My journey into product management

Mike Zavarello, September 2021

I've found it can be tricky for others to understand my journey into product management. To be honest, I didn't formally realize myself that I was in this role until recently.

I've also been told my background and skillsets are "unique," which often requires some explanation as to how what I do matches up with what's expected in a product management role.

Why is that?

My career path has been that of a generalist. I've been exposed to a wide range of disciplines over the years and have quickly become a go-to subject matter expert in many of them. As a result, I’ve become involved in groups and efforts of varying focus and structure, from startup-style think tanks in social media and user experience to strategic planning initiatives spanning multiple teams and departments. Truth be told, I’ve never been fully dedicated to one single concept or product at a time. My self-generated interests have pushed me, and my self-taught expertise has pulled me, in many, many directions. That can be hard to describe on paper.

What has this taught me?

To be thoughtful. To be resilient. To be adaptable. To be empathetic. To ask unceasing amounts of questions, always in a quest to understand “why” and “how.”

All throughout, my driving goal is to build something better.

I know I’m not a visionary. I’ll never be the “ideation guy” who wills amazing ideas and concepts into existence. It’s simply not my gift. What my gift is, however, is making those formative ideas more effective, more efficient, and more refined. I want nothing more than to make a seamless, frictionless, and effortless experience, whether that’s something as simple as a form interface or as complex as an entire website.

So how does this relate back to the problem with linking me to product management?

It requires me to tell a story.

All throughout my career, I’ve built things. I’ve refined things. I’ve made things better. Websites, forms, interfaces, apps, wireframes, procedures, working agreements, technology roadmaps, communication styles, hiring and onboarding, mentoring. I’ve touched every one of these, iterated on them, and made them better than they were when I first encountered them.

This is precisely what product management is: taking a problem, concept, or need, identifying possible solutions or enhancements, researching the intended users, transferring those requirements to the builders, and shepherding the entire process to its successful conclusion. It’s making things better, often many, many times over.

This is what I do.

Being a generalist and a refiner doesn’t diminish what I can bring to product management. In fact, my unique journey strengthens that case.

I can see things from many different aspects and perspectives. I can put myself in the shoes of the user, the stakeholder, the business owner, and the engineer. I know what it’s like to work as a developer with unclear requirements and vague deadlines. I know how frustrating it is for a subject matter expert to understand why something can’t be done as quickly or as precisely as they expect. I know how layers of bureaucracy and red tape can become stumbling blocks for disparate teams and their individual goals.

I also know how to take a vision and bring it into reality. I can temper expectations, manage assumptions, and consider alternatives. I never flat-out say “no,” but always come prepared with solutions that thoughtfully consider as many angles as possible. I enjoy taking a concept, thinking it through, and lining it up with practical outcomes.

So, do I have a formal, regimented, by-the-book background in product management with X years of documented experience? If we’re going to take the rigid, legalistic route, no. But my entire career has been a thread of experiences that have woven together many successful results that, I think, match, if not exceed, what is expected in this role.

I'm Mike Zavarello, an aspiring technical product manager, an experienced front-end developer, and a zealous UX advocate.

Go and check out my current resume.

Where You Can Find Me

LinkedIn, where I advocate for remote work and share my take on the "return to office".

Stack Overflow, where I've been a key contributor for the Highcharts data viz library.

jsfiddle, where I tinker with my data viz concepts.

Soundcloud, where you'll find my curated playlists of synthwave and vaporwave.

Twitter, my first social media passion, but mostly a placeholder these days.

Bright Matrices, my long-neglected blog that could use a better name and fresh(er) batch of content.