I spoke with Grace Yeung, co-founder of Product Buds and incoming PM at Salesforce, about how she developed as a product manager without having studied CS. This interview has been edited and lightly arranged for clarity, with my main takeaways summarized in bold.
On Effective Communication with Engineers
What are the keys to working well with engineers on your team? What techniques did you use to ensure that your team has a good balance of both technical and product direction?
So when you’re just starting out in product management and you’re from a non technical background, you don’t have a STEM degree or experience in software engineering, it can be very intimidating.
Firstly, you have to address what feelings and emotions you’re experiencing, and find ways to cope with those emotions and process them in a healthy way. Otherwise, that imposter syndrome can overwhelm you. Look within yourself and process those emotions. Afterwards, really make sure that within your team, or even someone outside your team who is technical, can support you and be your mentor, your guide. Someone you can lean on when there are days where you’re feeling like there are so many technical concepts that are being thrown at you that are so foreign. Someone that you can just go to to have a conversation about those concepts, but also be your ally, be your advocate.
Takeaway: Find a mentor and advocate to lean on to help parse the information you’re receiving. You don’t have to go it alone.
And with your engineering counterparts on your team, make sure that whenever you’re in a conversation, whether it be over Slack, or over a Google Meet call, the communication is as effective as it possibly can be. When your engineers are speaking, actively listen to them, and make sure that while you’re listening, you’re jotting down any questions that you have. For example, they could say three acronyms and you’re like, “Okay”. You write down the three acronyms. And then either later on during the meeting, or after the meeting, ask them, “Hey, what did these acronyms stand for?” Or if your company has an internal glossary, look up what those acronyms stand for.
And as you’re listening, regurgitate what they’ve said. “Okay, so what I’m hearing you saying is …” and then you say what they’ve just said, in more layman’s terms, so that you can really make sure you’re clarifying misunderstandings as soon as possible. Especially because as a product manager, you’re at the center of this whole product journey. You’re taking what the engineers have told you and translating that for your people in design, for your people in sales, for your people in marketing. And if you’ve mis-translated what your engineers have told you, that’ll be really bad for the entire team that is working on the product.
Takeaway: Practice active listening, as if you’re taking notes in a lecture. Get constant, real-time feedback on if your understanding is correct.
I love that tip of active listening. Taking notes forces you to confront what was clear and understood and what wasn’t. You don’t have to address it in the moment, but at least you have it on record and then you can go back and look up those concepts or have a second conversation about them. But if you don’t ever write anything down, you can kind of just convince yourself in your head “Oh, yeah, that was fine.”
Right. And can I add one more thing: So in this virtual age of work, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed when an engineer is walking you through, for example, back end infrastructure of our product. So have them screenshare a diagram or draw it out. Ask them to visually depict what they’re saying. Because that can also help them slow down the pace of their talking, if they’re a really fast talker. We had a lot of Lucid Chart diagrams. And thank goodness for those because I’m a very visual person. So assessing your work style, your preferred way of learning is important. And communicating that with your team is key.
On Imposter Syndrome
I want to pull out a quote from one of your essays.
Being a primarily non-technical student, working with technical products & stakeholders was intimidating! But I overcame a lot of the imposter syndrome by treating every day as a day to learn something new.
I love this attitude. I wanted to ask you to give an example of specifically when you did this. Sometimes you’ll get discouraged, and yet, somehow, you have to treat every day as an opportunity, as a positive opportunity. That is hard to do if everything feels like an uphill battle. Could you share an example of a time where you were feeling discouraged but were still able to turn that into a positive, overall positive outcome?
When I was at Salesforce, at the beginning of my internship, I was getting onboarded, trying to understand what my team was working on. And my goodness, a lot of those initial conversations went over my head. We had weekly team calls, and the team members would be giving status updates, and we would go over some KPIs. And I would just be so overwhelmed, because they used a lot of technical acronyms. We had a lot of roadblocks that I didn’t understand. What was causing those roadblocks? How could those roadblocks be addressed?
And for a while, I just felt like, “Goodness, do I deserve to be here? Did my manager make a mistake in hiring me?” I really believed that. And so I went to my manager, and I actually asked him if he could tell me why he hired me. And that was probably a bold move and a bold question. But he actually responded and he said,
Grace, there were two characteristics that I saw on you during the interview that made you stand out to me as a good fit for this role.
First was humility. He really wanted to make sure that he was bringing a candidate who was someone that acknowledges their strengths and their weaknesses, someone who was able to be very-growth-mindset oriented about that.
The other thing was curiosity. Curiosity was a big thing because he wanted someone to come in with a growth mindset and treat every day as a new opportunity to learn.
He saw that I was someone who was very naturally curious. Willing to hit the ground running to learn more, and to upskill more. I think one of the biggest things was the fact that my manager was such a big cheerleader for me, that he was the one who was always willing to support me and lift me up in those times where I felt like I was falling down a pit of “Oh, my gosh, I’m not fit to be here.”
Takeaway: A support system is there to be used. Grace’s attitude was important, but so was her manager’s support and encouragement that unlocked that attitude through their conversations.
Another thing was being surrounded by other interns who were also so hungry to learn. We had intern events, coffee chats, game nights, and a Slack channel that the interns communicated in with interns who are also so hungry to learn, so driven. It inspired me to be the same way.
