It’s always interesting how often I get asked the question, “What was your major in college?” It’s a personal question with no risk of offending or polarizing – a safe conversation starter that’s often a good way to hear someone’s origin story. Strangely enough, people are often surprised when I tell them I was an English major. I get it – English majors have a stereotype of reading under a tree, debating poetry, drawing ideas – quite different from the intense, action-oriented work of a product manager. But the more I’ve worked with different product managers and product teams, the more I’ve come to believe that an English degree better suits the person for a product manager role than any other major. What does an English degree provide that is so unique and valuable for a Product Manager role? Here are the four most important skills:
ability to read and research well
English majors read… a lot. They don’t read for fun, they read with a purpose, usually research to bring ideas together and make a point – which is why so many people go into law, academics or journalism. Upon graduation, I was able to read much faster than I had in my first year – I was also able to search for other materials and data points to support my hypothesis (and this was before Netscape launched its browser). Was). It’s a familiar formula that product managers always follow: identify a problem/gap, formulate a hypothesis, research and test to validate your hypothesis, drop small and improve.
write a compelling persuasive argument
Communicating the value and impact of a product in a clear and compelling way can significantly impact a product’s success. English majors are trained to communicate effectively, both written and oral, in the classroom. They have a keen sense of language, grammar and style and can express complex ideas in a simple and coherent manner. This skill is invaluable in product management, where the ability to articulate a product’s features, benefits and value to various stakeholders is critical.
Customer Empathy and Storytelling
The English major specializes in creating stories that resonate with people. Product management is not just about building a product, but also about creating a narrative around the product that engages customers and stakeholders. English majors can build a steady and evolving story about customers, how the product is helping them, and how the product team is learning along the way. In doing so, product managers can create an emotional attachment to the product, and communicate that the product is a solution that truly meets customer needs – not just a set of features.
concise and effective communication
Through effective communication, product managers can create an asynchronous way for broad groups to follow progress. English majors can create engaging content that is easy to consume and understand, making it more likely that stakeholders will stay up to date on product progress. This not only saves time but also ensures that everyone is working towards the same North Star and understands their roles and responsibilities. A good English major understands the value of constructive feedback and how to solicit it in a productive way while ensuring that communication and storytelling are never a one-way narrative. Much has been written about the skills required to be a successful product manager. In the Product Management course I teach at General Assembly, I begin the course by discussing the topic and what the students will expect from their stakeholder role:
|A Product Manager is…||A Product Manager is not…|
|a big picture thinker||a project manager|
|detail oriented||a developer|
|data driven||customer support|
|an expert on the market||Owner|
|voice of the customers||an order taker|
|a leader (introvert or extrovert)||Inactive|
|a colleague||with only one answer|
No one is ready to dive into this role right out of college. It takes time to develop the necessary complexity and maturity. There are good entry-level roles that are natural feeders to a product management role, but it’s important to remember that at this stage, your company is investing in you, and it understands that it will be long before you can deliver really high value. To be able to offer, you need time. Team. However, what you can bring immediately is drive, energy, and a passion for solving your customers’ biggest problems. Customize your English major, and present your skills and training in a way that will appeal to your prospective employer. Not all companies will agree, and many will only require a business or engineering degree. For a long time, Google required product managers to have a BS degree; I made it to the final round of interviews in 2007 but they told me at the end that I wasn’t technical enough. No matter what – you want to be at a company where these skills are embraced and valued within their product positions. I’m a big fan of associate product manager programs, which provide a formal, entry-level role in product management with training, rotations, and support. Unfortunately not many programs like this exist, but don’t be afraid to take an adjacent entry-level role and work your way into product positioning. Roles such as business analyst, project manager, customer support and account management provide great ways to get to know the business, customers and products. After 2-3 years in that role demonstrating success, it would be natural to move into that Product Manager role when posted. In the meantime, continue to hone those English skills and bring them to whatever role you start… “Success is a science; If you have the conditions, you get the result”. Best of luck on your journey!