Between Technology, Design, and Business

Originally published in bit.ly/BetterStoriesAlumniTIUGM

“A product manager is a new career in Indonesia,” said my Chief of Product Officer back then in 2015. Now in 2020, the title product manager has been
more familiar than before. Before I start, I might have to explain that I was a junior product manager 5 years ago, for approximately a year and a half. I’m sure the job has been improved a lot compared to back then.

Majoring in Industrial Engineering, I used to know the term project manager instead of a product manager. In the 1st year of college, I remember seniors telling us to pick Project Management, taught by Dr. Budi Hartono, as an elective course. They said we wouldn’t regret it, and it did become my favorite subject throughout my college years. It was a struggle to get a seat; I was very thankful I got one. In 2014, I also signed up for Project Management Challenge (PMC) 2014 as a committee. A year later, I joined the competition along with three other friends. Though we didn’t win, it was a memorable experience.

Thinking it might be quite similar to product management, I signed up for the job when I saw the vacancy. I was lucky. I got called for an interview. I had little information about the apps or the job I applied for, but I went for it anyway. I con”dently prepared myself with the project management theories I had. Little did I know, project management and product management are two different things.

It was a small company, which then grew up quite fast. They had only six product managers and a small team of engineers at the time. Product managers there were directly under the Vice President of Engineering, so I was interviewed by the VP herself. Although I made a mistake between product management for project management, lucky me (again), somehow, the interview went well. She asked me many questions, which made me realize I was wrong and thinking, “Well, this is different from what I thought.”

She started by asking what I know about a product. I was grateful I still have some things I remember from Product Design and Development (PDD). However, I still had feelings a product manager must have something to do about this too. So when she asked me how to do a task when you’re limited with resources, I explained the triple constraints: scope, time, and cost. But turns out, it is not quite the answer she was expecting.

She said she would brainstorm several different solutions and then sort them based on efforts needed and possible outcome predicted. Choose the one with the least step but provide the best result. She also gave me a case study of developing a food delivery mobile application. It wasn’t something familiar back then. Mobile applications were still developing. Products I developed in college were physical products. Yet, I tried to explain what I would do with the steps I learn from the product design course, and I thought she was satisfied with the answer. From that point, I became aware that product management is different from project management. Later on, I figured what sets product management apart from project management.

From the questions about the resources limit, we can see that a time constraint only exists in project management, but not in product management. Why? Because product development is a cycle. We develop a product continuously. We don’t know when the product will stop developing. There’s no time limit. We will keep innovating the product. Hence, the product roadmap document is updated.

There’s one question I couldn’t answer, though. The interviewer asked me about Scrum methodology, but that was the very first time I ever heard the name. I thought she was fine with me saying, “I don’t know anything about Scrum,” since they sent me the offering letter a few days later, which I gladly accepted.

On the first day of work, I was quite nervous since there were a lot of terms I didn’t know, and well, I started to learn anything from the beginning. It was a fun journey, though. In a short time, I learned so much. It’s been said to be one of many points of interest in working in a start-up. There are always new challenges. We face something new almost every day, with different challenges every day. In the beginning, there weren’t a lot of people, so often we had to do tasks which weren’t exactly our job, but thankfully it enriched our insights and skills.

On a typical day, I would start with checking my email inbox while waiting for my team. Once they were complete, we would start a stand-up meeting. Basically, it’s a short meeting, where everyone updates their work. It has to be brief, and to the point, so we stand so that it wouldn’t last too long. Everyone can only explain what they did yesterday, what they will do today, and what problem they’re facing. No more. Nothing else other than those three things. We work based on sprint, for approximately two weeks, where stand-up meeting happens every day in those two weeks. Then there are also sprint planning and sprint retrospective. As its name, sprint planning is held at the beginning of the sprint, and sprint retrospective is when the sprint ends. During that period, we only do what we have decided in the sprint planning. It was like when you have so many things on your to-do list for a month, but for today you choose only several things to focus on. Product management and project management do have something in common. Building a product or project requires loads of work in months, so we divided them into smaller tasks. This is where product management shares the same characteristic with project management. Basically, the rest of the day, I would juggle between meetings with engineers, designers, or business functions such as analysts, operations, and marketing staffs. In my opinion, the product manager’s task in one sentence would be “bridging technology, design, and business”. One thing I always did, though, was following up on everyone’s request list. That is what the word “manage” means here. Everyone was doing their tasks. What I did is connecting them and making sure it’s all timely done and fulfilled the requirements. When I didn’t meet anyone, I might create a mock-up, update the product roadmap or other documents, or research other products for a benchmark.

There were also times when all the product managers would gather and talk about how they were doing with our own products. Honestly, it was my favorite moment. From that meeting, I could learn how senior product managers deal with their team, manage their time, team, and tasks, what problem they’re facing, and how they solve it. We shared our thoughts with our peers on different products.

We had our own team. It was like living in a bubble, so when we met the other product managers, it was like going outside our bubble and seeing different worlds. The worlds were alike to ours, so we hoped to implement their solutions for our problems, which were similar. Once in a while, we also had an evaluation by our supervisors. I used to report to two supervisors: the VP of Engineering and the Head of Product I was working on. Having more than one source of feedbacks was fantastic. One was giving me advice specifically in product management. The other was giving me different perspectives from the business side. Often, we were working on more than one product, and it
means more supervisors.

Problems in the team weren’t just technical ones. There were times when it’s human resources related. After all, it’s human we lead, not a machine. Interactions between human sometimes lead to conflicts. That’s why we also had our session with the HR division to discuss each person’s personality in our team. This reminds me of the lecture by Dr. Hari Agung Yuniarto, Industrial Engineering Management. I remember we learned about human resources management and types of leadership too.

All of this brings me back to the very first day of college: Introduction to Industrial Engineering (IE). Industrial engineers will always be found useful in the socio-technical system. As long as the system involves interaction between people and technology in workplaces, thus industrial engineers can work on it. My VP said once, she used to think product managers should be those who major in Information Technology. But then she started looking for Industrial Engineer graduates to be product managers. She found it better when product managers come from Industrial Engineering. The students learn various kinds of courses during college. Industrial engineers know a little about many different things, such as economics, statistics, product design, project management, simple algorithms and database, human resource management, forecast, physiology, etc. I remember we also learn about pitching in the Integrated Capstone Project in the 7th semester, which might be useful for some investors. Industrial engineers start from general, a broad range of knowledge, which then specialized as they enter the industry they favor and learn deeper in some subjects.

I met Dr. Herianto after I worked as a product manager. He asked me how my job was related to the knowledge given in my major. I answered, “Well, a lot, actually.” I couldn’t thank my lecturers enough for giving me all of the knowledge that I needed. Even when industrial engineers eventually work in a seemingly unrelated industry, it will still be beneficial to have learned such a comprehensive course with vast experiences. I remember a lecturer told us why going to college is crucial because it builds us. It shapes how we think from a different point of view. In this case, I believe Industrial Engineering has taught us to see from a broad perspective and to be more open-minded. It trains us to understand and shift between different subjects, and I am grateful I am an industrial engineer.