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In the Driver’s Seat: Exploring Product Management

Tariq Zahroof Finalfinal

Before joining the Product Management Academy (PMA), I was enrolled in Stanford’s Ph.D. program, working in the robotics and autonomous motion planning field. I was excited to be working in a revolutionary technology space; after all, who doesn’t love robots? However, while I enjoyed the technical difficulty and cutting-edge nature of the work, I felt like I was inexplicably missing something.

Around the same time, by the pure chance of a friend’s recommendation, I decided to take a product management (PM) course at Stanford. That’s when the light bulb turned on. I loved influencing and shaping a product’s direction. I loved listening to users and hearing their experiences. But, most importantly, I loved collaborating with people — lots and lots of different people. With that Archimedean sense of revelation, I began rethinking my career path and started applying for product management jobs in leading technology fields.

In another stroke of good luck, I happened to run across a Palo Alto Networks interviewer at a data science career fair at Stanford. When I told him that I was more interested in product management, his eyes lit up, and he began telling me about this “new accelerated rotational program” the company was offering to put young PM candidates in control of important cybersecurity products and problems. Admittedly, at the time, I knew very little about the cybersecurity space. I had heard about the company from a friend in cybersecurity research and knew not much else. However, after returning home and doing some research, I realized the importance of the field (the very safety and security of our digital footprints!) and the impact Palo Alto Networks was having on it. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I had joined Palo Alto Networks’ PMA.

Now in month 10 as a PM, I can safely say that I really enjoy product management! While it isn’t as “technically” challenging as my Ph.D. work, it forces me to use other and more creative parts of my brain to get the job done: on-the-spot negotiating, removing obstacles by whatever means, and generally acting as a Swiss Army knife. Being able to say, “I drove the execution of this feature because metrics/reasons X, Y, Z show that this feature will have the most value for the customer,” is not only exciting, but also fulfilling. Seeing the improved customer experience due to the feature reminds me that a PM’s impact is real and observable.

As I’ve learned through my work experience, soft skills are a big component of product management. They’re critical for leading discussions with stakeholders and customers, distilling problems into their key components for long-term product guidance, and firefighting the new problems each day brings. However, in my view, self-learning and leadership are the most important traits for PM’s (yeah, yeah, I know — everyone says it). But to put it in perspective, during my first rotation, I was assigned to the virtual firewall team, which essentially delivers the Next-Generation Firewall in virtual form for more flexible deployments (for example, cloud environments or generic computing platforms). When I joined, I hardly knew anything about the product or the space — I had to learn about networking, what a packet was, what virtualization is and why it’s important, how VM-Series works and differentiates itself from its competitors… the list goes on. Luckily, I had my peers, the Internet, and the program to help me catch up. It can be a long, uncomfortable learning process (I only started feeling confident in my contributions after seven months!) — but then again, I believe it’s that discomfort that forces you to grow and become the best product manager (or anything, really) you can be.

Overall, I’d highly recommend my experience as a product manager. And for those interested in product management, I’d highly recommend the PMA as well! The program does a great job of providing workshops (e.g., PM skills, leadership, presentations, etc.), connections to different leaders and groups in Palo Alto Networks, and, more importantly, high-visibility and high-impact projects. These one-year rotations are no joke — I’ve already launched a partnership program, worked on cross-product integrations, driven features, written problem statements, and handled a few customer escalations — to name a few things. While we may have been inexperienced when joining, we were expected to perform at the senior product manager level sometime during the rotation (but within reason — the people are nice and understand there’s ramp-up!)

So give it a try! Maybe PMA is the right program for you.

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