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The new frontier of tech roles in shipping: How to become a product manager

Aerial view Top speed with beautiful wave of container ship full load container with crane loading container for logistics import export or transportation concept background, product manager in the shipping industry

ARTICLE SUMMARY

Sophie Goldsmith, Senior Product Manager at Sea, sheds light on the journey for women without a STEM background seeking entry into the tech realm, specifically in Product Management. Dispelling the notion of a "traditional route," Sophie addresses the increasing relevance of this transition, given the pivotal role Product Management plays in today's rapidly evolving tech landscape.

Sophie is a Senior Product Manager at Sea, a maritime software provider working to establish the intelligent marketplace for fixing freight.

product manager

Sophie has almost a decade of experience working in the shipping industry and in her current role leads teams to create innovative products that bring tangible value and address key industry challenges.

I didn’t set out to become a product manager, or even to enter the shipping industry.

I fell into the sector after graduating with a liberal arts degree from university, and it was the wealth of opportunities, experiences, and truly global nature of the sector that has kept me in it. Shipping is one of the oldest industries in the world, but it’s also been one of the slowest to keep up with technological innovation. As it races to catch up, particularly in the face of pressing sustainability challenges, there’s a burgeoning demand for tech roles – which means there’s plenty of opportunities out there.

One of these is the role of product manager, a relatively new role that’s a by-product of this new era of technology and innovation. I’ve found it a perfect step into the world of tech as someone who was interested in the opportunities provided by a tech career but hadn’t followed a traditional career path.

product manager

Why the shipping industry?

It’s a very exciting industry to be part of. Playing even a tiny role in an industry responsible for the transportation of 90% of global goods feels meaningful. 

Like many other industries, shipping is also at a pivotal crossroads. Climate change is a very real threat, and the industry is trying to figure out how to address its impact while staying afloat – it’s about costs as well as regulation.  It’s a huge challenge and data and technology ultimately give the competitive advantage. The people and companies who can figure out how to leverage that data better than others will be the ones who will get ahead, so demand for the best and brightest is high.

To address the elephant in the room, it is a very male-dominated industry. This imbalance is higher offshore than onshore in corporate roles. But change is underway, and the more women that break into the roles that shipping has to offer, particularly in the burgeoning tech space, the more this will improve. The industry of course needs to make this a focus and have clear plans of action to support female representation. Organisations like the Global Maritime Forum are doing a good job of highlighting the key pain points for women in the industry and how these should be addressed.

The day-to-day of a product manager

Being a product manager is a very interesting job, but as it’s a newer role outside of Silicon Valley, it’s not that widely understood compared to other tech roles.

Your core objective as a product manager is to ensure your product is viable for the business and something people want to use. To do this you need to constantly work to understand customers problems, needs and wishes, as well as the market your business operates in. You act as the linchpin between a range of stakeholders: users, commercial teams, customer success managers, support teams, engineers, etc. You’re working between the commercial and the tech functions to connect the dots, jumping from working with the designers to make sure the interface is user friendly to getting right into the technical weeds with the engineering team.

It’s everything from looking at where a button is on a product to what the overall vision is. Why would a customer buy it? Is that tiny change needed to the interface or is it a marginal gain?

How can you become a product manager? What skills or qualifications do you need?

Because it’s a relatively new role, there are few educational pathways or formal career routes to becoming a product manager, although these are starting to emerge. People go into the role with a whole range of technical expertise, some with none. I have a degree in liberal arts and moved into product manager after several years of working across a variety of sales, business analysis, and project manager roles.

From my experience, aptitude for the role is based heavily on soft skills. Because you’re managing so many stakeholders and competing priorities, you need to think strategically and have good communication skills. You’ll need to deal with complexities and be prepared to make trade-offs. As customer centricity is key, you also need to be able to put user needs front of mind and keep them the focus of the product throughout. Here you can gain a lot by collaborating closely with engineering and design teams, who bring different perspectives and expertise to the product.

To develop in your career as a product manager, it’s crucial to stay updated on shifts in the technology space and consider how these could be relevant and useful for your product. While not necessary, I think AI and data literacy will increasingly prove a good way to get ahead.

What’s the best advice for someone looking to shift into a product manager role?

If you’re already working at a company that has product management roles, speak to people in those positions and see if there’s a way you can gain some experience, for example through job shadowing. If not, there’s a wealth of helpful resources online that can give you a knowledge boost around more operational product management skills. You can also follow a huge number of excellent Product Managers sharing their experiences online, which can help give you an initial feel for the role

When it comes to moving to another company, my main advice is to focus on changing one thing at a time e.g. by staying in the same industry but moving to a company with a product focused organisation. If you can, it could also be useful to use your current role to build up areas where you need more experience. Anything that makes your transition into a new role easier is worth considering.

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