BrainStation Product Management Instructor Khaled Zaky is also a Director of Product Management at the Royal Bank of Canada. He wanted to share his knowledge, so he started teaching aspiring product managers on evenings and weekends, online and in Toronto. Khaled tells us how he uses real examples from his job to help his BrainStation students understand product management concepts, helps students with networking, and wishes he had been able to take a similar course when he started his own PM career!
Tell me about your background and work experience. How did your career path lead you to teach the Product Management certificate course at Brainstation?
My background wasn’t related to product management at all. I graduated from McMaster University with a software engineering degree, which gave me the ability to start off my career on the technical side as a Software Engineer. I worked for a myriad of companies before I ended up as a Product Manager. I was a Solutions Architect for Rogers Communications. My job was to understand problems and pitch solutions based on our product portfolio at the time.
Later, I moved on to the financial sector. I became the Product Manager at TD Bank, and now I am Director of Product Management at the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC). I started teaching BrainStation’s five to 10-week online and weekend courses in April of 2018. It’s been a delightful experience.
What made you want to work with Brainstation?
When I was at university, I was a Teacher’s Assistant. I found I learn more by teaching others. When you start to explain something to someone, even if you’re not an expert, you always eventually become an expert. As I went along in my career, I had an itch to teach again and share my knowledge. I end each class having both shared and gained knowledge. I exit as more of an expert in my domain.
Brainstation gave me that opportunity. I get to tell people what I think of product management and how we can apply real-world principles. We look at how to interact with engineering teams and wear different hats while working with engineers, business, and executive stakeholders. We look at how to defend a vision to leadership, inspire change, and redefine simplified processes. It’s two very different mindsets with two different modes of operation that product managers end up in, but I feel like the whole practice makes us think strategically and tactically.
How do you balance your teaching with your role at RBC?
It’s actually quite balanced. I teach BrainStation’s weekday night classes on Mondays and Wednesdays from 6:30pm to 9:30pm. So it’s not too bad because my office hours don’t usually extend beyond 6pm. My other engagements with Brainstation are on the weekends, so it’s more relaxed. It’s usually around 9:30am to 4:30pm, so you still have time to relax and enjoy time with family. It works the same way with my students as well. Most of my students are working professionals. They take the class to upscale their own learning.
What does the Product Management certificate course curriculum cover?
This product management bootcamp is at a high level. It starts on the strategic side and lands on the tactical side. The curriculum looks at how you identify a product, and drive that product idea through engineering to MVP, including topics like:
We also look at what actually is a digital product, and what the difference is between a project manager and a product manager. We teach students the MVP concept, which is one of the core principles in ‘The Lean Startup’ by Eric Ries. This prepares students for the midcourse check-in, which is when they put a strategy together and present it in front of the class. Later on, we introduce the concept of a pivot. When you take a product down a path and you see it’s not working well, it may be worth a pivot. At the end, we let students piece together everything in a final presentation.
Most of the learning is not walking through slides. I always tell people that if they’re in it to walk through slides, that’s not what we deliver at Brainstation. I see the most important part of the course as when they come in and pitch ideas. They can get comfortable – or even uncomfortable, a good uncomfortable – pitching ideas to the class and getting constructive criticism and feedback. That’s what we do day-to-day in product management. We defend visions and ideas. Whether we fail at them or succeed at them is a good indicator of whether we should persevere or pivot. It’s on-the-ground learning, not just walking through slides.
Do students come to the course with a product they want to work on, or this something they come up with during the course?
I leave that flexible for them – I give them the choice. It could be something they’re working on professionally and they want to leverage the course. For students who are trying to come up with a product idea, I say, think of something that keeps you up at night. Exit the course with something you can take to market. I had one student who was building an app for a travel experience, and now they’re pursuing it as a founder of the company. It’s exciting for me to see students succeed.
I often encourage people to pair up on their product ideas. When I go to my job as a product manager, I deal with the same team every day. It’s healthy to pair people up. Eventually it ends up with people defending their idea in a better way, and producing a stronger product.
You have a background in software development – is there any benefit in being able to code as a product manager, or is it not necessary?
I’ll give you the usual answer that product managers say: it depends. I’ll tell you how it helps me. In my space, I manage a technical product. My end product is for software developers, and my product is technical in nature. Understanding how the whole thing is built is not necessary at all in my day-to-day job. However, as a Software Developer myself, I’m able to step in my customers’ shoes and look at how they’re experiencing problems and inefficiencies. I’m able to see what customers are asking for or complaining about. If I was in a different position and not dealing with a technical product, I don’t think being able to code or write software would be needed.
Tell me about your teaching style.
It varies from one class to another. For Methodology, I demonstrate what I do in my workplace. I walk students through what we discuss at my actual work meetings. Rather than explain the framework in theory, I tell them what happens in a real workplace. That way, they can relate to it and it’s a real work example.
For Opportunity and Discovery, I walk them through work scenarios. I try to make it so I’m not talking the entire time. Some of the students are already experienced in product management. I rely on those people to share their experiences and anecdotes with the class. I find the class conversation to be very healthy. When you’re in class, you engage in a lot of person-to-person interaction. When it’s online, everyone is on camera and learning. So I have to figure out a way to keep the class engaged. It always ends up being a healthy, critical discussion that people can get engaged in. And it means students exit with relationships, not just course or theory knowledge.
I look at the class as my own product. I obsess about it. If students don’t leave with the right amount of learning, then I’m doing something wrong. I need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to improve their experience.
Who is this Product Management certificate course aimed at?
I’ve found my students have very diverse career backgrounds. Some are taking the course to learn product management because they want to start their own company. Others are deep in their technical career and want to do a pivot to get into a product role.
With diverse backgrounds, it can get tricky. Not tricky from a course perspective, but from an instructor perspective. I try to ensure that there’s something for everyone. Some of the topics are meant to provide a common understanding, but we go deeper into some of the product practices. That’s the benefit of having someone like myself, who has a career in product management. The students can rely on my anecdotes instead of slides. There’s something for everyone.
How did you and Brainstation come up with the curriculum for the Product Management certificate course?
Brainstation treats its curriculum likes its own product. It’s built from the knowledge of the instructor team. A curriculum existed when I started, but we did away with some of it. The instructors have a shared Google Doc where we can each provide feedback and make the course better. The slides and the content are driven by that feedback.
Does this course cover the skills that you would look for if you were hiring a product manager?
Very much so. When I saw the course and the material, I wish I’d had this when I started as a Product Manager. This is something you can put in your back pocket. It has a lot of good tools and materials.
Do you give students career advice or help them with networking?
A lot of students look up to me for resume critique, and if they’re interviewing for a job, they’ll ask what to say or how I can help them. They may ask if I know someone who works in a field. It’s not something that’s part of the course, but it’s a key part of Brainstation. It enables a network and introductions. If you’re sitting in a class, you may be sitting next to your co-founder or someone that has a skill set they need to make a product successful. I’m open to people reaching out for coffee chats and networking – I’m always happy to make introductions.
What’s the job market like for product managers in Canada?
In my space, they are in high demand. We’re always seeking quality product managers and people who have a good understanding of product principles. Four or five years back, it wasn’t as much in demand. But with tech startup growth, there’s product management growth as well.
What resources do you recommend for people who want to learn more about product management?
I would 100% recommend reading ‘The Lean Startup’ by Eric Ries. I feel like it’s a bible for product managers. Also look out for product management meetups and networking events in your city.