In an effort to build up the next generation of product managers in the Toronto-Waterloo corridor, several Toronto tech companies have banded together to launch a new program working to make this career path more accessible.
The Associate Product Management (APM) program will take a small group of 12 to 15 candidates through six months of vocational placement and in-depth training sessions including mentorship with senior leaders in the space. Product managers meet once a week for three hours outside of their vocational placement to focus on industry practices, case studies, workshops, debate, and soft skills development like working on a team and thinking creatively.
“If we run it a few times, in three years’ time, we’ll have 50 plus trained product managers in Toronto with a network.”
– Tom Walsham
The first cohort of the program is being led by TWG, Freshbooks, Shopify, Wattpad, League, Chefhero, Roadmunk, Tulip Retail, and ecobee. Seema Lakhani, head of product at Wattpad and one of the leaders of the APM program, started an internal program at Wattpad several years ago to deal with her own recruiting problem. She mentored Wattpad employees that had some of the fundamentals and skills to become product managers, but lacked the experience to be fully prepared to take on the role.
“Product management, as far as I’d say in traditional tech jobs, is one of the younger ones. It’s one of the least understood field and has less of a built-in base of talent compared to other roles,” said Lakhani. “Building capacity around product is really important as different cities develop and grow in their innovation economy.”
There is no standardized path to become a product manager, meaning that companies often have their own unique approaches to product development. The program doesn’t promote a specific methodology for that reason, instead giving participants access to different approaches and encouraging self-directed learning.
“By coming together, we can create critical mass, and we’re able to bring a diversity of challenges to the table.”
– Jeremy Bailey
The program is open to individuals that have some foundation to prepare them for product management; requirements include a university degree in “something interesting,” an understanding of the software lifecycle, and strong communication skills.
“The mentorship is critical. You can’t just give people a weekly session and train them. This is not about pushing information to people, it’s about creating the network and that platform to grow in their careers,” said TWG VP of product Tom Walsham.
The program was inspired by the model of Silicon Valley product companies, which Marissa Mayer pioneered when she was Google’s VP of Product in 2002, after having trouble keeping up with demand for product managers within the company. The program has since been picked up by companies like Twitter, Hootsuite, and Linkedin.
Since Toronto area companies don’t have the scale and resources of Valley companies running in-house rotational programs, the APM program takes a collaborative approach with several leaders coming together to build up talent in the community.
“We’re treating this cohort like a product prototype, [with] someone who is just starting out as product manager, who we’re calling an associate product manager inside the company,” said Jeremy Bailey, creative director for product at Freshbooks. “We’re looking for partners who have a candidate looking for more curriculum to accelerate their career. By coming together, we can create critical mass, and we’re able to bring a diversity of challenges to the table.”
The goal of the program is to provide a framework for other organizations in other markets to replicate. Applications for the next cohort will open in spring 2018.
“If we run it a few times, in three years’ time, we’ll have 50 plus trained product managers in Toronto with a network and everyone benefits because we don’t know what individuals’ career paths are,” said Walsham.