You're reading the first of our Tech Voices series! We want to make sure we share diverse voices from the Ironhack tech community so you, as a budding tech professional, get to know your peers and learn from their experiences.
Tech Voices: Maria Samoshenkova, Senior Product Manager at FitXR
Maria is a customer-centric and entrepreneurial Product Manager with in-depth knowledge of interactive multi-platform B2C content-based products that improve users' daily life. She has successfully led high-value products to new markets, developed new concepts 0-1, and built digital ecosystems using modern technology across the wellness, gaming, and entertainment industries. She is driven by innovation, a creative environment, and curiosity. Currently, Sr Product Manager, leading the Core Product Experience Team in the Virtual Reality fitness application.
What Does a Product Manager Actually Do?
Building a product is the most exciting and unique process. Unfortunately, there isn't a well-defined path to gaining the required skills and knowledge to be an effective product manager. There are no standard products to build and there is no degree or certification that product managers get before they start their careers. Everyone has their own journey and professionals come from very different backgrounds, which adds uniqueness to the way they manage the product.
Before jumping into my personal story I will recap the fundamental hard and soft skills. While Product Management is a multi-dimensional role that looks very different across organizations or even teams. The key principles to understand would be: the ability to validate the opportunity and present it to the stakeholders; the design and development of the product process within your team; and how to launch and iterate that feature/ product. In the other words, naturally, you have to like to collaborate with people, be a quick learner and be extremely efficient in your actions and communication.
Learning the fundamentals of product management through the courses, Bootcamp or being mentored at the start can be instrumental to accelerate your professional growth.
When I was in school I wanted to become a designer. I was not very clear about what kind of designer however, I do remember having piles of sketchbooks full of drawings of evening gowns, cars and some interior design bits. It wasn't just drawing of a real-life objects, it was re-imagined objects, my view on how cars and dresses should look like. Nowadays we call a “prototype” in Product (I didn't know the meaning of that word back then). I come from a relatively conservative family when it comes to studying, so going to study design at University was not “serious” enough. I had to choose to study Banking, Business Economics or Law. I was advised to select something “generic” which will “open many doors” once I finish. I am sure you did hear that too, didn't you? I chose an International Business with Spanish and convinced my parents I have to study in London.
I moved to London 3 weeks after turning 18. As an international fresher, I had to live in a Student residence as per University rules. So much free time. Nobody was managing my schedule. Psychological shock! Back home I had a busy schedule since I can remember myself. School, homework, additional tuition, sports, music lessons, swimming lessons, dancing lessons. You name it- I’ve done it all. Some days I had gymnastics before school at 6 am. My first year at University looked totally opposite. My mates and I were staying up late, sleeping through the afternoon lectures and even after completing all the homework, I felt like I had more free time than I ever had in my entire life. The first month I was kind of enjoying it but soon I started to get bored and wanted to do more. To begin with, I joined our local thousand-square-meter health club with a massive gym floor, multiple group exercise studios and an Olympic swimming pool. That's how my journey in fitness started.
I could get lost at the gym for a good 3-4 hours every day after lectures. I trained and played sports all my life, so being around a buzzy evening environment at the gym felt so natural. Meantime, many of my university mates were getting their first part-time jobs. A typical student job was waiter, barista or receptionist at a hotel. Considering I cannot hold more than two plates at a time, without dropping them, neither of those appealed to me.
One day I bumped into my trainer at our local coffee shop with piles of study materials preparing for a Kettlebell Workshop. I found out that getting a certification to teach fitness group classes does not require a full-on degree but a series of certifications that I could easily combine with my University studies. The next day I was already enrolling in my Personal Training course. I promised my parents that this is only my “little student” job and that after graduation, I will be looking for a “serious job”. Well, just over 10 years later, I guess it is safe to say that the Product Manager is serious enough and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else now.
If a personal trainer with a business degree could switch to Product Management, I believe anyone can do it too and perhaps even quicker. Here are my five steps to transition and learning highlights for a successful transition.
Making the Transition to Product Management
Step 1. Understanding my natural ability
I started my story by explaining my ideal job as a teenager and what kind of lifestyle I had. This is important. Because I believe this is the time in our life’s when we genuinely lean towards the things we enjoy doing without worrying about social status, average salary or “the seriousness” of those jobs. I wanted to be a designer. This is how I explained it back then. What I actually enjoyed doing is creating new things. Re-imagining objects, products and things that I saw daily around me. I truly think this is what drove me through my career and led me to Product Management. As this is the core principle in product management. We are constantly looking for ways to improve, re-imagine or make the product/ feature more efficient. I also mentioned that I was used to being “back-to-back” and doing multiple things in one day. This turned up being an important skill. As Product Managers, we wear so many different hats, and we manage so many different meetings and stakeholders, so it is essential to be able to switch concepts and topics jumping from one meeting to another.
