This article was adapted from Harvey’s incredible interview on the Product Marketing Life podcast. Listen to it in its full glory here!
Ever wonder how some products manage to stand out in a crowded market? Or how companies seem to know exactly what their customers want and when they want it?
Well, you can bet there's a talented product marketer behind these successful ventures.
Hello everyone! I'm Harvey Lee, and I've had the pleasure of working in product marketing for over 20 years. Along the way, I've learned a thing or two about how to make a product resonate with its target audience.
From my early days in the music industry, through my long stint at Microsoft Xbox, and on to roles at Kaspersky Lab and Seiko Epson, my journey has been a rollercoaster ride of learning and growth, with a fair share of surprises.
In this article, I'll share some insights from my professional journey, exploring:
- My journey into product marketing
- How to get into this field
- The essential skills for product marketers
- How to climb the product marketing career ladder
Whether you're just starting your career or looking to switch gears, I hope my experiences can help guide you.
So, let's jump in and find out why product marketing has been my choice for the past two decades, and why it might just be the perfect fit for you too!
My journey into product marketing
The first thing to know is that there is no prescribed route to product marketing. However, there are some common traits of product marketers – we'll talk more about those later.
I stumbled into product marketing completely by accident, which is not unusual. People don’t often intend to go into product marketing straight from college; they’re more likely to take the scenic route through some other field.
My story is no different in that respect: I actually started out in the music industry. Looking back, everything leading up to my product marketing career prepared me for this role, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
When I was in my teens, I played in bands. Music was my passion – it still is. I studied sound recording in college, with the intention of becoming a recording studio engineer.
Then, over a handful of years, my focus shifted towards touring. After I left college, I toured the world with bands, starting out as a roadie and gradually working my way up to audio engineering.
Once I’d done that for a couple of years, I began diversifying into the business side of the music industry. I got involved in production management, stage management, and business management.
During this time, I dealt with promoters, contracts, and the massive logistical challenges that come with touring with a band or multiple bands. This was where I really cut my teeth and started to hone some of the essential skills I still use today.
Although I enjoyed this experience, I realized that while music was my passion, being on the road wasn't. Eventually, I got a position at a small record label, where I was basically doing everything.
This gave me a solid grounding in the business aspects of the industry. It also gave me a grounding in management and – crucially – marketing. Then the Internet happened. Windows 95 happened, too. I got a laptop, learned about databases, and honed my IT skills.
During this time, I stumbled upon a classified ad in Music Week (the UK equivalent of Billboard). It was a Product Marketing Manager position, but it didn't specify that it was outside the music industry – it was actually a video game company seeking product marketers from different creative fields.
To cut a long story short, I landed the job in 1997, which marked my official entry into product marketing.
Transitioning industries wasn't as much of a wrench as I thought it would be. Many aspects of product marketing had already been part of my previous work – this was just the first time I had the official title of PMM. Wearing multiple hats and learning different aspects of various jobs provided me with a strong foundation for the role.
I stayed at a video games company for a year, then there was a corporate buy-out. That's when I joined Virgin as a product marketer, looking after the US portfolio. It was a great opportunity to learn and grow my skills, and I eventually ended up overseeing the entire marketing department.
Team management was a new and interesting challenge for me. I had to build, nurture, and manage my team, and I got to build my marketing muscle.
After that incredible experience, I got a call from Microsoft. At the time, Microsoft was preparing to launch a shiny new product that we now know as Xbox, but it was still almost a prototype.
I was the only product marketer for Microsoft Xbox in Europe. Our task was huge; we were preparing for the launch in twelve different markets. I joined just three months before the launch, and we didn't even have a prototype or an early-release model in the office.
I didn't anticipate staying with Microsoft for that long, but I ended up there for twelve years, working on every console from the first Xbox to the Xbox 360 and then the Xbox One.
One of the main reasons I stayed for a prolonged period was the continual challenge and the opportunity to learn and do something new. It kept things exciting and intriguing.
Throughout that experience, I learned so much about growth and the importance of scalability. As the company, the category, and the market were all expanding, I grew with them.
I wanted to continue growing at that velocity. When I first joined, that was the default, but by the time I left, it had become a stable, mature, and cyclical business. It was time for a new challenge.
My next stop was Kaspersky Lab, which I joined as a Global Product Marketing Director. It was the step up into a global role I was looking for. This shift also saw me move into a different category.
After spending about 14 years in music and a bit more in video games, I jumped into consumer-led internet security. The subsequent five years leading the team remotely offered incredible challenges and growth opportunities.
More recently, I've spent a couple of years at Seiko Epson, working in the print industry, focusing on emerging markets around the Middle East, Africa, and Russia. Once again, this experience helped me grow and gave me some fresh insights.
Looking back, I’d say that the diversity of these experiences has anchored me in product marketing. The variety, depth, and breadth of my roles have kept me engaged with the discipline.
