Career Moves in Product Management: What I Wish Knew Earlier
Updated: Apr 11, 2022
Episode 004: Farah Rana, Head of Studio Products for Riot Games:
"You should always be able to learn and teach. So look for mentors. If an organization isn't willing to invest in you, it doesn't have to be a formal mentor program. Just being around people and say, hey, do you mind if I crash that meeting? I would love to kind of just listen in of how senior leadership thinks about approving a product launch or no go. Put yourself out there. And if you get a lot of pushback, I think that's another red flag."
JJ: Hello and welcome to Product Voices. What a great topic we have today. Making career moves in product management. What I wish I knew earlier. So making career moves is at the same time exhilarating and exhausting. It's not always easy to first determine what that perfect role or perfect career is for you. And then once you have an idea in mind, you've got to find those right moves to get you closer to where you want to go. And as we all know, that doesn't always work out.
Sometimes it works out perfectly, but it's all about kind of figuring it out as we go, especially in product management. There's a lot of opportunities out there, but there are some dramatic differences in what product management means across companies. Sometimes the stature of product management is different. The processes, the mindset, the culture, all of those can vary between companies. And so sometimes when we're moving around, we're not actually sure what we're getting into.
So my guest today has really interesting career path in and around product management, so I'm really excited to chat with her. Farah Rana is in product management at Riot Games. She was in government for five years, then in healthcare for ten. She recently shifted from healthcare to finance at Visa, and just this year is pivoting into gaming. So that sounds so exciting. I kind of want your career.
Farah, thank you so much for joining.
FARAH: Thank you for having me.
JJ: Yeah, this is going to be fun, and I really do kind of want your career. Maybe I can have a second part of my career and go into gaming like you. Okay, so I gave a little bit of your bio there. But tell us a little bit more about your story and give us a little more details about some of the changes and maybe what you went through as you were thinking about moving around in your career.
FARAH: Yeah, sure. So I know they always say, like, when you're a bit is in a career, don't start with College. But I'm just going to start there for this. I was first generation College student and graduated and really didn't know what I was going to do. And I got really lucky in my life so far. I would say hard work and luck. And I fell into government, so I fell into it. I built my analytical thinking, my skills, getting to know people. And really from that point of view, I was really like just finding things and without the thought or foresight I wish I had planned, I never sat there and said, I'd like to go into product management. What does that look like? What are those strategic steps or build out my own roadmap? So I was in government, like I said. And I would say, what has been the kind of really historical through my entire career, I'm making myself sound like a dinosaur.
But there's that gut check, right? Never underestimate your gut. If something doesn't sound right or feel right, there's a reason. And I knew that it was just time to move. And money is always great, right. I'm sure I'm not alone. We love to travel, we like nice things, all that. But if you're not learning, if you're not teaching, if you're not doing something that's challenging, you can start feeling very like... it's rudimentary. It's really routine. It's just kind of you wake up, clock in, clock out. And that's never been my kind of mentality, personally.
So then I shifted to health care and wow, I didn't realize healthcare was such a beast. I mean, it literally impacts every human being on this planet, right. Regardless of the health plan, regardless if it's a doctor, it doesn't and matter. Every human being. Has, in my opinion, a humble opinion, has a right to manage their health, whether it be even nutrition, having enough food, managing illnesses that could really shorten their lifespan, all of those things. And I think it's a basic necessity. And that's what brought me to health care, because I thought, wow, I could, in my own little way, drive some change. So I really was more in the partnerships with consultants, building, I would say, like behind a curtain kind of work and strategic consulting on the healthcare side. And then I shifted to actually working with physicians and nurses, with our medical record system. And then my last role at Kaiser was, by definition, if you want to call it, you know, product management.
But I had this epiphany I'm like, you know, I've been doing product my entire career. And I haven't thought about that. Remember, I was just kind of like, oh, that looks really good. That looks really great. I'm going to learn a lot. That's an awesome job. And I actually, for most of my career, never had to really go through formal interview process because I believed in getting to know people and just learning. But when I was in my last role at Kaiser, I had this epiphany that, wow, I've been doing product my whole career and I didn't even know it. Right. That's fascinating. Really think about it. Right. Our definition of product is what right? I'm a product. It's who we are. It's what we stand for. It's whatever we're building, if we are solutioning, if we're understanding what a customer wants, we're building a product. It doesn't matter where you are in that flow. Right. But you're part of that. And it hit me. And I don't even know when, like, what was the reason or cause, but it hit me. And then when I had that, I was like, okay. Then I started getting a bit more, I think, more focused on from a product, I guess, angle. Right. From the Product 101 book. Right. Of how do I continue to improve my skill and know how? And the things that I learned were customer, customer, internal, external. They're both important. What do they really need? Are you solving for that for their issue?