How to figure out what's your natural abilities? Think about what did you enjoy doing as a kid or what would you love to spend most of your time on if you would not need to worry about getting a job? If you like to lose yourself playing video games over the weekend, there are high chances you could be a good game designer with your experience understanding a consumer. If you like watercolour painting, why don't you try to paint in Gravity Sketch- an app that allows artists to sketch in real-life 3D format? Or if you are good at math, a data analyst could be a great place to explore your potential.
Analyse, where your skills might be truly valuable and unique. You will be surprised how many horizons it might open.
Step 2. How my personal trainer's skills helped me to grow
A successful personal trainer is a product manager, where the product is you, and your user is a client with a real problem. Yes, it took me about ten years to figure it out. Working as a personal trainer taught me to focus on a user's problem. A good product is solving a real-life problem. As strange as it might sound, I see so many businesses/ products fail or can't find product-market fit, because founders would focus on the idea first, and then try to find what kind of problem and for whom it may solve.
Working as a freelance personal trainer, taught me to listen to the clients, understand what worries them, prioritise what is important and focus on it. After hearing the similar problems, I started to see the patterns. Eventually, I had 2-3 types of clients who had common goals, were in a similar age group and had similar psychographics. Thanks to word of mouth, social media and primitive email marketing my client base expanded. I was sending emails manually at that time as I didn't know about email automation and CRM for small businesses didn't exist at that time. I had 30-60-90 days of outreach to all the prospects and a newsletter with fresh recipes for existing clients. These small actions helped me with retention and engagement. Later I managed to build training methods around those client groups and even moved some parts online before it was actually a trendy business model.
Eventually, I wanted to grow professionally and be a part of a bigger organisation. My Business Degree and several years running different fitness projects got me a job as Operations Director for a fitness boutique scale-up. That's where the transition started.
Step 3. Skills in Operations that lent me my first Product job
Setting up and running operations for a new brick-and-mortar fitness studio concept is like Product Management in the digital world. My team and I were responsible for ensuring an excellent customer experience, engaging workouts (which is a core product) and of course very precise sales protocol to follow.
The role in Operations helped me sharpen my skill across three important divisions: marketing, core product and customer experience. It also allowed me to have a qualitative and quantitative understanding of the users. I was seeking a customer's feedback in every conversation. That continuous feedback helped me to understand our database better and improve sales funnels via the CRM system.
Additionally, our studio had a strong digital integration. I had a chance to act as a key stakeholder in multiple third-party product teams like our fitness wearables integration project, CRM and email marketing automation and content-based mobile app creation. This is where I understood that I want to be on the other side of the projects.
Step 4. Once you got that first job, what are the main ticks in the boxes?
Once I had it clear that I want to move into Tech, I invested a lot of time and resources in various digital courses and Bootcamps. From Digital marketing & growth hacking to Agile SCRUM master courses. I was actively involved in workshops, was connecting with mentors and was speaking to many experienced product managers. All of that led me to a unique opportunity to build a content-based multi-platform hardware + software product.
I am not going to go into details about the role and responsibilities. However, I do want to highlight that the reason my profile stood out for the hiring manager was my versatile experience in the fitness industry as opposed to other, perhaps more technical candidates.
It was very clear to me that to succeed in that role I had to focus on delivery and achievements. My main objective was to work on the strategy of the product, however, I had to learn from top to bottom and I also dove into Jira management, sprint planning and backlog management. Luckily, I had an amazing engineering team and tech lead who were there at every step.
Step 5. What's next?
The achievements-based approach helped me to get my next job within health and fitness, which is a more innovative organisation and allowed me to expand my professional portfolio by working on various technologies such as virtual and augmented reality.
I believe in finding a niche which will help to continue building my career on top of that core expertise. I found my niche within FitTech B2C content-based products. It doesn't mean that I will never move industries or platforms but I believe it is important to have a consistent theme in the experience, which serves as a hook for the next exciting gig.
The best advice that I can give, is to follow your natural passion and do what you enjoy doing. With this approach even the most difficult digital tools or the skills you thought you will never be good at, seamlessly become achievable.