Career milestones: Allison’s path to success in technical product management

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Allison Carden’s 11-year career at Amazon has had more plot twists than a TV thriller. With four roles and three promotions, Allison’s biggest move to date involved pivoting from Product Manager (PM) to Technical Product Manager, known at Amazon as Product Manager – Technical (PMT). Now a Principal PMT, Allison shares her insights, tips for candidates, and why she’s far from done with her Amazon journey.

Hi, Allison. Can you talk us through how the PMT role differs from the PM role?

The main difference between the roles is the hands-on approach to technical design.

PMTs are not expected to code, but they are expected to “speak the language” and contribute to the engineering design process, dive into technical details, challenge timelines, and push teams to move faster. This is very different in scope from PMs, who focus more on building business justifications and roadmap initiatives and keep teams accountable for the project timelines.

Why did you switch from a PM to a PMT role?

I was questioning my own long-term career path, asking, “What next? Is management the right path for me? How do I continue to get fulfillment from my role?”

I support software development engineers, and I decided that having a really good understanding of how our services work and contributing more from a technical perspective would be more challenging and fulfilling for me.

What steps did you take to transition into the PMT role?

I began to prepare myself to step into the role by asking a lot of questions of the engineers I worked with. They’d ask, “Why do you want to know this?” And I’d say, “Because when you talk to me next time, I'll better understand what you're saying.”

I also made sure I was speaking with my manager regularly about what I wanted for my career path so he could support me to reach the technical bar required for a PMT role. I took on a technical mentor, an idea suggested by my manager, and I continued to develop my technical skills by taking part in engineering design meetings, offering insights, and making suggestions. I got involved in several different initiatives, and I was careful to document my contributions throughout. It took about a year and a half of work to meet the technical bar.

What tips would you give potential candidates to Amazon?

Thriving in ambiguity is critical. My first role—and every subsequent role—has changed while I’ve still been in it. You need to show ownership and bias for action, because you very easily can get lost if you’re just waiting for someone to tell you what to do.

At Amazon, we have so many things we need to get done; there's endless opportunity, and it never becomes boring. Your career is yours to make.

What skills are essential for success in PMT roles at Amazon Ads?

Have conviction in your ideas. There can be pushback when you’re a PMT, so you need a strong backbone, a clear vision, good data, and a strong business justification.

You don’t need a background in computer science to be a PMT. But you do need to be able to communicate well and understand how engineers work.

A good PMT is able to create space. You’re the link between the engineers and business, so it’s your job to translate business objectives into the technical requirements. Earning trust is also key. If the engineers trust you, it’s a lot easier to collaborate internally with your own team and influence stakeholders.

What keeps you at Amazon Ads after more than a decade?

Advertisers are looking for more ways to invest in Amazon Ads, and we are becoming a key business at Amazon—so it's an exciting place to be. And the organization has evolved so much since when I first joined, which means the challenge is always evolving too.

Then there’s a really good mix of people; we work hard and have fun, and we are really effecting change in the industry.

What’s next for you?

Career growth is always on my mind. When I feel I'm excelling in my current role, I start thinking about what's next. At Amazon Ads, there's still a lot of opportunity to progress to the next level.

What might surprise people about working in a PMT role at Amazon?

That there are a lot of people working in individual contributor (IC) roles at a senior level. Sometimes you can think, “Oh, I’m at this stage in my career, so I should be a manager,” but that’s not necessarily the case at Amazon. We’re often looking for very experienced professionals to focus solely on the products, as the scale and scope of them is so large here.

Right now, I’m really enjoying being an IC as a Principal PMT. I can own my career and focus on complex problem-solving rather than getting bogged down in team admin. I have a strong passion for growing talent, but I can flex that development muscle as a mentor.

How do you navigate career growth and remaining an IC?

Of course, I ask myself questions like, “Do I need to be a manager to be successful?” and “How do I continue to grow?”

It’s reassuring that the answer is “No” at Amazon; there are still opportunities, and you can tap into your transferable skills to make an interesting and varied career. That's why I'm really passionate about staying with Amazon. I want to see where I can go.