Brandon is currently an AI product manager at Teledyne DALSA. He has developed years of experience working with cross-functional teams to deliver industry-leading products. He has been featured in the PM Mastermind, Quality Magazine, AZoRobotics, and IMVE. Brandon holds an engineering degree from the University of Waterloo and a product manager certificate from Product School. In his spare time, Brandon enjoys dragon boating, traveling, and board games. For more tips on product management, you can follow Brandon on Linkedin.
Just as all other product managers, an AI product manager helps determine the "what" we are building and "why" we are building it. We are like the conductor of an orchestra, working across engineering, design, marketing, sales, business, and other cross-functional groups. Sometimes the product manager also does product marketing, which involves communicating the product to customers (telling the story) and go-to-market activities.
An AI product manager has a few nuances that may differ from others. In computer vision, AI is emerging and starting to gain a lot more traction. With any emerging field, there is the challenge of communicating the technology to those who are not familiar with it.
It may not be as glamorous as it seems, as it often poses more challenges than traditional software products. Every company is different but certain products can be completely AI-focused. Other places may have AI methods as part of a bigger solution( think Netflix or Spotify recommendations). If the AI product is a tool, the manager will likely be much more involved with other product managers as they build the product(s).
Overall AI product management is both exciting and challenging. AI product management (and more specifically deep learning- the area I am in) also poses the challenge of not being able to quantify performance until "trying it". The nature of AI is iterative and we often don't know how an AI model will perform until we test it. Another thing to note within deep learning is the workflow for developing, training, and deploying AI models (see figure 2). AI product managers should be familiar with the workflows as these are different than other products. The more data we have, the better we can typically make the product.
Growing up, I wanted to make an impact on the world through technology. I've always been a driven person and this led me to study engineering. However, during university, I discovered entrepreneurship and realized my passion for combining the tech and business sides.
In undergrad, I paddled for the University of Waterloo dragon boat team. I loved the feeling of adrenaline before a race and being part of a team, a bigger picture. There was no better feeling than crossing the finish line with our team after months of hard work and training. Ever since then, I have been searching for that same feeling I got from paddling, but in my career.
Then one day I found it. While at a hackathon, I led a cross-functional team to develop a product and pitched a deck for an app that connected families. I found a new sense of drive and experienced limitless passion in leading a team to help improve other people’s lives. That same feeling of seeing our team succeed with a product was just like crossing the finish line! This was the most energizing thing I've done in my career and I later discovered that a role like this already existed! That role was product management.
Generally, the hardest part tends to be breaking into the field, I’ll focus on that part (assuming you have built the foundational skills). Once you have figured out that PM is indeed for you, it’s time to focus on building experience through projects. This can be done in several ways:
After building up the relevant expertise, the shift would be onto storytelling, to convince others that you are capable of doing the job. This is often the hardest part. We have all been here to do this, it's useful to think of putting ourselves in the recruiter's shoes and being aware of our biases. Examples:
The focus here would be to tell a story that shows you have the well-rounded skills necessary to be a product manager, and it is best demonstrated by showing them (ie your projects/work). Once you have your own “story” in mind, it should make the execution of applying and moving into the role much easier.
I have observed plenty of engineering degrees in the PM field. For an AI PM, it is very helpful, especially with an engineering background, as all the math will be familiar. It will allow you to go in and program your neural networks and own projects. But that depends on how technical a person wants to go concerning the product. Even within the PM role, someone could be more involved in the programming space or they can choose to take up product marketing-oriented tasks. But it's still important to understand the basic technical details of the product.
I am in the AI space. If you can choose to go that technical, I'd suggest taking some elective subjects. Many universities and colleges offer AI/ML specialization courses. Other than that you can get started with some good online courses. As a starting point, there is a general AI course for someone who has no AI background called elements of AI from The University of Helsinki. From Coursera, and for a more technical overview, my top suggestion would be the Deep Learning Specialization by Andrew Ng. Then there is Deep Learning Applications for Computer Vision by Loana Fleming.
To get a deeper dive, go beyond that. Building projects and networking can take an aspiring PM far. Even if you don't do all the programming yourself, you can work with a team and show that you're able to build something. It demonstrates to the employers that you're interested and skillful in the product space.
