Isaiah Greene, 29, is a product manager of Slack’s search, learning, and intelligence team. He manages teams that build new products to make the Slack platform more efficient. Here’s how he got his job.
I went to the University of Pennsylvania and graduated in 2010 with a degree in computer science engineering. I knew I was going to do computer science, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time. I love coding, so my initial goal was to be a software engineer.
While I was in college, I did a couple of internships as a software engineer at Google. And when I graduated, I became a full-time software engineer there. I was at Google for about five years, and in my last year there I became a product manager. Once I realized that was the right role for me, I looked to figure out what the right company was. So I left Google and then soon after I applied to be a product manager at Slack.
At Slack, I’m a product manager on the search, learning, and intelligence team. I work very closely with our engineers. But also I’m a kind of bridge between other teams, designers, and product managers. Our engineers decide how we’re going to build really cool things and then actually build them. I’m more focused on helping to define what we’re going to build, why we’re going to build it, and when we’re going to build it.
Though I’m no longer an engineer, my computer science training definitely helps me build a good rapport with my team of engineers. They have a bit more trust and we’re able to have conversations where I can understand what’s going on–even contribute to the conversation from the engineering side. Primarily, however, my job is more around product and project management, making sure that we’re shipping the best thing in the right order and at the right time.
While at Google, I started to realize that I was enjoying daily discussions I had with other product managers. I liked conversations focused on strategizing about the product versus deciding how we were going to build it. It really came down to enjoying working with other product managers; having those sorts of conversations and using skills around communication and working with other people.
Part of my job now is to define what Slack’s products are going to do, and how they’re going to best serve the people who use it. We have to figure out exactly what kind of data we have, and how we can best use it to tackle problems that are really hard.
It’s also about identifying problems in Slack that we can solve using machine learning. And then it’s trying to take the best approach and angle in doing that. Using machine learning won’t always work for every single problem, so we have to identify the right problem, make sure we have what we need to solve it, and then go at it from that angle.
It’s going to sound cliché, but I love working with a lot of smart people. Basically, the types of conversations that I either get to overhear or be involved in provide so many learning opportunities, especially in a field like machine learning that is not only popular but also very cool to know about.
I enjoy the process of solving a problem–being able to ideate freely. Product management has a lot to do with empathizing with people. The more you can try to empathize with the people you’re building your products for, and get in their mind-set and try and solve their actual problems that they face day-to-day, is a lot of fun.
I also get to work with concepts like machine learning. Having a technical background, I wanted to work on something that was technically complex enough to really be exciting. Machine learning definitely represents a huge part of that. With the work at Slack I do with machine learning, we get to apply awesome techniques to things that are technically complex and challenging.
The discussions I get to have and the strategies I get to try and apply when deciding what we’re going to build are really fun. When you’re trying to build something new, you utilize things like data or actual user research–both quantitative or qualitative. Engineers figure out how to build something and then build it. Product management is great because we get to think about what we’re going to build, when we’re going to build it, and why we’re going to build it.
When you figure out something that you’ve been really excited about, make sure that kind of excitement and how much effort you actually apply to it shows. With machine learning, for example, there are plenty of free courses online that explain a lot of concepts and help you learn it.
You don’t necessarily have to have a technical background if you want to be a product manager. You should, however, definitely have communication skills and be able to understand what your strengths and weaknesses are, and be able to play up your strengths when you work with other people.