It's a field that can keep you really busy, and it might not be for everyone. In our Slack channel, we sometimes see newcomers to the field suddenly realizing just how much there is to do in product marketing.
Being at the intersection of sales, product, and marketing doesn't fully capture the scope of this role. We’re at the intersection of absolutely everything – especially when we’re in global roles.
This has worked out great for me because I love wearing many hats. So, if you love variety, product marketing could be the discipline for you. However, if you prefer to specialize in one area, maybe it's not. Ultimately, you have to consider what works best for you.
How to get into product marketing
If you're thinking about getting into product marketing, the first question I'd ask is, "Why?" You need to know why it interests you, because, as I mentioned, it's not for everyone.
Let me give you an example. When I was at Microsoft, I was looking to fill a product marketing role in the Xbox Live team. I met with several candidates who seemed perfect for the role on paper – they had backgrounds in telco and ISPs, and all the technical know-how.
But when I interviewed them, it became clear that while they had the technical expertise, they lacked the passion and ability to spin multiple plates at the same time. More importantly, they didn't seem to have any interest in the subject matter – in this case, online video games.
The standout candidate for that role was the complete opposite of who you might have chosen on paper. This person worked at a supermarket. I remember thinking, "Why am I even looking at this CV?"
But what caught my eye was what he did outside of work. He ran an online fanzine about video games, specifically Microsoft-branded PC games. In short, this guy was doing the job on his own time, driven by his personal interests, not by a paycheck.
Despite his unconventional background, I thought, "This is a contractor role. Why not give him a chance?" As we discussed what he did outside his day job, it became even more clear that he was already doing product marketing – he just wasn't getting paid or recognized for it.
He was analytical, ran his own database, had a good understanding of marketing automation before it was even a thing, and he even knew a bit of coding. Above all, he was a great communicator with great energy about him.
So, I hired him. He had all the key attributes of a great product marketer: data-driven, customer-focused, able to spin all the plates, wear all the hats, bring everything together, and communicate effectively.
While these are not all the attributes you need for every product marketing role, they were key for this particular role.
He was a diamond in the rough, but he was worth taking a chance on. As his manager, I knew I'd need to be hands-on to coach him, shaping him to fit into a big organization like Microsoft over six to twelve months.
He managed brilliantly, quickly becoming a popular member of the team. In his first and second years, he won Microsoft Contractor of the Year. Today, he's a Senior Product Evangelist based at the head office in Seattle.
So sometimes, I look beyond the CV. I consider the individual's attributes and traits, and ask myself, "Is this person a great fit?" After all, what's on paper only tells half the story.
Essential skills for product marketers
When it comes to the essential skills for product marketers, there are two categories to look at: hard skills and soft skills.
If you're fresh to product marketing, my advice would be to first focus on developing your hard skills. Get adept at understanding and interpreting data, and learn what it means not just to be the product champion, but to be the customer champion as well.
In any organization, everyone claims to be the voice of the customer. Now, all voices are valid, but yours, as a product marketer, should be the loudest. To achieve that, you need to consider other people's views of the customer, while having strong, data-backed views yourself. That way, people will see you as the customer oracle.
So, focus on mastering those hard skills around data and numbers. Familiarize yourself with the tools and methods used in the industry, and get to grips with how to gather both qualitative and quantitative customer insights.
Spend time with the business or market insights department, sit in focus groups, and understand how different types of surveys are put together. Once you have these skills, it's simply a matter of keeping them sharp and up-to-date.
However, while these hard skills are crucial, it's your soft skills that will make you a success. This might be a controversial take, but in my opinion, these are the skills that truly matter when you go for an interview. Hiring teams will glance at your hard skills, and maybe ask for some examples, but the focus will quickly shift to your soft skills.
As long as your CV is reasonably well put together, they'll assume that you can crunch numbers and operate certain tools, but they'll be more interested in your ability to influence and work competently with others. The focus will shift from what you can do to how you do it, so you’ll need to showcase your problem-solving and storytelling abilities and share how you’ve overcome real-world challenges.
The development of your soft skills is an ongoing process, a "hamster wheel of learning" if you will. I've spent years in this industry and I'm still honing them. You can learn a new tool in a day, but mastering the art of working effectively with people takes a lifetime. But ultimately, it's these soft skills that will get noticed and help you climb the ladder.
I’d even go so far as to say if you've got incredibly strong soft skills but your hard skills are average, you can still do fine – your soft skills will pull you through. However, the reverse isn't necessarily true.
You could be the best data analyst on your team, but if you can't communicate effectively, you’re going to have problems. At the end of the day, we're all people working together in teams, so those soft skills are vital.
How to climb the product marketing career ladder
If you want to climb the product marketing career ladder, you need to honestly evaluate your readiness for the next step. Ask yourself tough questions: Why am I ready for the next level? What qualifies me for that promotion?