But also, PMs don’t always need a technical background. I have seen people come into this role from any field and do well. Having a technical background can help, and certainly becomes more important if the users are more technical, but this is situation-dependent. The heart of product management comes down to soft skills, and often people can learn enough of the tech background on the job or through their own means. Lisa Zane (founder of Conscious Product Development and ex-Google PM) has one of the most detailed overviews of the skills of a product manager here.
I can shed some light on that. The first one that comes to my mind is- Emotional Intelligence. Years ago I read a book called Emotional Intelligence 2.0. It divides EI into four categories- self-management, self-awareness, relationship management, and relationship awareness. EI is necessary to empathize with users and everyone that you're working with for the product. EI also helps us manage our own emotions, be aware of others’ emotions and manage relationships.
Communication and leadership skills come next. Under leadership comes relationship building. As product managers, we don't have authority over anyone, so having good relations with the people around us and building trust is crucial.
My method is to start by introducing myself to the different teams. I try to get to know them in person. I acknowledge that working remotely with peers can bring geographical barriers. But whenever possible, I take the opportunity to meet them face-to-face or via video calls. An introductory coffee chat even before you start working together can help with building rapport. Everyone connects differently and there is no “one size fits all” approach to this. We have to adapt our style based on the person (ie. some colleagues may want to jump straight to work and skip the small talk, while others may need to spend a few minutes chatting). Adapting our communication styles to different audiences is a key skill for PMs.
Of course. I found Emotional Intelligence 2.0. (by Jean Greaves and Travis Bradberry) an excellent read. I read it for my development even before I was interested in product management. I found it incredibly helpful. It has a lot of good strategies and tactics to help people work on their EI if that's something they want to do.
Another good book for leadership and communication skills is called How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. It’s a book to advance your leadership and people skills. The Dale Carnegie Course blends concepts from this book and a few others for a more practical approach.
There's also ‘Toastmasters International’ which is a public speaking organization. One can join these clubs worldwide. It's a safe space to practice public speaking, communication, and leadership skills.
Once you've dipped your feet into interpersonal skills, leadership, communication, etc to build the foundation, the next really important product management skill would be customer interviewing. Without understanding the customer insights correctly, we're shooting in the dark. It's vital for the whole product that we build a deep understanding of the user requirements and pain points.
To practice this skill at home, you can adopt a framework called the Jobs-to-Be-Done Theory. Industry expert and fractional COO, John Gauch has some great resources for this on his medium page here. For more details, you can also check out the book by Clayton Christensen. You can do practice interviews with friends or family, who have made a recent product purchase. Ask them why they decided to buy, what events led them up to the purchase, and how their experience was with the product. You’d get a good sense of how to perform customer interviews from these conversations. This is an easy and effective way to practice customer interviews without any experience and without having to endure the big costs associated with it. Some other great resources for customer interviews are Continuous Discovery Habits by Theresa Torres and The Mom Test by Robz Fitzpatrick.
It varies based on the type of problem. In general, I spend an amount of time on the problem relative to its impact. If the impact is large, then I'll spend a lot more time trying to come up with a robust solution and vice versa.
My problem-solving framework is inspired by Brandon Chu, VP of Product Acceleration at Shopify. He has a great medium article on making decisions as a product manager. I look at these 3 things- the investment of resources, the impact of a positive outcome, and the impact of a negative outcome. Analyzing these aspects helps to kickstart my decision-making process for a problem. The rest of problem-solving depends on the nuances of the problem.
I enjoy paddling sports: stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, and dragon boat. My experience with dragon boats and paddling sports is very positive. The dragon boat is a great team-building sport. I met so many different people from different backgrounds and it was an incredible experience. Hobbies are important not only to disconnect from work and socialize but to build up small habits that can help with professional work. There are many relevant skills I picked up that carry over into product management.
In dragon boat, we learn to collaborate with everyone and work in sync as a team. Every stroke we take has to be in time with the person beside us, in front of us, and behind us. Otherwise, we’ll throw off the entire boat. It's about learning to work together, knowing our role in the boat, and following the strategies (the race plan). Personally, it's one of the most enjoyable sports I've tried.
I believe dragon boating is such a complex sport that no one has perfect technique. It's similar to product management where there are so many different skill sets one can master. But there is always room for improvement and growth. When we recognize that, we feel a lot of motivation to continue to work and develop ourselves as an individual.