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Milene Darnis

How I got my job as a Product Manager at Heap

Originally published on Elpha, where women in tech talk candidly online.

My path to become a Product Manager was far from linear. By sharing some lessons I learned along the way, I hope to encourage many people from varied backgrounds to break into product management.

Finding #1: Start somewhere – anywhere!

I arrived in the Bay Area from France at the end of my Master’s studies as an exchange student, and very quickly I realized it was the best place to be to start a career in tech. However, with no visa, no experience, and a foreign degree, the job search ended up being way more difficult than planned.

Being almost immediately drawn to the PM role, as it combines technical skills, interpersonal skills and strategy skills, I initially applied to Associate Product Manager positions only to get rejections. Although discouraging, I persevered as I was determined to land a job in tech. This is when I realized that the best way to become a PM was to start by not being one! Contrary to France, it’s actually more common in the US to become a PM after having held other roles (Software Engineering being the most typical but we’re seeing more and more people from various backgrounds becoming PMs).

So I decided that any job at a fast-growing company would do, giving me a unique opportunity to see how things work from the inside, especially if the company is small enough. I heard about a mobile gaming startup founded by a Spanish expat and I emailed her telling her that I would love a chance to get into this rocketship, no matter which seat was assigned to me. I also was betting on her willingness to sponsor visas for employees, since she had a visa herself.

I got an entry level Ops offer but my visa would take a few months to process. The company was around 40 people at the time and they couldn’t wait that long for me, so they gave me an option: either I join the Amsterdam office they were in the process of setting up while I wait for my visa; or they would rescind the offer. So I packed, knowing it would be my best bet to eventually come back to San Francisco. My duties in Amsterdam ranged from finding and engaging with leads in the European market to building IKEA furniture for the new office. Very far from a PM role! But I got what I was looking for: a unique first glimpse at how a startup operates and a chance to contribute to the growth.

Finding #2: Build strong connections with the people you want to work with

I knew I wanted to eventually be in the Product & Engineering side of the company. I had this idea about building a tool to automatically find new leads to engage with and I started building it as a side project. I had to learn Ruby on Rails and understand our internal APIs, and that gave me a great opportunity to start interacting with engineers based in San Francisco. I was amazed by their willingness to help me build this tool despite the time zone difference, and the support from everyone around me to learn new skills beyond the descriptions of my role. I also started teaching some more advanced Excel to the European sales team and tracking progress against our goals for the leadership. Experimenting through projects, and building connections with the people who had jobs I aspired to have helped me not only get more credibility internally and be more effective in my job, but also understand better how various teams operated.

Once I arrived in San Francisco, I was able to join the newly created Business Intelligence team as an Analyst, helping everyone from product managers to the finance team make data driven decisions. I stayed in this role for a year and got to learn SQL, Tableau, and how data pipelines work.

Finding #3: Nice to have skills in one role can be core competencies in another

While being in mobile gaming was a lot of fun, it was not my passion. I realized that I needed to be in an industry that resonated better with me if I wanted to excel: I was having a hard time going above and beyond without being 100% bought into the mission of the company. At that time, in 2014, Uber was hiring like crazy and I had just started using the service. I was blown away by the ease of use of the product and saw its potential to revolutionize how people move. So I applied and it took exactly one week from the moment I applied to the moment I received an offer! I was at the right place at the right moment but I still hadn’t figured out what career path I wanted to build for myself.

At Uber, I built core data sets the company used for understanding the business. As a Data Engineer, I went from being one of the most technical people in a business team to one of the most business-oriented people in a technical team. At times, I thought that I was mediocre at everything and good at nothing. But I started to embrace it, as I realized I was able to bridge gaps in a way that not a lot of people could, by helping align engineering work with business priorities. I also realized the part of my job I loved the most was working with the users of the datasets I was building to understand their needs.

Without thinking about it, I was building skills that would translate very well into a product management role. So after two years as a Data Engineer, I had gained enough technical skills and more importantly, enough confidence to apply to a PM role internally. And this is how I became a PM 5 years after getting only rejections. I did it through this unconventional path starting in Ops and I believe that PMs who bring other skills to the table are valuable in this very competitive PM market.

Finding #4: Always look for areas of improvements

Thanks to my mentors and new opportunities at Uber such as expansion in scope of the product I was managing, I started to understand better and better what makes a truly great PM – a combination of vision, execution and analysis skills. I was developing my vision skills by presenting to senior leaders and I always had a knack for analysis, but my execution skills were lacking and Uber was becoming too big to ship things quickly and iterate rapidly. So I recently decided to join a startup called Heap as a Product Manager and I can’t wait to hone on my execution skills and take my career to the next level there!

And this is how I got my job! I hope you will find these findings helpful in your own job search, and let me know if you have any questions.

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