From Product Person to Specialist: 3 Ways Agencies Develop Product Managers

Thought Leadership

By Jason Ling | February 01, 2022

I’m Jason Ling, Head of Product Management at Apply Digital. From developing a culture of inclusivity and innovation to solving complex problems for our clients in creative ways and mentoring our growing product team, I’m passionate about what I do.

And over the past 20 years, I’ve worked at both traditional tech/product companies and agencies, so I know a thing or two about what makes them different — and it all comes down to ownership.

At a standard tech or product company like Facebook or Spotify, you might be in charge of one aspect of the whole product, like the calendar feature or the personalization element that populates your Discover Weekly playlist. You own that part from beginning to end.

However, agencies like Apply Digital function a little differently. Similar to an architect building someone else’s dream home, we don’t own the products or features we develop — our clients do. And it’s our job as product managers to guide and support our clients down their path to success, whatever that looks like for them. Because at the end of the day, our client’s success is our success.

But it’s this difference at an agency that can help you go from a product person to a product specialist. Here are three reasons why.

#1. Sharpening your soft skills

Product management hard skills (like writing JIRA tickets, creating development sprints, and roadmapping a product’s progress) don’t go away at agencies. But there’s a greater emphasis on developing soft skills — and that is what will help you grow. Essentially, what you relinquish in ownership, you gain in developing talents that let you really dig into what it means to be a product specialist.

Soft skills like product ideation, product strategy, feature prioritization, critical thinking, and analytical know-how are all vital to learn, especially when interacting with clients during the Discovery Phase. However, for me, the two most essential soft skills you’ll learn are empathy and communication.

Two people sit at their laptops in a conference room. Behind them is a whiteboard covered in sticky notes.

There’s a chance you won’t be the target demographic for every digital solution or product you work on. That’s why it’s critical we empathize with our clients to understand their thoughts and feelings and be as passionate about the work as they are. Getting on board with their vision and gathering a deep understanding of their target user base will empower you to help them reach the best solution because you’ll understand their point of view.

And empathy plays a significant role in effective communication, both with clients and your team. Finding yourself in a room with five people with five opinions that they firmly believe in requires getting comfortable asking questions, digging deep into our clients’ wants and needs, and encouraging them to consider the ‘why’ — gaining the confidence to do this can take time.

Fortunately, agencies give you plenty of opportunities to practice. That’s why at Apply Digital, we cultivate a culture of learning where you can develop those skills in a supportive environment.

#2. Broadening your breadth of knowledge

At a typical tech company, you might work on one product for its entire lifecycle — not the case at agencies. You get breadth, not just depth. After all, innovation doesn’t happen in a silo. Agencies expose you to a variety of industries, clients, and new technologies on a regular basis, and you’ll learn how to apply those experiences in future projects.

A hand holds a notebook and notepad

You may not dive as deeply into a particular industry or product, but this range allows you to explore and discover the kinds of industries you like working in and the types of projects that excite you. Maybe you’ll discover that innovating the healthcare industry is where your passion lies. Or perhaps bringing new kinds of gaming to the esports world, like we did with PLLAY, is what will get you up in the morning.

During my first year at Apply Digital, I’ve had the opportunity to work with entertainment companies, healthcare and research organizations, non-profit spaces, and beyond. And we’re continually finding new and interesting clients to work with — our Business Development team is committed to doing just that.

#3. Working with a dream team

At Apply Digital, we have dedicated UX, UI, Dev, and Project Management teams, meaning you’ll get to focus on your work as a product manager instead of spending valuable time worrying about resourcing and tracking timelines. Concentrating on developing your soft skills gets to be top of mind because you’ll know your team has your back along the way.

Two coworkers laugh together at their desks

This also means you’ll gain new skills and develop existing ones much more quickly. After all, in the world of sports, you practice hard for the position you play, not every position possible — a forward likely won’t make a great goalie. Plus, your teams will change with every project, so you’ll be introduced to a diversity of opinions.

So whether you’re taking courses in your freed-up time, learning by doing, or exchanging knowledge with your team and flourishing together, teamwork makes the dream work. Or in other words, working alongside discipline specialists helps you become one yourself because growing your product skillset gets to be the center of your attention.

Stepping through opportunity's gate

Agencies bring the potential to open news doors you might not get to walk through at a product or tech company. Here, you’ll hone your soft skills, work with unique industries and clients, and have a team of experts support you along your journey. Even if agencies are just a stopping off point for somewhere else, it’s a chance for you to find your passions.

Growing from a product person and into a product specialist is made possible at Apply Digital. If you’re interested in furthering your career development, we’re always looking to grow our Product Management team. Visit our Careers page to learn more or reach out to us at careers@applydigital.com.

Co-Written by Jaime Chang