What I Wish I’d Known Before Becoming a Machine-Learning Product Manager

ML product management is a relatively new field, with companies still defining what the role looks like. Follow these tips for a successful career change. 
Headshot of author Sam Stone
Sam Stone
Expert Contributor
February 11, 2022
Headshot of author Sam Stone
Sam Stone
Expert Contributor
February 11, 2022

As a product manager who used to be a consultant and investor, I know what it's like to want a career change. 

When I realized it was time to pivot, I thought about what had given me the most energy in my past work: doing user research, combining quantitative and qualitative insights to generate new ideas and convening people with diverse skills to execute on those ideas. That led me to co-found a startup, where I had my first direct responsibility for designing a product — and my first deep exposure to machine learning (ML). 

After shuttering that startup, I knew I wanted to focus on product management and do it at a company where ML was core to the business. I was lucky to land at Opendoor, which has been building real estate ML since its inception in 2014.

The product management field is steadily increasing in visibility and popularity. In 2021 it was ranked third on Glassdoor’s “Best Jobs in America” list and has more than doubled in organizational interest over the past five years. Within product management, there are many different paths. I’ve always enjoyed working with data and find ML to be a particularly fascinating type of technology, so I focused on ML product management. As AI and ML continue to grow across industries, I’m confident the demand for product managers with ML experience will only rise. 

If you’re ready to take the leap into ML product management, here are four pieces of advice to help you thrive in the role.

4 Tips for Aspiring Machine-Learning Product Managers

  1. Establish the fundamentals.
  2. Show your passion for machine learning.
  3. Ask the right questions.
  4. Don’t join a company you don’t believe in.

 

Establish the Fundamentals

Start by focusing on developing the skills that all product managers need, regardless of whether they focus on ML or not. These include clear and concise written and oral communications, structured thinking for nebulous problems and a deep understanding of and empathy for users. 

I recommend taking a few popular products and writing one-pagers about how you would improve them if you were the PM, which should force you to use all of the above-mentioned skills. For example, if I was the product manager for Spotify, how would I improve the platform?

Read More About Product ManagementHow to Rescue Your MVP From Obsolescence

 

Show Your Passion for Machine Learning

While ML is important for many companies, it’s also become a bit of a buzzword. Some product managers gravitate towards it without really understanding it and then find they don’t like it. So before you commit to an ML-focused role, learn the details. This helps ensure you find the nitty-gritty of ML energizing, not draining.

I recommend taking a machine learning 101 or statistics course. The overlap between statistics and machine learning is surprisingly significant! I found the short, free textbook Introduction to Statistical Learning incredibly helpful. And don’t just read about ML. Be sure to code up some ML techniques yourself. Learning by doing will help crystallize the concepts.

 

Ask the Right Questions

As you start to interview, make sure you understand the nuances of the role that aren’t obvious from a job posting. I always seek to understand what the day-to-day responsibilities of the job would look like. Here are some questions to answer:

  • Who would your peers be?

  • How is the team structured?

  • What are the team’s rhythms and rituals?

  • What major advances or setbacks has this team seen lately? 

Of course, you should focus on who your direct manager would be and if you’re truly excited to work with this person. Remember, “people don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” 

Get More Product Management InsightsThe Forgotten Side of Product Management: the Business

 

Don’t Join a Company You Don’t Believe in

Make sure you’re headed to a company or product that you believe in. In the short term, it’s possible to do good work on a product that you understand but aren’t passionate about. But in the long term, a lack of passion can result in burnout. And if you want to succeed in the long term, you need to find alignment between your passion and the products you’re working on. 

Skew towards products that make you excited to talk to users and understand their pain points. A big part of the reason I joined Opendoor was the fact that the company’s mission of giving everyone the freedom to move resonated deeply with me. And talking about real estate with friends and family is something I enjoy. 

ML product management is a relatively new field, with companies still defining what the role looks like. If you’re ready to pivot or to explore what possibilities are available within product management, follow these steps for a successful career change. 

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