocabulary and understanding of product management, doing industry-specific tasks and using the right frameworks, I feel more confident about interviewing for a mid-level or senior-level role.
How important is mentorship when upskilling in product management?
Mentorship is important because for most people, coming into product management is a big departure from their past experience. It’s a specific function that touches a lot of different parts of a business. I came into General Assembly with some experience, but having an instructor to point out the pitfalls that people normally fall into has been eye-opening. My instructor helped me think about a topic differently and shared examples. Having a mentor who has made those mistakes has helped me avoid easy pitfalls that anyone just starting out would fall into has made a difference.
What’s your best advice for future product management students at General Assembly?
Come in with the expectation that this will be a safe environment and do your best. It’s hard to work a full day and then come home to do class for two hours. The last thing I would want is for someone to let that keep them from getting the most out of this class. The best way to get value is to be engaged and ask questions. If you’re coming into the course thinking you can chill in the back and take notes, you won’t get the same value as if you participated.
Looking back, was General Assembly worth it for you?
Definitely. At the very least, I have a certificate of completion from General Assembly, which is a well-known company. In interviews, it’s not just me showing my self-taught knowledge; I’m able to back that up by showing what I learned at this great bootcamp.
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