I often get asked how I went from being a law student to a product manager at an artificial intelligence-based legal tech company. I don’t have an easy answer but I can very strongly say that it was worth the risk.
There are many parts of my own journey from associate at a law firm to product manager at a tech company that were totally serendipitous.
I joined Evisort when it was just a five-person team working out of the Harvard Innovation Labs in Allston, Mass. (today, we have 30 full-time employees in Silicon Valley and Boston, and recently closed a $4.5 million round of venture financing led by the San Francisco-based Village Global, an early stage venture capital firm). I was your typical sleep-deprived law student dutifully trudging through law school core classes. One of those classes was Contracts — and, truthfully, my memory of the material is limited (No, unfortunately I can’t recite to you old English common law cases on the meaning of consideration). But as product manager for a cutting-edge contract management company, I’ve learned infinitely more about law, business, and people than I ever could have in the classroom. Here are three of the invaluable lessons I’ve picked up along the way and some reasons why you should consider a career in product development:
- You don’t need a technical background to succeed as a product manager.
I didn’t have a technical background when I started at Evisort. Today, I oversee multiple teams of engineers across the globe, managing complex software development projects. I don’t think it’s necessary to have any kind of specific background to be a product manager. It’s like Lauren Chan Lee, Director of Product Management at Care.com, says:
“Know your value add. I’ve seen three main PM archetypes: engineer turned PM, designer turned PM, and businessperson turned PM. As a member of the latter bucket, I recognize that I could never out-engineer an engineer or out-design a designer. Instead, I leverage my knowledge of our business and customers to better prioritize what features make it onto the roadmap and help my team understand why we’re building those features.”
She’s right: You have to know your value. For me, this meant leveraging my familiarity with the legal profession (having gone to law school and worked at a corporate firm) to design features specifically for the lawyers who use our system. It meant using the interpersonal and team management skills I learned through experiences as a salesperson, athlete, and business associate to communicate effectively with my engineers and accomplish tasks on time.
The rest you learn on the job. By working hard, asking questions, and immersing myself in the process, I’ve picked up enough of the details to speak the language of our computer and data scientists. Now, I use terms such as scrum team and sprint regularly. I’ve learned that for our scrum teams to hit our sprint deadlines, it’s important to clearly define projects up front, communicate regularly with engineers as new features are being built, and provide forums where questions can be asked as they come up.
These lessons are universally valuable. In fact, law firms and other professional organizations could probably benefit from implementing some of the structured task management tenets innate to the scrum team process. The bottom line, then, is this: With the right mentality anyone can be a product manager, and if you invest in the job it will prepare you for whatever challenge comes next.
2. There are few things more beneficial to professional growth than being at the nexus of business and engineering.
There are few intellectual endeavors as challenging and developing as product management at a startup because of the unique space it occupies between the business team and the tech staff. The personalities of each side are different — salespeople and business executives are often energetic, charismatic, shoot-for-the-moon types, and engineers are generally more practical, methodical, and realistic. The business team knows the market better than anyone. They have big, inspiring ideas for where the company should go. And engineers are the only ones with the expertise to actually execute those ideas.
Product managers are like a point guard in basketball, they are facilitators — the glue that holds these two worlds together. Unlike the salesperson or the engineer, it’s the product manager’s job to know everything so they can bring both sides together harmoniously. It’s their divine appointment to interpret what salespeople hear from the market, distill it into concrete ideas that become a product roadmap, and then effectively communicate that roadmap to the engineering team who can create the product that satisfies the original need. Though difficult, this unique position is an opportunity to build a well-rounded skill set of business acumen and market knowledge combined with people management and technical fluency. Because of the many different directions in which it stretches you, there’s no better position than product manager for professional growth.
3. To be successful you must study your customer harder than you studied for Civil Procedure, but this time it’s actually worth the effort.
Product managers have the opportunity to be creative problem solvers, self-driven designers, and in-charge team leaders. But, ultimately, product managers serve the customer. Francis Brown, Product Development Manager at Alaska Airlines, puts it like this:
“At the heart of every product person, there’s a desire to make someone’s life easier or simpler. If we listen to the customer and give them what they need, they’ll reciprocate with love and loyalty to your brand.”
The key to success in product development is a deep understanding of who you are developing for. To build a product that is valuable, you have to understand the persona who will be using it. For me at Evisort, this means spending hours on the phone talking to general counsel to become intimately familiar with what the day-to-day job of a lawyer at a business looks like. What are the pain points?. What parts of their job do they really love? What keeps them up at night?
Studying customers takes time, but as a product manager there is nothing more rewarding than delivering a product to a client that will totally revolutionize the way they do their job. When I’m on an onboarding call and here an audible, “wow,” from the other side of a conference line I can’t help but feel a sense of fulfillment. And that is how I try to define success on a daily basis.
So if I can offer some advice: find a way to ride the wave. Technologies like AI are going to radically transform the legal industry.
*A Scrum Team is a collection of individuals working together to deliver the requested and committed product increments (definition from the Scrum Institute).
*A sprint is a set period of time during which specific work has to be completed and made ready for review (definition posted on SearchSoftware Quality)
By Riley Hawkins, Product Manager at Evisort, firstname.lastname@example.org