Get to know Mike Young. He is one of the talented product managers working for Upwork to create interactive experiences that help clients manage their freelance programs. But what exactly does it mean to be a Black product manager working in tech? And how can you pursue this goal for yourself?
Well, we’re glad you asked. We talked to Mike to learn more about being a Product Manager and his journey in the tech world.
Connecting & Communicating
The role of product managers varies across companies, but for most it involves prioritizing product features and working with a team to implement them. Graduating with an engineering degree from the University of Michigan gave Mike a great foundation, but his natural curiosity and empathy for others is what has really propelled him forward. “I spent seven years doing process improvement work that required me to sit with counterparts in other departments to understand their pain points.” Product management requires similarly intense customer-focus. “You have to be empathetic with the challenges users are facing to put out a product that really helps them. I realized I could have an even greater impact on the product side.”
Now, as a product manager, Mike, spends a lot of time connecting with others at the organization. For a company like Upwork that serves all types of businesses, from one person startups to Fortune 100s, communication is key to creating a powerful, trust-driven platform that enables companies and freelancers to work together to unlock their potential. Which means that Mike’s got a lot of meetings on his calendar—communicating with every department to ensure the product is working at every touchpoint.
Continuous Learning & Collaboration
Another big component of Mike’s day-to-day work is analyzing and reviewing product sales, marketing, revenue numbers, and other key performance indicators to determine the effectiveness of what he’s working on. “No two products are the same, so you have opportunities to be continuously learning,” says Mike. “You learn about the entire company or business because you have to have a high-level of knowledge about what is going on to create the best product experience possible.”
Mike also dispels a myth about product management. “You often hear the PM role being called the ‘CEO of the product.’ We do engage in every aspect of the product, and often make the final call. But unlike a CEO, we typically don’t have authority over those working on the product. That means we have to be strong collaborators and influencers – using data, customer feedback and people skills to advance our priorities.”
Diversity & Inclusion
According to the career site, Zippia, Black men and women make up only 4.5% of the product managers in the U.S. “Black employees in tech are very rare. I’ve only worked with one other Black PM over the last few years,” says Mike. With so much of daily life influenced by tech products, Black tech professionals can have a tremendous impact. “There is a massive opportunity here to increase diversity, especially in the Black culture and the Black community. Instead of building for the same culture and the same mindset, we have the opportunity and ability to be more diverse in our thinking.”
Of course there are a lot of corporations “talking the talk” of diversity and inclusion (D&I), but not backing it up with systemic change. As you’re getting ready to make your next move, look for organizations that make D&I a strategic business focus with a vision that is supported from the top down. Upwork continues to invest resources to catalyze sustainable change and support the professional needs of team members from underrepresented groups. One of the communities that is supported by Upwork is the Black Initiative Network, which has been busy hosting virtual events that build community and promote allyship. But even more importantly, they also maintain a safe, nurturing space for Black team members.
Advice & Empowerment
Mike’s advice for those of you out there looking to join him in this field are to, “text, call, Slack someone to learn more. It seems simple, but just raising your hand and voicing your interest is the best way to get started.” Afterall, this is how Mike got his start. He was honest with his longtime manager about his interest in product management, despite knowing this would leave his manager with an open role to fill if he did move on. It was that manager who heard about a product role opening up and referred Mike for the position, helping set Mike on this current path. So don’t be scared to speak up for yourself.
He lives by the words of Obama, “Be kind, be useful, be fearless,” and it drives him to be empathic to those around him, offer up proactive solutions, and to dive into his career with enthusiasm and honesty. This mantra and the support of his parents, sisters and his fiancée influences his time outside of work as well. Mike volunteers as the Mentoring Program Director of the Inner-City Education Program (ICE), a non-profit supporting children in low income areas of Chicago by giving them free access to a high quality education, mentorship and the sport of hockey.
So, if you’re inspired by Mike’s journey, why not explore a career with Upwork to discover how you can get started in your own path right now.