Don't let the administrative or the internal hurdles of how the process and structure is going to work in the way of doing what is right. What is that North Star. And I think that applies not even just in product, but your career, what is your North Star? And it can shift, and it's not always a straight line, but what is that? Right? So around the same time, remember that feeling I said when I left government? I had that feeling in my gut and I started having that feeling again, and I was about. Almost nine years into healthcare. And I was like, okay, I think it's time to move. I don't know what it is. And this little thing called covet happened. I don't know if you heard of it, super covet. And it was a blessing in the sense that not a blessing that we had covet, but a blessing in the sense that a lot of companies kind of paused for a second during the beginning of the pandemic.
And it was a good pause for me to spend time and think about what do I want?
This is the first time in my career I'm really pausing and thinking, what do I want? What does product mean to me? What kind of company do I want to work for? How do I put myself out there? I've never really formally interviewed for over ten years for any job. So it was really a different world in so many aspects. And I probably was a little cocky and thought, I've been in healthcare, I've been in government. I got this. Well, I mean, in preparation for this, I went back through my job applications and the interviews I had, and I hope your listeners will appreciate this.
And since 2019, I've applied to 263 jobs. Wow. That I felt were the right fit. I'm like they would be crazy not to call me. Right out of the 263 applications, I had 29 interviews and four job offers. Awesome. Those are amazing numbers and important for everybody out there listening, and I share that because it can be so defeating. Everything has changed. And what I would say is, when I started, it's not like I was just applying to anything.
The questions I asked myself were what brands impact my life? Right. Look around you. What brands are something that really add value to your life? Because I'm sure if you look around your house, you look around your office or some package that gets delivered to your front door like mine, every two days from an app that I order everything from, you realize it makes a difference, and you start thinking about what you could do to make it better. What your pain points are as a customer. Put yourself in that position before you start just applying. And that was the one thing that I would say I did well. Like, I thought that was well thought out for once. And I kind of did that shifting into healthcare, but I didn't really think from a brand perspective. But now I was like, okay. So I made this short list. I just wrote things down, and I'm like, okay, here are like, 10, 15 companies I feel that have an impact on my day to day life. Me, my children, my husband, our life, our little ecosystem. And then it was, okay, let me just start doing a resume, right? So I pulled out, like, an old book from God knows when.
I was like, okay, you go to cover letter, and then you put a resume together, and this is how it looks. And it could be three pages long. Don't do three pages. Yeah, don't do that anymore. Pages. And I was like, let me just start applying. I'm like, what's going on? It's been a month. Like, someone should be calling me by now, right? And so I would say that's when the real discovery happened for me. And I'm like, okay, this is not working. And, you know, God bless. I actually had a sister in law. My sister in law and I were kind of going through this career transition or thinking around the same time. So I had a partner in crime. And this market has changed. And couple things really came up when we were learning product didn't exist as a real kind of subject. Right. People were melding project management and product management together. Right. People didn't know those distinctions. And finally it started becoming its own. I forgot the word I'm looking for, but its own core subject. If you want to say. Right in the past, I would say, what would you say? Like five years, seven years where it really started making a name for itself. Yeah. It's been in the spotlight since then. Right, right. But before then, I don't remember ten years ago anyone really saying I'm a product manager. I don't remember, at least at least in health care, but that really being a career path or a defined skill or an area of work or expertise.
So was like, okay, this is interesting. Like, now I'm going on LinkedIn and I'm finding all these product things that I would have never even thought about, like what's going on? And then understanding the distinction between product management and product marketing. Like, it was completely eye opening for me that now it's really building this infrastructure and processes on product management. And so here I am applying with a very outdated resume format. Right. I'm thinking people are going to read between the lines of everything I've done that's products. And then I go on to these online, these forums. Right. Like LinkedIn or even Clubhouse. And people are talking about product and they're talking about it so differently. And I'm like, okay, no one is asking about a product solution. And like some technical roll out. They're really asking, what was your role? How do you work with your peers, whether it be engineering, marketing, how does that really come together? I mean, this was not a process or structure that I think when I was starting in product was really there. It was just a default of like, how do we bandaid this together and launch something? Right. 5s It was much longer than I thought it was going to be, but general journey. But I would say that it's been interesting.
I've definitely for anyone kind of in the same direction, going, looking for an opportunity to say, do not do a three page resume to a one page resume. Network, network, network, network before you even need a role. There are so many smart people in the product space. I had an opportunity to meet you a few years ago. Right. And I was looking for an opportunity at that time, but it was great to have conversations around product, learning what other people are doing. It was really helpful. And I think some other kind of little tidbits or takeaways.
