Career Life Stories: Shyna Zhang, Product Marketing Masters

As one of the founders of Product Marketing Masters, a community dedicated to advancing the profile, professionalism and reputation of product marketing, Shyna Zhang shares how she narrowly averted a career in finance, and how her time with Microsoft, Accenture and Marketo have all helped give her the perspective she needs to work as a consultant.

What drew you to a career in marketing and how did you get your start?

Getting into marketing was a combination of luck, curiosity and hard work. During my junior year of college at the University of Texas, I realized that I wasn’t good at finance – the degree I was studying - and that the bachelor’s degree in finance that I was going to end up with would be useless for me. With my graduation date approaching, I had to quickly evaluate other options.

I was fortunate to get internships at Accenture and Microsoft in their marketing teams, through alumni of the University of Texas who were willing to take a chance on me. The experiences I gained during those internships helped me to realize that a career in marketing offered me the opportunity to be creative, plus I could define and own what success looks like.

My early marketing roles, like my internships, were in broad marketing roles that provided clear visibility into how an entire business operates and makes money. At Microsoft, I learned about general management – that is, how to run a business across marketing, sales, customer readiness, partner services and more. The job also gave me the opportunity to live in Singapore working in a regional role with responsibility across Southeast Asia, Australia and Korea. Joining Marketo taught me the importance of the story-telling aspects of marketing and how important it is to create messaging that’s repeatable, concise and memorable.

What are some of the pros and cons of working as a marketing consultant versus a full-time employee?

The thing I love the most about being a marketing consultant is that it offers freedom and flexibility, not only of my own schedule, but also to learn about different industries and buyers. The breadth of the positioning, messaging and go-to-market strategies across my clients keeps me on my toes and on top of the latest trends. At the end of the day, consulting for a diverse set of clients each with their own specific customer profiles enables me to hone my skills as a marketer.

On the flip side, consulting comes with a bit of unpredictability, and you need to become a fearless advocate for yourself. I know many colleagues who’ve shied away from a career as a consultant because asking for business is unnatural and uncomfortable for them. Making “the ask” is definitely a skill I’ve had to learn over time.

One of the obvious pros of full-time roles is stability and security, but perhaps the greatest attraction is being fully part of a team. In a full time role you also tend to have greater ownership than a consultant over how business decisions are ultimately made because you’re held more accountable. On the other hand, when you’re full-time, you’re “locked-in” in a sense. It’s easy to develop blinders that prevent you seeing what’s happening outside your specific industry.

Outside of consulting, what have you been working on lately?

I frequently have people reach out to me for career advice or information about product marketing. Without a single source of information to point people towards, I realized that there’s a gap in the market around educating the next wave of product marketers. I was lucky enough to find a tribe of three other women who felt the same way - the four of us now work together as the Product Marketing Masters.

Product marketing is at an inflection point right now, in the same way product management was five years ago. At that time, many companies wanted to hire a product manager, but each company had a different definition of what a product manager was. Big companies like Microsoft, Google and Amazon trained people to become professional product managers, but it wasn’t something you would get a degree in.

For a lot of seed-stage companies, product marketing is their first non-technical hire; they recognize the importance of bringing on this function, but similar to product management, there is a lack of common definition around what a product marketer looks like (e.g. What should they do? What should their background be?)

Our vision for Product Marketing Masters revolves around three areas:

  • Community: Our community initiative includes hosting two San Francisco-based events per month which are also streamed over the internet for those who can’t attend live. The goal is to bring like-minded marketers together to figure out how to help companies to grow top-line revenue while creating a forum for these individuals to network and share industry best practices.
  • Education: We teach a class every month - this month out topic was “How to Build a Winning Go-to-Market Plan”. Our classes are practical workshops where students get hands-on experience and walk away with an actual plan that they can use in their day-to-day role. There’s a mentality in the valley that unless you’ve done the job before, there’s a risk in giving you the opportunity, but it’s really hard to get that job you want if you don’t have a certain title or, more importantly, a portfolio of work to show someone.
  • Advisory services: We strongly believe that VPs of Product Marketing and need a forum to learn and share what they’re doing to build teams, shape strategy and develop the next generation of product marketers. We also want to help them understand what’s next for them in their own careers. Once a quarter, as part of our advisory services, we’re bringing out experts in product marketing as well as leading venture capitalists to speak to and network with senior product marketing leaders.

