Career Path in Product Management — Interview with Tanya Savelya
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Eleken has dozens of clients. Each client has a Product Manager or Product Owner our designers communicate with. But when I announced to my team that I need a product person for an interview, they told me I need to talk to Tanya.
Four and a half years ago, Tanya was designing interiors. Today, she manages a team of three dozen people as a Head of Product and develops an online course in Product Management.
I grabbed some time on Zoom with Tanya and asked her how she made a stellar product career in record time with a completely unrelated background. Her answers will help everyone who dreams to create digital products plot the course of their professional strategy.
You have a non-technical education. How did you switch to product management?
In university, I studied psychology and English, but never worked a day in those fields. I’ve made a career in interior design and created spaces for 15 years until I faced what we would call today “a midlife crisis”.
A friend of mine advised me to retrain into a UI/UX designer, and that’s where my university studies came in handy. I did a month of UI/UX internship in a product company and then received a full-time job. That was my way into the product world.
I have shown some promise in the company I work for as a designer, so I was promoted to a Head of Product role.
It was so easy to become a Head of Product, huh?
It wasn’t easy at all.
In my first product company, I had good teachers. A Chief Product Officer (CPO) explained to me that to create apps, you need to build expertise in three areas:
- UI/UX — to understand how people will use your product.
- Business — to see how the product can make a profit.
- Technology — to know how the product can be built, or rather to be able to describe tasks in the right way so that developers can complete them.
So I started with a UI/UX side, then trained as a Business Analyst, learned product analytics, and studied Product Management at Simulator by GoPractice. This way, I filled in my knowledge gaps and was ready to get started with a product management role.
How many years did it take to go from your UX position to the role of Head of Product?
It took me four years. I had a good motivation — when I was starting, people of my age already held executive positions in IT. Therefore, I studied extensively and read a lot.
My self-education is an ongoing process. For instance, I’ve completed the first part of the GoPractice course and want to take the second one. Another example: at my current job, I’m dealing with unit economics and budgets, which means shifting towards a CPO position. So I have recently found a Chief Product Officer training program to get ready for a more senior role.
In Linkedin, your position is listed as Head of Product and PM. How are these two jobs related?
If you take all the tasks where I’m involved, you can divide them into product and operational tasks. In Whoosh, Product Managers are responsible for the operational side, while the Head of Product works on a more strategic, product side.
Sometimes one person can deal with both Product Head and PM tasks. This is the case in GameDev, for example, where projects are usually small and product teams are up to ten people.
B2B products are more complex and therefore require bigger teams. In Whoosh, the product team consists of 30 people, that’s why I work as a Head of Product and have subordinate Product Managers. Each PM manages separate development streams, like integration or growth hacking streams.
I’m now preparing content for a product management training course and creating a product team hierarchy scheme for my students. There are C-level executives on top, a Head of Product is listed below, and Product Managers are the Head of Product’s subordinates.
How do Head of Product’s and PM’s tasks differ?
As a Product Head, I have more top-level tasks. For instance, I deal with the product roadmap and plan how the product team is going to interact with other departments. I also research the market and our competitors, track product metrics and stay on top of the industry news.
Product Managers, who focus on specific development streams, go deeper into the product creation process and report to me on the situation. They also have to answer the questions that come from designers and engineers.
PMs can prioritize small tasks themselves. But when it comes to global priorities, it’s a Head’s zone of responsibility.
Editorial comment: Product world is a wild wild west where terms count for nothing sometimes. In some companies and some literature (for instance, Inspired by Marty Cagan) PO is perceived as derived from a Scrum framework role, which leads to a completely different list of responsibilities.
If you are interested in other perspectives, read our article on Head’s of Product typical week. And never rely on position names only, check what a particular company means under a role.
What does it mean to be a leader?
When everyone just performs their tasks, that’s not a team. What makes the team is respect and mutual assistance, healthy motivation and sports passion to make a product.
One quality that helps a leader hold a team together is love for what you do and faith that everything will work out. These qualities help the leader to turn team members into inspired followers.
It takes time and a tough reality check to start trusting your leader. All this is not easy, but I can proudly say that each of my team has eventually become strong and motivated.
Don’t you get bored with routine work?
I work in cycles, moving from B2B to the GameDev industry and back. After about two years of managing game projects, now I’m making a useful video-conferencing app. After that, I’ll want to get back to AAA again.
When a product is already on the rails of implementation, and you only need to tune it up and check some metrics - this is where I think a company can cope without me. At that moment, I can move forward and launch the next product.
Marty Cagan writes that it’s barely possible to manage a product in less than 60 hours a week. Do you agree?
Having a child helps a lot in normalizing the schedule. Every day at 6 pm, I close the laptop and take my daughter outside. She plays at the playground and I read in the park.
I used to work overtime, starting earlier in the morning and finishing at around 7 pm. But in the summer my daughter is at home all the time, so I learned to give my best during the eight-hour working day and never work on weekends.
You mentioned reading. What do you read in the park?
I try to read around 30 pages a day, and always have two books in parallel (one easy, one more complicated), to have choices for different moods.
Now, I’m reading “How to Talk to Assholes” by Mark Goulston and “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. The previous couple of books were “What to Know, Do and Say to Make a Brilliant Team” by Douglas Miller, and “Nine Lies About Work” by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall.
Product Head’s schedule is full of calls and meetings. How do you build your concentration?
On Wednesdays, I have a non-meeting day to work on demanding product tasks, like Sprint planning or researching a feature. I disconnect from operational tasks, turn off email notifications and Slack, and tell colleagues that I’ll be unavailable for a while. When I’m back after an hour or two, I receive a million messages, but this is the price of focused work.
Music also helps to concentrate. It sets the rhythm, so I don’t get distracted. I have recently tested ambient noises that imitate coffee shop sounds, and it turned out that busting chatter and lunchtime rush help you stay more productive compared to total silence.
We are used to working in offices, where background sounds accompany the workflow. So a little noise can be useful to boost productivity.
You’ve mentioned that you are preparing a PM training program. How did you become a mentor?
The IT academy found me on LinkedIn and offered to teach a course in product management. The funny thing is, some years ago I studied business administration at this same school.
I agreed because I really wanted to go through the experience of teaching and building a program from a practitioner's perspective. It’s not an easy task — PM training modules the school had before I came had many things missing and many unnecessary things.
Take product management frameworks as an example. Those are lovely colorful schemes from books that you will barely use. I suppose that students that take a course need more practical skills than theoretical knowledge. If you devote five minutes of your free time, you can learn any framework on your own.
What can you advise product management students from teachers’ perspective?
If you are taking PM courses, read the curriculum carefully. It is better when courses are split into different levels and you can choose a course for junior PM, middle, senior, or CPO. Why? Because it often happens that programs mix together everything related to product management, from basics to really advanced topics.
But it doesn’t make much sense for a junior PM to study unit economics, for instance, because it will take a long while until they will be entrusted with such tasks.
Thank you, Tanya!
Now you see why the Eleken crew suggested I talk to this woman!
By the end of our conversation Tanya’s passion almost convinced me to roll up my sleeves and start my path to product management, the best job in the world that also has incredible impact. So hopefully you felt some of that mojo, too.
Curious about Tanya’s product management responsibilities? You're lucky that we have a super-detailed post with Google Calendar screenshots that focuses on a week in the life of a Head of Product.