One of the worst advice I ever got in my career. It was early on in government from a manager who said, if you don't know, just fake it to you, make it right. I've heard that before. I've been told that before, too. Right. And I remember I took that advice and I had an executive team meeting or something. And I went in there and I swear, I was just like they were shooting questions and I was making stuff up on the fly and answering questions ship. And it took me a long time to recuperate from that burn. If you would, so to speak. I would say, don't do that. It's okay to tell even in an interview or even when you're networking with someone that you don't know it. Right. Share how you would get to an answer. How would you learn it? How would you want to participate to be part of a product story?
JJ: Okay. So I want to talk a little bit about this right here. So one of the things that I think all of us ask ourselves in lots of different situations is what would I have done differently or what do I wish I knew earlier? Right. And so you've touched on several of those learning and understanding where you are and learning from people and around that thing. What are some specific things that if you were to advise someone on that are more about the signs that you see. Right. Love your gut check. Things like if it's in your gut, if you're feeling something, there's something going on there. What are some other things that specifically you think folks can be more aware of that if they're feeling something, if they're seeing something in their careers, that maybe it's time to look around and see something else.
FARAH: So again, I'll come from a specific angle of product management. Right. So I would say now products discipline, that is maturing. So it is a fair expectation for you to have of an organization that they are developing structure and process to support product development. Number one, if you're not seeing that, it's going to be very challenging for you to grow. It's okay if it's not fully matured yet. There's a lot of companies that are startups that are all hands on deck that are trying to figure, figure this out, trying to figure out how their structure is. That's cool. That's totally fine. And that's a great place to learn. But if the leadership or the organization is trying to Band Aid it together for too long and you don't see that, that's a red flag, in my opinion.
Number two, you should always be able to learn and teach. So what do I mean? Right? So look for mentors. If an organization isn't willing to invest in you, it doesn't have to be a formal mentor program. You don't have to go to someone and say, Will you be my mentor? Right? I made that mistake, too. It was very awkward, but just being around people and say, hey, do you mind if I crash that meeting? I would love to kind of just listen in of how senior leadership thinks about approving a product launch or no go, I love that idea. Right. Put yourself out there. And if you get a lot of pushback, I think that's another red flag. It could be the wrong meeting, but it's up to that leader to tell you. Or I shouldn't say leader should be the management to tell you, hey, you know, Farah, I don't think that's the right meeting, but I hear you and I got some others that I think will be a great area for you to kind of listen in. And you can even contribute. Right. So I think that's number two.
JJ: So one of the things that I really love about this advice you're giving is you're so right in terms of the relationships that are built, that is probably, if not the cornerstone skill of a product manager. It's one of for sure. And I was going to ask you, how do you look when you're interviewing? It's hard to know what that culture is going to be like. Right. Until you're really in those walls in that organization, it's hard to know what that culture is going to be like. But one of the things that I found and I want to know if you agree with this. One of the things that I've found is when I've been involved in not only hiring, but of course, looking for my own jobs, those relationships, if you can feel that relationship and that rapport during the interview process, by being yourself, by being transparent and vulnerable in some ways and really showing what you know and what you don't know, and the person on the other side of the table or the other side of the screen really being okay with that. To me, that's an indicator of a good product culture because they understand there's no one right way, there's no one right person, there's no one right solution. And so to me, that's one of those indicators. Have you found that as well?
FARAH: Oh, 100%, yeah. And the offers that I got earlier on where I was not being like 100% authentic, I'll put that I'll be honest. Right. And I went down this path. Now these large interview loops that take like 8 hours of your day and take four years off your life and you're on. And it took me like it was for a position, it was in healthcare. And this was a time where I felt like, oh, my God, no one's going to take me out of health care. So I might as well just suck it up and just keep applying to healthcare and I'll get a job and it'll be like a VP position. I'll make a lot of money, and that's all that matters. All the wrong motivations. Right. It was totally settling, and I went through this interview and I was not there. It wasn't me. And I got the offer and I was like, I don't know anything about the culture because I wasn't me. So how do I know them? They were responding to who they thought I was. They didn't know that I was settling. That's right. You know, and that was probably the only time I applied to healthcare job and nothing against healthcare. It is a fantastic industry, but I just was ready for for something very different. But if you're not going to be authentic of who you are and genuine, don't be surprised when you show up on day one if the culture isn't what you expected.
That may be the most important advice right in folks interviewing, and it's really hard to get comfortable with that. We've all been there where we tried to be something we weren't. We tried to answer the way they wanted to hear or the way we thought they wanted to hear. And it just doesn't work. And even if you do get the job to your point, even if you do get an offer, it's settling because there's no way that can tie together. Now, maybe you get lucky, but it is luck at that point. So I love that advice.
