Pivoting into Product Management

August 8, 2018 Sharon

This week for Pivotal Voices, we’re featuring Sharon Tam, Senior Product Manager at Pivotal New York.

When I was growing up, my nickname used to be Shady Sharon because I was always caught up in weird side projects. There was a period of time during elementary school when I was making bootleg Pokemon cards and selling those before I went off and made carnival games for fundraising events, and continued to do small projects like that. I had a really strong, salesy type of background where I’d constantly be asking myself, “Okay, what’s my next opportunity? What can I go and check out?”

I went to Babson College which is well known for its entrepreneurship and quickly got sucked into a startup culture where everyone always seemed to be laser-focused on value selling. One semester I happened to take a class at Olin College, a neighboring engineering school, which blew my mind. It was my first exposure to learning how to build a solution for a person’s problem instead of building a product to sell to people. As a flip phone enthusiast, I was like, “Wow! What is this technology stuff?”

When I graduated I started working at an advertising agency, but I always felt like something was really missing. And so I tried to pivot into tech, which was really hard because I was constantly bombarded with “Oh, you don’t have enough experience, we really want people with technical backgrounds.” So I ended up doing what I knew — a lot of side projects. During that first year out of college, I helped build enterprise software that helped studios manage their instructors with a software salesman and part time cycling teacher from SF that I happened to meet through a classmate — that’s how I learned the basics of product management.

Eventually, I quit my advertising job and took a product management intern role at this really tiny startup, which helped me land a product manager role at AOL and then at Pivotal. My first week at AOL I was just googling things frantically because I was pretty much self-taught at that point.

I’m a very, very curious person and love the concept of play, so one of the things I’ve been trying out are impulse experiments, which are activities you pursue just because you’re curious about the outcomes. For example, I used to run with a friend who had this insane encyclopedia-like knowledge about New York. We’d run by a stone and he’d be like “Oh, did you know that stone was kicked by Al Capone like 20 years ago?” or some other obscure bit of knowledge. I wanted to know what would happen if other people could experience this. So I implemented an impulse experiment where I live streamed our runs with an iPhone strapped on my head and we would just talk. As a result, we ended up getting a following in Dublin, Ireland of all places.

Working at Pivotal has been really similar to those impulse experiments because the basic principles of the approach are the same. It always starts with a question and as a product manager at Labs, we’ll have all these companies ask us questions like, “Oh, what do we build next?” Or, “Who are the users? Who should buy this?” And then we’re given the license to explore, experiment, and iterate to solve these questions for our customers.

It’s a really cool position to be in where you can actually be in the middle of all the action and be encouraged to experiment to figure out how to solve problems for people. And I really like how our principles are really practical. Yes, they try to embrace change and embrace collecting new knowledge. But at the root of it, there’s this empathetic standpoint, where we genuinely care about the outcome and the people.

Change is the only constant, so individuals, institutions, and businesses must be Built to Adapt. At Pivotal, we believe change should be expected, embraced, and incorporated continuously through development and innovation, because good software is never finished.

Pivoting into Product Management was originally published in Built to Adapt on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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