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The Early Bird Product Manager - Maria Thomas
Product Management

The Early Bird Product Manager - Maria Thomas

Amritsawan Bhanja
 min read
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Maria is a 26-year-old Technical Product Manager at Ford Motor Company. She works at Ford’s Global Headquarters in Michigan, where she manages software products for Ford’s Electric Vehicles. She graduated with a bachelor’s in Engineering from IIT Madras in 2018 and started her career as a software developer at Citi Bank. She later transitioned to a PM role and has worked at both early-stage startups and MNCs across India and the US.

Last year, Maria was selected as 1st runner-up in Ford’s Global Changemaker Awards.

Maria is also a volunteer at the Michigan Council Of Women in Technology and hopes to encourage STEM skills in young school girls. 

Maria is also a passionate dancer. She was born with a physical disability, wherein her right arm suffers from Erb’s Palsy disorder. She was sent to Bharatanatyam classes from the age of 4,  in order to improve her gross motor skills. She later got selected for IIT Madras’ Institute Dance team. She also got selected to represent Indian culture through a solo dance performance in front of a global audience at a Harvard Asia conference held in Kazakhstan. She is also on the Board of Directors of a global non-profit, ‘Dance For All Bodies’ which aims to break stereotypes around ableism in dance. She also enjoys vlogging dance videos on Instagram.

What is product management according to you? 

I'm still learning and figuring this out myself. I would say a product manager is a person who defines the vision and strategy of the product by taking into account different factors such as how we can add value to a customer while progressing on the business objectives and leveraging technical and financial resources in the best way possible.  A product manager is a person who makes the decisions on how to drive a product forward. One of the underrated tasks of a PM is to bring diverse stakeholders together toward a common goal. 

What made you want to pursue product management?

My journey subconsciously started many years ago even before it manifested into a reality. In college, I enjoyed multitasking and working in diverse teams. I took part in plenty of extracurricular activities. I was a member of a dance club, football team, placement cell, etc. I was also the head of the Institute Career Development Cell. I loved bringing people together towards a common purpose

There wasn’t enough awareness about product management when I graduated from IIT Madras in 2018. Only a couple of companies visited our campus to hire students for a product manager role. There was a subconscious perception that product management takes years of experience and skills. 

Hence, I followed the common path and started working as a software developer at Citi Bank. I was still trying to figure out what I really wanted to do. Eventually, I decided to switch jobs and reached out to a few seniors for advice. They suggested that I would make a good product manager. I went on a research spree to understand the scope of product management better.

I started interviewing to make that transition. It was quite hard to make that transition without the work experience in product management beforehand. It is harder because, at the end of the day, you need to showcase that you have these skills. Nearly all job postings demanded a minimum of one year of work experience or an MBA.  However, I did not want to pursue an MBA at that time. I ended up switching to a start-up called “ Entrayn Education Technologies” as my first product management job

Do you need an MBA degree to transition into Product Management? 

I would say you don’t really need an MBA to become a successful Product Manager, but MBA experience can help you sharpen your toolset for being a good PM. At the end of the day,  you need to acquire the hard and soft skills to be a good PM and there are many paths to do that.  

How can you secure a PM job without a management degree?

I would say start by researching the role properly and making sure it’s a good fit. Figure out if it actually resonates with you or if you want to be a PM because it’s a buzzword these days

If yes, then ‘Decode and Conquer’ by Lewis C Lin is a good book that helped me while I was preparing for interviews. 

My advice will be to give actual examples of scenarios where you demonstrated product manager skills. Show how your unique background adds value to the role.

For example, if you're coming from a business or psychology background, show ways to leverage those skills in product management. Give concrete examples of how you can understand the business objectives and the customer needs better. Similarly, if you have a technical background, show how you can use the application of your analytical skills and technical know-how in product management.