One of the traits that I, and probably most people, find unappealing is entitlement. A mindset of "I've got all the hard and soft skills, a great record of achievements, and I've added value – now give me the promotion," is not productive.
Believe me, I've been in situations where I was passed over for a promotion despite being in the same company for a considerable time. But being passed over isn't the worst thing that can happen to you.
What's more important is how you react to it. Rather than being disheartened, use it as an opportunity to learn. Why did you get passed over? What can you do to ensure that you're a serious contender the next time a promotion opportunity comes up?
There's a great quote from Richard Branson that I find incredibly valuable: "Don't do the job that you have; do the job that you want." I think that’s a phenomenal quote. Don't wait for a promotion opportunity to come around; instead, embody that mantra in your daily work now.
That way, when the opportunity finally comes, you won't just feel ready – you'll already be perceived as ready by the decision-makers. You'll have demonstrated leadership, self-development, and readiness for the next step, which will be evident even before you cross the proverbial finishing line.
Let me give you an example. There was a time when I found myself getting frustrated and somewhat bored in my job. The business had become cyclical, what was once an exciting role had become a routine nine-to-five, and I'd been passed over more than once for a promotion.
To break this cycle, I had to make some changes. With my manager’s approval, I diversified out of the role I was in and stepped into an area that put me in front of the leadership team.
I ran a side project connected to my role, one that didn't require too much time but was highly strategic and visible. It gave me the opportunity to showcase my skills in a different light, so I got some really positive feedback in my end-of-year review.
There was another instance when we were organizing an enormous event with 200 partners flying in from all over Europe. We didn't have an events department, so I volunteered to lead the project. This was where my background in the music industry came in handy. I drew on that experience from 20 years earlier, proving that no experience is ever wasted, whether positive or negative.
So, when we say "Do the job that you want," what does that actually mean? Well, it's about scalability. For instance, if you want to go from being a senior PMM to being head of the department, identify the gaps. What elements of that new role are not in your current one? Try to evaluate it objectively, and if you're not sure, ask people.
Your line manager, department head, or even someone senior in the organization can be a great source of insight. Any company that values employee development will be happy to make time for employees that want to grow. Personally, if someone came knocking on my door with a request for guidance, I'd be more than willing to help. I can say this confidently because I've been on the receiving end of such guidance.
Once, I spoke with General Manager for the whole of EMEA at Microsoft, who gave me the most insightful, personal, and grounded feedback. He didn't just speak to me as the Product Marketing Lead but as Harvey, the individual. He pointed out areas he thought I needed to develop in order to be considered for a senior role. I walked away with a clear understanding of what I needed to work on and set about doing just that.
In practical terms, seeking feedback is essential. Whether it's during your regular appraisal or one-on-one meetings, asking for feedback, especially 360-degree feedback, is key. And don't just focus on peers; get feedback from superiors as they are the decision-makers, and their opinions hold significant weight.
Engage HR as well. If your company has a proactive HR department that genuinely supports employee growth and learning, they may offer tools and programs to help build your emotional intelligence and foster self-development. A journey of self-awareness and continuous learning is paramount.
In summary, there are two key steps to climbing the ladder: first, commit to learning and actively seek feedback, and take it on board. Second, demonstrate your abilities outside of your current role in a different light. Instead of doing more of the same, do something different to help you break out. People will take notice when they see you successfully navigate a new field.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed. This approach might work within your current role and company, but if it doesn't, don't give up.
If you apply these principles, you'll find success at some point in the future, even if it's with a different company. That's actually what happened to me – although it didn't work out at one company, I managed to get a promotion at another and ultimately ended up where I wanted to be. Patience is key.
Embracing a career in product marketing is a rewarding yet challenging path – and one that can offer vast personal and professional growth.
However, the path is rarely linear nor is it identical for everyone. As we’ve seen from my own journey, it often requires a degree of flexibility, adaptability, and willingness to embrace new experiences.
To get ahead, you’ll need to demonstrate your capacity for leadership and strategic thinking and develop both your hard and soft skills.
If you're considering a career in product marketing, remember that curiosity, passion, and resilience are as valuable as any technical skill you might acquire.
Likewise, your abilities to influence, persuade, and handle the nuances of relationships within an organization are every bit as important as your ability to analyze data or understand market trends.
Climbing the ladder in this field is not about entitlement; it's about continuous learning, self-awareness, and proving your worth. Seek out feedback, challenge yourself by stepping into new territories, and never stop growing.
Remember, the goal is not to do more of the same, but to do something different. Show your potential and your willingness to adapt.
Even if success doesn't come immediately, don’t lose heart. You never know where the next opportunity will come from. It might be from a different direction, or even a different company, but when it comes, you'll be ready.
As Richard Branson aptly put it, "Don't do the job that you have; do the job that you want." This attitude has served me well in my journey, and I believe it can serve you too.
Good luck with your product marketing adventure!
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