What big company skills and experiences have translated well to your work with startups?

My observation from working at large tech companies is that they are operational machines. Companies like Microsoft have perfected the art and science of driving a global workforce of over 100,000 people towards common goals. I learned fundamentals like the value of using metrics to hold managers and teams accountable. The experiences I gained while working in large companies have been highly transferable - they enable me to think holistically about marketing.

Startups, however, often aren’t trying to optimize an ‘operational machine’ - Instead they’re working furiously to find the market fit for their product or to hire the right people to start accelerating. So while it’s great to know how to steer a large business to success, it’s another thing to go from zero to the next stage of a business.

What is a product marketer?

Product marketing sits at the intersection of domain expertise, strategy and execution. Strong product marketers take on a role similar to a General Manager, looking at the business from several viewpoints. I really like the way Ada Chen talks about the Product Marketing Manager [PMM] role and at Product Marketing Masters we teach attendees that product marketing has three primary responsibilities:

  1. To communicate product value: How do you take bits and bites of software that you get from engineering and communicate that to your buyer?
  2. To drive thought leadership and be the voice of the customer: What is the art of the possible? Where are we going, and how do we create a path to get there? Product marketers should understand their customers, at aggregate, better than anyone else in the company and have deep empathy that shows in the meaningful stories you tell. 
  3. To drive product distribution: It’s not enough that you have a good product or that you have good pricing, packaging or messaging. It’s about finding the right channels so that your customers can find you and have access to your products.

What are some common misconceptions about product marketers?

If product marketing is not well-defined within an organization, product marketers can end up being the clean-up crew for the company. I’ve seen product marketers do things like product documentation or transcribing software into product manuals. Product marketers aren’t designers; we might develop content for slides and brochures, but we’re not the ones who work on the aesthetics.

Product marketers are often thought of as qualitative rather than quantitative people. What many people don’t realize is that product marketing is highly analytical. You have to deeply understand the KPIs of the business such as pipeline gaps, time to close and win-rates as well as understanding how you as the product marketer are influencing those KPIs.

What advice do you have for companies looking to hire a strong product marketer?

Depending on the level of the role, first and foremost I hire based on whether someone is a good storyteller. I can’t teach that. Ultimately, the most successful companies are the ones who communicate with stories, not facts, because stories are what people remember. It’s not enough that
your sales prospect understands your story, they also need to be able to communicate it to their peers and other decision makers. Great stories are memorable, repeatable and concise.

Aside from story-telling, I like when product marketers can show me they’re good problem-solvers and can demonstrate they’re able to play well within a team.

What’s the relationship between product marketing and content marketing?

I think that product marketing should be responsible for creating the story arc in partnership with content marketing, but then content marketing should have full autonomy to execute.

What skills should product marketers master early in their careers?

Product marketers should become proficient in translating feature-level content into benefits. They should also find ways to practice and develop deep customer empathy in order to tell a story that will resonate with them. Finally, it’s critical to understand the analytics of a business, specifically the metrics that your company tracks so that you understand your personal impact on those metrics.

What are some resources (books, podcasts, blogs, conferences, etc) you would recommend to someone growing their knowledge around product marketing?

I’d encourage anyone interested in product marketing to join our Product Marketing Masters Facebook group and Meetup. We don’t recommend a single source, but we try to collate books, podcasts, blogs, and anything else interesting that would be relevant for our audience. The community is also a great place to go for discussion – we have people connecting to hold mock interviews, share best practices or ask questions of other product marketers. We also teach monthly workshops that deep dive into specific topics and provide practical, hands-on insight into different elements of product marketing like messaging/positioning or pricing and packaging.

What is the best way for people to connect with you and where should people go to learn more about Product Marketing Masters?

People can join our Facebook and Meetup groups and subscribe to our monthly newsletters to stay on top of everything we’re working on for the community. All of our classes are promoted on Meetup, so people can navigate and sign up that way if they’re interested.

LinkedIn is the best way to connect with me personally.