If you plan to interview a particular company, you can try to impress them by preparing a case study of that product. Do some market research on that company and its competitors. Then you can share your insights with the hiring manager along with your application. That's a good way to earn some brownie points. 

As a student, do internships around product management and courses to understand the role better.

Another way to showcase your product management skills is by being a part of a startup/project. As an aspiring PM, it is important to hone your strategy-building, mission, and vision-formation skills. Even though you haven't done a master's degree in business, you can push forward your strengths acquired from diverse experiences which would help you in your product management journey.

And of course most importantly highlight examples of your soft skills, your ability to lead, multitask, collaborate and manage your time effectively through prioritization.

How has your role varied beginning at a startup to now working at Ford?

I have worked at 3 different companies and my role in each one has largely differed from the last one, but at the same time, each uniquely contributed to my learning. I started my PM career as a product manager at a startup. Then I moved on to being a technical product manager at Ford. 

In my first PM job, I had to do anything and everything for the success of the product. I  worked with marketing teams, sales teams, engineering teams, data analytics, design teams, etc. I was even involved in hiring, building the three-year transformation plan with the founder, etc. You name it. My focus was to look into customer pain points and define the pain relievers for those problems. It was exciting and a good start for my PM career as I got a taste of it all.

Here at Ford (and in many other MNCs), the tasks I described above are divided among different people. I'm a technical product manager. I work more closely with my engineering team, designers, data scientists, etc. And I have a counterpart who works more closely with the business leaders. We both work together to make the product successful. Another difference in working with a global product is that your team and users are spread across the globe. This allows you to learn about different cultures. There have been projects where I had to interact closely with teams spread across the US, London, India, Germany, and China. Talk about trouble finding common slots on everyone’s calendars! 

What excites you about your job? 

I personally love to interact with diverse people. I love to bring people together, be it for a college fest or for a tight product milestone deadline. Also, I enjoy solving different problems every day and being creative with them. These things keep me motivated and excited about my job.

What are some difficult problems that you solved as a PM? 

Sure, I’ll give an example from each of my PM roles. At Entrayn, one of our biggest concerns was the drop-off in the customer journey funnel.  We observed many people engaged with our product at the initial stage of the customer funnel because of the attractions we offered. But we weren't able to nurture and convert them into customers. I was given the job of identifying the issues and resolving them.

I had to learn how to create customer personas, do customer journey mapping and do marketing automation. I had to find ways to make the people follow our customer journey to be primed, engaged, and happy customers. I got to define the right nudges at the right time to leverage our freebies for higher engagement with the website and mobile app. I had to look into different marketing automation tools which fit our budget.  Over time, we saw an increase in the number of conversions and sales.  That was quite an exciting learning journey for me.

Then another example at Ford was the launch of the iconic F150 Lightning that took America by storm! Although it had been less than a year since I joined the company, I got to lead 3 key digital features of the vehicle:

  • ‘Manage my Home Energy’ (MMHE) to support backup power capability (ability to use energy from your vehicle to power your home in the event of a power failure), 
  • ‘Intelligent Range’ that provides accurate range estimates to the driver to eliminate range anxiety around electric vehicles
  • And ‘Charge Data Insights’ from the 80A fast charging wall box

MMHE in particular was assigned to me at a critical stage where we faced many obstacles along the way to build the product from scratch and meet the tight product timelines. It felt amazing to lead something like that as a 25-year-old. Of course, I was blessed with an amazing team who was just as determined to get things done no matter what! My career is filled with such exciting challenges.

What is a myth about product management?

It is a common saying that ‘Product Managers are like the CEOs of the product’ and that’s not entirely true. PMs are similar to CEOs in the sense of being responsible for defining vision, making strategy, and bringing people together to deliver the product. But at the same time, a product manager is somebody who has to lead as part of the team i.e. without authority. PMs collaborate with various teams and take decisions for the success of the product. We are equal to the team. CEOs on the other hand represent a hierarchical system. This is one myth that I want to clarify about product management.

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