Product Manager Career Path: From Marketing to Product Marketing Manager

I like helping build products because it feels like we’re shaping the business more than promoting the business.

When I was younger, I didn’t know product management was even a career path.

I’ve always been slightly technical and even made my way through part of an engineering degree before I decided I wanted to do something more creative, so I transferred to a journalism/advertising degree.

My career started in tech writing. I was working for a small company that also needed marketing and someone to write copy and my education and training was a good fit for the role.

Copywriting grew into marketing management, but then the company failed during the dot-com bubble. So, I landed a new job as a marketing manager somewhere else.

I was always opinionated about how products should be including their design, and I found myself wanting to be the voice of the customer. Finally, the founder of the company told me, “you should just be the product manager,” and that’s how it started.

Bouncing Around Between Marketing and Product Management

I moved into a hybrid product manager/product marketing role, and I enjoyed being the liaison between the technical team and the marketing team.

As the company I worked for at the time kept growing, we got more and more marketing people, and I found myself gravitating to product management.

Then, I was recruited by another company to be the director of marketing. I thought it sounded fun. So, I left. I realized after switching back to marketing for the first time in years, I was bored. It was a lot of copywriting and creativity, but there wasn’t enough science. And, at the end of the day, I like to build products and businesses. It is Marketing’s job to promote the outcome of that effort.

So I left the director of marketing job to join a company that provides legal and business information where I was both a product manager and product marketing manager again.

The Job of a Product Marketing Manager

My current company, Progress Telerik, is in a technical industry and our product managers are super technical people, so I skew toward the product marketing side. At Progress, it is product marketing’s job to define the go-to-market strategy.

We work hard to understand the buyer persona, target the message and communicate the value both internally and externally. We also have a seat at the table for overall business and product planning. I still work closely with the marketing team, and they’re the ones that handle the SEO and all the media buys, and all the related tactics.

Progress Telerik uses traditional definitions of the job, but they still have their own spin on it.

Here are some of the responsibilities and tasks I have as a product marketing manager:

  1. Understand the audience.
  2. Report back to the engineering team and tell them about the audience’s problems.
  3. Communicate our plans and our value back to the market.
  4. Instruct the marketing communication teams on what message needs to be delivered and to whom.
  5. Serve as evangelists of the product (in partnership with the developer relations team).
  6. Design marketing themes for the portfolio of products and shape those themes for individual product lines.
  7. Create the quarterly and yearly go-to-market plan.

I report to the director of product. I am a senior product manager and I don’t have any direct reports. Much like product managers and product marketing managers everywhere, I lead many cross-functional efforts. My unique career path has had a positive impact on our portfolio-wide planning strategy.

If I were to divide my work on a pie chart, I’d say it’s about 20 percent analytics, 20 percent writing, 20 percent planning and the rest are meetings.

The Nuts and Bolts of Meeting with Customers

I haven’t been at this company in a non-pandemic world. As a matter of fact, I’ve never met any of my coworkers in person.

So we conduct all of our customer interviews online to complement our traditional market research.

When people are meeting in person again, we have a user conference where we hope to conduct focus groups and have as many ad hoc conversations as we can. If you have read The Mom Test, you’d know how important that is. If I find the opportunity in the future, I might conduct traditional office visits if the customers are receptive to meeting in that format.

When I was with the legal software company, lawyers were our clients, and office visits were very normal.

How Training Helped Me Reach My Career Goals

I first made the switch from marketing manager to product manager a long time ago. At first, it was all self-taught, and the owner of the company was sort of my mentor. But, Pragmatic thinking helped me significantly.

The biggest skill I had to acquire was how products get built. Not so much coding and engineering techniques, but more of how solutions are prioritized and how product managers contribute by helping to create unique solutions.

The training I received from Pragmatic Institute helped me tremendously in following a structure for consistent results. It is very common for engineers to build something that is deeply impressive but has no value as a solution to a business problem. Pragmatic’s principles are key in overcoming that.

I advise people in their early careers to read all the books they can and do as many courses as possible. I didn’t do any of that stuff until late in my career, and it really boosted me forward. I wouldn’t say I always learned something new, but I received a lot of validation and solidified my processes. It also helps when you encounter pushback from team members or leadership. Rather than stating your interesting, but irrelevant opinion, you can point to best practices.

At the legal software company, we used Pragmatic Institute training to help turn around an aging product that was still the segment leader but was at risk due to the emergence of a host of new market problems. We were able to turn flat sales into growing sales and apathetic users into champions by using Pragmatic techniques to figure out what to focus on.

The product was a multi-function firm management system. We focused on the problem from a cross-functional point of view, from engineering to support to sales and consulting, with a goal to get the whole business aligned behind what we discovered was the most pervasive and impactful problem.

After hundreds of conversations and analysis of support tickets, we had an “AHA” moment. Our users were legal admins, but our decision-makers were attorneys.

We found out that all attorneys cared about was getting paid, so we focused on making sure the billing components of the system were excellent. We went out to market saying, “this is a billing system and this is what will get you paid.” Our competitors were marketing a whole complete management system that wasn’t speaking to the buyers’ main problem.

Was everybody happy? No, but we were able to improve the revenue stream and re-energize the user base so leadership could then feel comfortable investing in the future of the product.

The Most Helpful Skill for Product Marketers: Write in a way that people can understand.

Aside from my stint with the legal industry, I have spent the majority of my time marketing software used by engineers which is a deeply technical space.

There aren’t many people who can take these technical concepts and say them in a way that other people can understand even if they don’t have the same technical background.

I think I developed this skill from me being a layperson myself, so in that way, it kind of happened kind of naturally.

As a product marketing manager, one of the biggest assets I help produce is the messaging that’ll resonate with the market, especially if it is saturated.

If you have five or six competitors all saying the same thing, it’s hard to create a message that is different and stands out. We want customers to say, “I’m going to go see what they’re doing because they get me”

The Ideal Product Team

I’ve found people interested in product management or product marketing, but they are afraid to make the career jump because they don’t have that specific experience on their resume. But those are the people who make excellent product teams.

Businesses want well-rounded product teams with people who have backgrounds in journalism, marketing, engineering and sales.

So my best advice is to not be afraid to jump in because you might have the exact skills and background that the organization is seeking. It is very common that product team leaders are looking for someone with potential or a particular mindset rather than specific product experience.

Support people have a keen understanding of customer’s problems. Salespeople know the buyer persona. Marketing people can communicate. Designers can, well, design. The list goes on.

It’s hard to say what job titles make up an ideal product team because that will vary based on the size of the organization and the industry, but there are some functions that make the work successful in my experience.

At the very least, there should be a product manager and a product marketing manager. On a cross-functional team, it’s ideal to have representatives in the company for sales, support and engineering. Some of these roles might not be classified as full-time and instead are consultants, but either way, they must be able to easily communicate with all parts of the business.

Recommended Books

  • Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love
  • Blue Ocean Strategy: How To Create Uncontested Market Space And Make The Competition Irrelevant
  • The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing
  • The Mom Test: How to Talk to Customers & Learn If Your Business Is a Good Idea When Everyone Is Lying to You
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  • Dan Beal is a senior product marketer at Progress Telerik and a Pragmatic Institute alum. He has fifteen years of experience in the management software industry. He is experienced in leading marketing, sales, and product development efforts as well as motivating cross-functional and ad hoc project teams.

Dan Beal

Dan Beal

Dan Beal is a senior product marketer at Progress Telerik and a Pragmatic Institute alum. He has fifteen years of experience in the management software industry. He is experienced in leading marketing, sales, and product development efforts as well as motivating cross-functional and ad hoc project teams.

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