The Unlikely Origin of My Product Management Career: Jazz Band

To distinguish yourself from other PM prospects, creatively leverage past experiences where you identified the right problems to solve, then show how you brought the solutions to life.

Written by Olivia Belitsky
Published on Nov. 03, 2021
The Unlikely Origin of My Product Management Career: Jazz Band
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Nearly every week, someone asks me how I got started in product management. It’s a fair question, since there’s no single pathway or required prerequisites to become a PM. 

The answer I typically give is this: After majoring in analytics and interning in a web role, I started my career in a technology leadership training program for new grads focused on product management. This is technically the truth, but it feels disingenuous — because I know that I actually first started honing my product skills years before, in the basement of a first-year residence hall at Babson College.

When I arrived at Babson College as a first-year student, I brought all the essentials: clothes, toiletries, snacks, a fluffy blanket and my vibraphone. My excitement to join the school band was soon crushed, however, when I learned that Babson did not actually have any school-run music performance groups. So I pushed my 70-pound instrument up the hill to the arts office and spoke to the staff about starting one. They agreed to provide access to band equipment, rehearsal space, and funding if I could help pull a group together. 

That spring, the Babson Music Collective launched with four musicians. Little did I know it at the time, but the next three years of managing a small campus band would teach me many of the real-world skills that I would need to thrive in my product career.

How to Stand Out in Your First Product Management Interview

  1. Creatively leverage past experiences where you identified the right problems to solve.
  2. Show the hiring manager how you brought the right solutions to life. 

 

Skill 1: How to Influence Others When You Don’t Have Formal Authority

For full-time students, the jazz band was not our top priority. But it was something we were passionate about, so we had to balance rehearsal with competing priorities. As a group, we decided that one two-hour rehearsal each week would be required to perform in the shows. We then had to hold ourselves (and new band members) accountable to our commitment to the band by aligning on the goal to put on a great show every month.

Professional product managers spend a significant amount of our time building relationships and aligning stakeholders and engineering teams. While product managers have no formal authority, we can use shared goals and accountability to build trust and influence others. My time in the band taught me how to meet my colleagues at the intersection of our values to accomplish our shared goals.

 

Skill 2: How to Achieve Product-Market Fit 

I can tell you from experience that jazz is not a hot musical genre that the kids listen to these days. At our first concert, we performed to an audience of four, and all them were our roommates. We quickly realized that no one would come to our shows unless we changed something.

First, we moved our shows from the theater to the school pub. The pub was a casual environment with food and drinks, where students enjoyed socializing and unwinding after a long day. Second, we adjusted our setlist. We integrated some jazz-inspired pop, rock, and ’90s grunge into our jazz-standard setlist. Almost immediately, our monthly gigs brought in crowds of over 50 people, pushing the pub to capacity! It only took a few modern songs in our set to totally change the vibe of our shows. With time, we built a real fan base on campus.

I learned that it didn’t matter that we were the best (and only) music performance group on campus if we weren’t delivering an experience that our customers (the students) were looking for. The same is true in product management: It’s imperative that we find the problems worth solving and bring the best solutions to market.

Get More Product Management Advice From Olivia BeltiskyProduct Engagement Is a Useless Success Metric. Track This Instead.

 

How I Leveraged These Experiences Into a Product Career

When I was interviewing for product management roles as a new graduate, I was concerned that I didn’t have enough experience to differentiate myself from other new grads interviewing for the same roles. During my interviews, I looked for creative ways to draw on my experience solving problems and influencing others while running the jazz band to demonstrate my product skills. I’m confident that this experience — paired with relevant coursework and internships — was a major factor in landing my first product job.

 

The Takeaway

Product management is a difficult career path to break into. Hiring managers are frequently looking for an experienced unicorn who can do it all. To make matters more challenging, there’s no set standard for certifications or degrees that a product manager should have. 

To distinguish yourself from other candidates, creatively leverage past experiences where you identified the right problems to solve — and show the hiring manager how you brought the right solutions to life.

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