Internship Recap — Let’s Talk Product Management

When I began college as a computer science major, I thought I would become a software engineer. When I discovered product management as a potential career, it seemed like a good way to combine my passion for technology with my interests in business and management. However, I was still unsure about this new discipline and three questions came to mind:

  1. Why are PMs important?
  2. What background skills are necessary for PMs?
  3. Is this the career for me?

This summer I did a product management internship at CBRE Build. Throughout the course of my internship, I’ve been able to answer these questions and gain a further understanding and appreciation for life as a PM. By sharing my first-hand experience, I hope that anyone out there with the same questions will walk away with a better grasp of product management and whether it matches with their interests and goals.

First, a bit of background about CBRE Build. As a part of the world’s largest commercial real estate firm, we build tech products that help us better serve our clients. Our brokers help companies who are looking to either find space to move into (“occupiers”) or lease space they currently own (“investors”). My team, Industrial & Logistics, is building a product which gives brokers a platform to help occupiers find the right industrial space.

Why do PMs matter?

Building a product requires an understanding of a problem users face, technology that can solve the problem and how it will benefit the company. At CBRE Build, UX researchers and designers own the user experience, engineers are responsible for the technology and business stakeholders present the problem. However, someone has to be responsible for the intersection of these three areas… enter the PM. To be clear, product management is not people management. Your job isn’t to make sure people do work, it’s to make sure people do the right work.

A Product Manager works at the intersection of Business, User Experience and Technology.

For my internship project, it was ensuring that the product feature I owned from inception to delivery would be a tool our brokers would actually use, would help them better serve clients and would be something that our engineers could develop in a reasonable time frame. One solution was an analysis tool that gave brokers insights beyond what they could find themselves.

During the research phase of my project, brokers told us they wanted a wide variety of analysis tools that would help differentiate themselves and improve client satisfaction. If we were to build every tool they requested, it'd take longer than a summer — maybe so long that there'd be commercial real estate on Mars by the time we were done. As a PM, it was my responsibility to decide which tool to prioritize given all of the research and my technical understanding. This is what led to the creation of what I call the FreewayFinder 5000, or as I was informed by our UX research team to call it, “Highway Access.”

Screenshot of siteIQs Highway Access feature.

Shoutout to my teammate Ella, our design intern, for her awesome work designing this!

No CS degree? No problem.

I was very interested in how the hours I spent banging my head on the computer debugging a file server during school would help me as a PM. To my surprise, only one PM at CBRE Build NYC has a computer science degree. The rest have backgrounds in finance, sales and interior design. I quickly realized that technical knowledge is not the most important skill for a PM, but rather a valuable asset to help with ideation and prioritization. For instance, as part of my feature, I researched APIs to see what was available and collaborated with our design team to ensure the design was technically feasible.

This summer, I learned that being a PM involves communication, task management, active listening and many other skills that anyone can develop regardless of degree, education level or background. Also, gaining relevant PM experience doesn’t just happen at work or school. For instance, my a cappella group at Michigan, The G-Men (shameless plug), works very much like a product team. Our product is the music we make. Our PM is our music director. Our meetings are rehearsals. Our product launches are concerts and performances. Being a part of this group has given me the opportunity to learn to communicate effectively with people of many backgrounds and skill sets, which has been invaluable in my experience as a PM.

Is this for me?

After this experience at CBRE Build, I can tell that product management is something that allows me to grow my interest in technology, work collaboratively with people and see the bigger picture of the product process. I’ve always joked that my dream job would be the head coach of an NBA basketball team. In many ways, product management is similar: a coach draws up plays and puts players in the right position to use their individual talents and win championships; a PM maintains the product vision and gives engineers and designers the ability to implement valuable solutions. As they say, teamwork makes the dream work, whether your dream is building great commercial real estate tech products or winning NBA championships.

If you’re someone who has a passion for technology, doesn’t mind spending most of your day in meetings and enjoys wearing multiple hats in an organization, product management might just be the path for you!

Lastly, I have to say a huge thank you to all of CBRE Build and especially my mentor, Dan, for not only helping me answer these questions but also giving me the opportunity and resources to enjoy work and make meaningful contributions to the team. It’s been a great summer and I can’t wait to see what CBRE Build has next in store!

Brian Guo is a senior at the University of Michigan studying computer science. He enjoys playing sports, watching sports, celebrating when his favorite sports teams win and complaining when his favorite sports teams lose.