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Introducing students to product management roles with top tech firms

Aug 18, 2021

Ivey Product Day slide

Susie Su, HBA ’18, didn’t know what career to pursue when she began at Western University, majoring in psychology. As an Ivey AEO hoping to enter the HBA program, she wondered how her interest in human behaviour would mesh with a business career. 

During a hackathon in second year, Su ran into an old friend who told her about his product management role at Yahoo. Her interest was piqued. She learned that product management involves identifying the customer need, collaborating with designers and engineers to build a product to deliver key business objectives. It combined her interests in consumer behaviour, technology, and business strategy.

“He was a mentor to me for the rest of my university years,” Su said. 

She later did product management internships at Snaptravel (now Snapcommerce) and Dow Jones and is currently Product Manager at Meetup.

Introducing the Ivey Product Society

Su is now paying it forward as one of five Ivey alumni behind the Ivey Product Society. Founded in May 2020, the group has helped raise the awareness of product management, educated students through an intensive product bootcamp, and is building a reputation to bring top technology companies to recruit from Ivey.

The team is led by alumni at top tech companies including Facebook, Uber, Adobe, and Noom – Colin Lernell, HBA ’16, Director of Product at Noom; Anirudha Nandi, HBA ’20, Associate Product Manager at Uber; Matthew Woo, HBA ’12, Product Manager at Facebook; and Mary Yao, HBA ’13, Product Manager for Adobe Spark.

“There is no way I’d be where I am today if alumni hadn’t helped me. So I’m always willing to give back and provide mentorship,” said Su.

The Ivey Product Society’s most recent initiative was an Ivey Product Day on August 7 where alumni shared their experiences in product management with Western and Ivey students. The inaugural Product Day last summer had more than 350 students participate.

The group also offers job boards, mentorship programs, and the Ivey Product Fellowship, an alumni-facilitated bootcamp where students complete product management-related curriculum and present their capstone projects to alumni. Last year, 16 students completed the three-month program and most went on to product management jobs. The team is also working with Ivey Field Project faculty on product management projects for HBA students.

Helping students break into product management 

The ultimate goal is to establish Ivey as a top source of product management talent.

“When you look at big tech companies, such as Google, a lot of the CEOs are ex-Product Managers. Product management is the future,” said Woo. “Our mission is to help Ivey develop product leaders that make products that people love.”

When Woo attended Ivey, most graduates went into management consulting or investment banking. Both Woo and Yao were consultants before finding their niche in product management.

“Eight years ago, product management wasn’t on people’s radars. Most people I knew had gone into it by accident,” said Woo. “Over the years, an increasing number of Ivey students have reached out to me to ask how I got into it. I thought, now is the right time to do something.” 

By sharing her experience, Yao hopes Ivey students will have a greater understanding of the responsibility and joys of working in product management. 

“It’s such a humbling and rewarding role. You are the glue that holds all the pieces together and you are on the hook for the end deliverable,” she said.

Bringing product management to the classroom

Darren Meister, Associate Dean of Faculty and Associate Professor of General Management (Entrepreneurship and Innovation) at Ivey, has been helping to raise students’ awareness of product management roles. He said product management has transformed over time and Ivey students, with their diverse backgrounds and experience, are a great fit.

“It used to be a very corporate function; you were lining everybody up and managing the process. Now it’s a much more entrepreneurial, inclusive type of role where you are harnessing that collective energy – you’re the conductor,” he said. “It’s someone who is a fabulous communicator and really good at prioritizing. You have to have the ability to both see the future and deliver tomorrow, which is one of the most challenging tasks.” 

Since 2014, Meister has taught the Design Driven Innovation course in the MSc program, which is now also offered in the HBA and MBA programs and will be taught by new faculty member Daniel Clark going forward. Over the years, Meister has invited product managers to speak in class about their careers. As the holder of the John M. Thompson Chair in Engineering Leadership and Innovation, he also works with Western Engineering to introduce students to product management. 

“It’s important to expose students to the field before they get to Ivey. Most students have never met a product manager. It’s one of those careers that you find out about much later and sometimes too late,” he said. “We’ve had this niche history in Silicon Valley. We’ve had alumni there, but always small numbers. It’s just a matter of time before we move that along.”

Moving beyond Silicon Valley

And while most product management jobs are in the U.S., the field is rising in Canada. The Ivey Product Society wants to make sure Ivey students are ready.

“Unlike U.S. universities, employers are not knocking on our university doors saying, ’Give me product managers,’ but I think that’s going to change in the next couple of years,” said Yao. “You have to meet the industry where the industry will be.”