And also, it’s a matter of people who were working towards something greater than themselves. That made me really hungry to learn. Because Salesforce, yes, we’re a software technology company. And yes, customer relationship management software doesn’t necessarily make some people the most excited when they hear it. But we are, in a way, changing the world by providing a technology to big multinational companies, but also nonprofits that are doing really good work in this world. To connect with their customers better, and acknowledging at the end of the day, the why. Why am I here at Salesforce? Why am I working on this project? The greater vision and the greater purpose of this company kept me learning, kept me growing day to day.
That’s a brilliant articulation. And I think the way you set it up, it’s almost like this stack of inspiration. That inspiration all through the stack that keeps you going and knowing that you have it in you to dig out of this hole.
Exactly. It’s a great analogy. And when you’re working towards something, it’s almost always going to be difficult and filled with challenges. But if you’re surrounding yourself with people who have the same ambitions as you, it just makes it so much easier to get through those difficult days. I know that not everyone can be in that type of environment right off the bat, after graduating, or even years down the line. It might take a long time to find the type of people that you enjoy working with, or the type of environment you enjoy working in. But I also believe that life is too short to just settle for a working environment that does not make you feel inspired. So I think it’s important to continually seek that in your career.
And a quick shout out, Product Buds, the community that you founded, is an amazing place for this. It’s a whole bunch of aspiring product managers and current product managers who are all learning and sharing with each other. It’s a fantastic community, and it does everything that you just described. So go check that out.
Takeaway: This isn’t a solo journey. Inspiration and support come in all breadths and depths. Learn to surround yourself with those who inspire and help you, and you’ll all go further.
On Stages of Development
Your Salesforce project was “revamping one of the incident management tools used by hundreds of Site Reliability engineers, across multiple Salesforce clouds.” This means that your users were technical engineers within the company itself. Most people default to thinking about “users” as users of an app or a website, generally consumer facing things. But for you, it’s a highly technical product.
How did you learn to interface with your users who, in this case, are technical engineers? How did you learn to internalize their problems as first party concepts within yourself, rather than just acting like a middleman, passing notes back and forth between different parties?
I mean, the truth is, as an entry level PM, a PM intern, or a new grad PM, it’s gonna be quite a lot of time where you are the middleman. You’re the middle man, middle woman, between your users and the product facing teams that are going to be working on continually improving the product. You’re just delivering feedback. And then delivering features and delivering feedback and delivering features.
And you know what? There is nothing wrong with being the middleman when you’re still ramping up in your understanding of the product. Because guess what? As you are the middleman and you’re delivering the feedback, and you’re delivering the features, and you do that over and over and over again, you’re learning. You’re learning more about your users, and your engineers, and your technology, and your constraints, and your limitations about what you’re delivering.
That is time that is not wasted. Yes, it can feel mundane initially because you’re like “Oh man, am I actually delivering value in this role as a product manager? I don’t feel like a manager, I feel like a mailman.” But as you gain more experience and work in product management for longer, and you have a deeper understanding of everything that you’re working with, you will be able to dig deeper into what the role truly is supposed to be. Meaning that you’re able to stand in the shoes of your users and advocate for your users, even when your users are not there. Or when your users have so much feedback, and you have to be the person that’s prioritizing the feedback. And delivering it in a way that ensures the features you’re working on are going to actually meet the business’s objectives.
And other things like conflict resolution between different product facing teams. People management comes in as you go higher in product management to Senior Product Manager or Director of Product Management. You’re not going to get that right off the bat. But it’s important to acknowledge that there are going to be phases in your journey. And to appreciate each of those phases for what they, instead of saying to yourself “I have no reason to be here.” You’re just not ready at that exact moment to be, for example, presenting the entire roadmap for the rest of the year as an intern. You’re not ready for that. And that’s okay. That’s something that I wish that I knew when I was starting off.
Takeaway: Aspects of the role of a product manager are uncovered as you go. You don’t start immediately with the keys to the company. Don’t stress about the next phase — especially early in your career. Focus on using your current opportunity to grow.
That’s a really great perspective. Throughout this conversation, you’ve done a great job of bringing in a larger perspective over a PM career rather than just a PM internship and acknowledging that the internship is just the beginning of that career.
And I also really love one thing you mentioned at the beginning of your answer where you said, working as the middle person is an opportunity to learn. I love to say that immediately applying what you’re learning is the most effective way to learn. That’s why a lot of programming tutorials have you doing projects.
Being able to put the things you’re learning into an immediate context is far more valuable than sitting there and amassing all this theoretical knowledge where you don’t really know what is relevant. That framework of “Well, here are the words I’m saying,. Let me go figure out what they mean” gives you a direction and a path forward to start to bootstrap that knowledge you need to become the next level of a product manager.
Takeaways: Lean in to what you don’t understand. The best way to practice and prove your mastery is to do something you couldn’t before.
Yeah. And there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious in your product management journey and telling your manager “Hey, I want to take on more. I want to have more responsibility.” But at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge When are you ready for more responsibility and accountability?
And it’s okay. If your manager says “I don’t think you’re ready for that yet”, you can continually work to prove that you are ready for that next phase.
So, yeah, I’m excited. Because I know that I’m just going to go through exactly everything that I just said, again, when I start my new grad PM job in July. I’m going to have to even go back and rewatch this and absorb.