Breaking into a product management career can be a challenging endeavor and the “best” or most “straightforward” method to do so is largely undefined. Product Management is often referred to as a role that is learned through experience rather than taught in the classroom. “Path to PM” is a blog series highlighting the many diverse, interesting and unique paths the writers have taken to become a Product Manager.
Michael Lynch is Vice President of Product at Envysion and a member of the leadership team of ColoradoProduct. Michael’s product management career spans successful start-ups and large corporations in multiple countries including Switzerland, The Netherlands and Saudi Arabia. Michael holds a B.B.A. in International Economics and Management Information Systems from the University of Oklahoma and the Hochschule für Ökonomie in Berlin.
Like most, my path to product management was a surprising path, at least surprising to me. As a 16-year old, I was sure I would be making movies for a living. As a former 16-year old, I now realize I’m doing what I was meant to do.
There are four threads I can follow back through my early years:
- Innate fascination with products and technology
- Entrepreneurial spirit
- Wanting others to find value through my products
- Maker mentality
As a kid, I disassembled every ‘dead’ electronics device within hours of its demise. My family suggests this was my basis of wanting to understand ‘how things worked’, which is one central ingredient, I believe, in having a natural tendency toward being a product manager.
In Middle School I would buy large 50-count bags of Hubba Bubba for a couple bucks and sell individual units to fellow students at $0.5o a pop. I was providing a valuable product at a reasonable price. The school, however, disagreed and my budding business was banned after only two short weeks.
The third thread is best summarized by an incredible engineer and friend – Vince – who I was trying to retain with additional money during one of our startup’s downturn during the first bubble-burst. Vince told me “It’s not about the money. What I care about most is that the stuff I write gets used by real people…that it doesn’t end up on a shelf somewhere…and, that users get real value from using it.” Knowing I am creating real value for customers is what keeps me interested and dedicated to an effort. It’s how I’m wired. I have to know the true value of my product.
A fourth element that drove me to product management is a need to create things. Whether it be art, music or software, the best product managers are creative and have a desire to build things.
So how did these four innate drivers influence my life in a way I couldn’t control?
First was college. What would a person with these interests study at university? Depends on who is paying. Since my parents, scholarships and the US government were all paying I decided a Fine Art degree with a major in Film Production was the obvious choice. My mother was on-board… with one caveat: I double-major in business and/or engineering. Seemed like a fair compromise. During my sophomore year I did an internship at McCaw Cellular (later acquired to become AT&T Wireless). Seeing that their sales folks were still calculating commissions on paper, I found it fun to write a commissioning app. I did it for fun. It was a hit in the local office, then adopted regionally and then finally nationally. Two key takeaways for me: 1) that was a lot of fun!; and 2) I realized I created a lot of value — but just wasn’t compensated for it very well.
My first real job after college was working for Morris Information Systems. They needed someone young, unmarried and slightly crazy to open the first NeXT VAR in the Middle East. At the same time, M.I.S. was building custom client/server software for Saudi Aramco. Before I knew it, I was managing a dozen engineers in Saudi Arabia, representing Steve Jobs’ new company and convincing the COO of Saudi Aramco to build an oil trading app on the NeXTstep platform (at a time when Sun Microsystems was the only game in town). This experience gave way to a few key takeaways:
- This also was a lot of fun!
- Understanding and guiding your customer is fundamental to success.
- If you dream big, you can represent a small boutique custom software shop and get a deal with one of the largest, multi-billion dollar companies on the planet.
While in Saudi Arabia, I met someone who would become my business partner (here in Boulder, Colorado) across two venture-funded startups and two corporate-funded autonomous organizations. He gave me the opportunity to be an equity shareholder on the ground floor of the two start-ups and the role of “owning the product.” From there, it was off to the races – building, making and trying my best to focus on providing value.
Over the next ten years we built the first organization dedicated to object-oriented client/server applications within SHL Systemhouse, partnered with NeXT Computers, Inc. to help bring client/server apps to the emerging World Wide Web, sold the company to MCI and then created the same exact thing all over again for Swiss Bank in Zürich. In 1995 we got the chance to build our very first, fully-owned start-up, Avolent, Inc. (after three name changes and one merger) and our first true “Internet application” product, an electronic bill presentment and payment platform we sold to MCI, Wells Fargo, OfficeMax and many others. Over this period, as we grew from seven founding members to over a hundred employs, I learned more about product management and building a business than I could have ever hoped. The key takeaways are too many to count, but all of them point back to those same key early drivers.
These forces are irresistible and highly rewarding emotionally. I would sum them up as…
1) a desire to understand ‘how things work’
2) a need to be creative and to ‘create things’
3) a desire to provide real value to customers (as affirmed by them)…
4) …and make money while doing it as a real business