JJ: So here's my last question for you. What are some go to resources that you've found that have been helpful, both just learning product management, because that's part of the underlying thing we're talking about. But obviously career moves and interviewing and that sort of thing. What are some go to resources that have been helpful for you.
FARAH: Yeah, for sure. So LinkedIn, LinkedIn, LinkedIn, LinkedIn. I can't even stress that enough. And what do I mean when I say LinkedIn, if you see, first of all, be outside of your comfort zone, you're going to make mistakes. You're going to reach out to people, you're going to send DMs that have typos, you're going to do things that are just human. And it's okay. Be comfortable with that. Reach out to people, comment on posts that interest you. Not something that you think someone's going to read and go, oh, wow, I should hire them. Comment on things that you have a point of view on. Right. And product. For me, I believe in the customer obsession a million times over. If you're not understanding your customer, if you're not able to relay their pain points and opportunities, you're not doing your job as a product manager. So when I see things like that on LinkedIn, either someone post or whatever, always comment. I always try to comment DM people, those webinars that they have, they're great resources like yourself and the information you put out. Fantastic. I would say also. I mentioned my sister in law earlier and she had highlighted Clubhouse, which was an app that I think was in beta most of 2021. But I met a lot of people on that.
And there was one individual, Diego Granada, who is on LinkedIn, very active and what a cool background. He wasn't a product manager and he really kind of built himself up. And he does these mock interviews and he posts them. He does webinars and it's very natural. It's very like down Earth. You'll interview like Amazon PMS or Microsoft PMS, and it's really cool. I would say that's a great resource. There are many people like that. There's a new app or a new site that opened called Mentor Mash, which I've recently joined because part of the lesson I used to hate when I DM people, my God, it's been forever. They never replied. So I'm going to do my part. I know it's hard, but we all get busy. But trying to pay it forward for those who have were kind enough to reply to me and join more of a structured mentor organization. And that's a great resource. And then honestly, old school YouTube, for example, you can YouTube anything. Like I had actually YouTube a few months ago, Andy Jesse from Amazon. And just to kind of hear his career story and how he conveyed it, how comfortable he was, of course. I mean, he's like the top of Amazon, so it's kind of easy to do that. Right. But still, he's probably the same person. Right. And then mock interviews are on that and just great resources. That's how I did it. I did read articles on LinkedIn and things like that too. But it was just really getting to know different people's perspective on product. That was like my goal with all these different channels and having conversations with them. We can disagree. Usually it's not a disagreement. I think, like you said this earlier, it's like there's no right or wrong answer. And product, it's like totally squishy, which is the beauty of it. I believe that's why I like it. I love swishiness, because you could be building something and your whole customer persona changes. And now it's time to pivot. Right.
One thing, a just little side story. When I said about being genuine, right in your interviews, I would have never said this before. I would have never said this in an interview a six months or a year and a half ago. I was my final few rounds, and I was asked, why do you like why is it important for you on a personal level to grow in product? And I said, look at me. I am a woman of color. I am first generation, educated in College and Masters, and there's only 2% of women in leadership positions in product. And I don't even know if it's forget about race. I'm not even talking about that at this .2% and my personal motivation I have my professional motivations. My personal motivation is I have two young children, and I'm opening a door for one, my daughter. And I'm showing my son that you can walk through the door with her as a man. And I think that's I would have never been that transparent. Ever in my career. And I think we're at this really interesting point in history where we can say those things, be truly genuine and share those motivations. And I feel so comfortable that I had done that, because people know what they're getting right. And I'd love to take that and open doors for other people because I have been very blessed with wonderful managers, folks that have challenged me, who have called me in their office. But, Pharaoh, what the hell are you doing? But there's more to it, right? So I would say that personal story is part of my grit and what's important to me. And I would really encourage folks to really dig deep and think about what is their personal motivation that impacts their professional success.
JJ: I just think that is such amazing advice and such a great story. Thank you for sharing that. This has been an amazing conversation. I've enjoyed every minute of it. Vera, thank you so much for being here and for being yourself. I love you. You were just so much fun and so inspiring. So you got to come back. We've got to have these conversations once a month. Maybe we'll do a JJ and Farah episode.
FARAH: Anytime. Maybe you'll get so big. Like we'll then take in callers or something.
JJ: Yeah, I think that's going to happen. Maybe we'll have our own TV show or something. Never know. Yeah. Right. Okay. Farah Rana, thank you so much for your stories and for your wisdom. I am so grateful for you being here with me today and sharing everything. And for those of you out there, Productvoices.com, we're going to share all the resources that Farah talked about and some others. So make sure you go to Productvoices.com. You can get the transcript of this episode, the audio, and then links to those resources as well. So thank you all for joining us on Product Voices. I'll see you next episode.
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