How to Become a Product Manager [Insights from Those Who Did]
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Product management (PM) is a perfect blend of technical know-how, emotional intelligence, creativity, responsibility, leadership and a high salary. That’s why Product Manager job is a pipe dream of many people That’s also why it’s so hard to break into product management — no startup founder wants to put the fate of a product, the very essence of their business, in the hands of a person who knows how a product strategy works only in theory.
Thus, PM newbies find themselves in a vicious circle. You can’t get a PM job because you don’t have PM experience because you don’t have a PM job.
Still, product managers appear to come from somewhere. One research that analyzed LinkedIn profiles figured out that 698,945 people called themselves product managers.
The actual number of PM professionals must be even higher. First of all, two years have passed since the research has been done. Second, some people may call themselves problem solvers or product artists instead of PMs. Not to mention the fact that not everyone on the planet Earth has a LinkedIn profile.
So a PM career path is probably not as hopeless as it looks. If thousands of people could sneak into the world of product management, you can do the same. We at Eleken design agency dug ourselves into professional communities on Reddit to figure out how those who work as PMs paved their way to their current positions.
Get an entry-level role with tech giants
Product management is a gray educational area. If you want to be a doctor, you apply to the medical college. If you want to be a teacher, you look for a university that has a department of teacher education. For product management, there is no such straightforward path.
Product management lies at the intersection of business, technology and user experience. It doesn’t hurt if you also know a thing or two about marketing. Some coding skills would be a plus. And you can’t do without people management skills. Simply put, you’ll hardly find a college that prepares you for being a universal PM soldier. So corporations took matters into their own hands and created associate product manager programs (APMs).
The first APM was founded by Google in the early 2000s. The company recruited a bunch of young college graduates and trained them into what Google thought a product manager should be. The results were pretty impressive — it suffices to say that Brian Rakowski, the first APM graduate, is now Google's VP for Pixel.
Today Uber, along with Asana, IBM, Facebook and other companies have their own APMs that hire graduates directly out of college, with no prior experience. They are generally looking for someone with an academic background in computer science or business-related field. And if you show stellar performance, they’ll probably promote you to PM in a year or two.
Get an MBA
If you’ve been working in the business for a while but have trouble landing a PM position with your current experience, you may get an MBA. Besides of filling in your knowledge gaps, MBA studies help to build a professional network, that can help you fit into the role.
However, all PM Redditors agree that MBA can’t replace real-world experience. You’ll learn how to put together a product roadmap, but will you be able to implement it outside of sterile classroom conditions? What will you do when you realize your first project is behind schedule and over its budget the day it is started?
So if you already have some product-related experience, you can probably start from learning new product skills in the field rather than schooling.
Join a product startup to get an internal promotion to PM
Based on the experience of product managers from Reddit, a lateral transition is the most common route toward product management jobs. Find a young startup that needs your current skill set, do rockstar work and start taking on product manager responsibilities.
The startup environment is messy and chaotic, so your initiative will probably be encouraged. So you can emphasize PM experience and keep your fingers crossed in a hope that the startup will grow to the point where you can transition to an official PM role.
You may also start undertaking product tasks in a medium or large enterprise. In a bigger company, you’ll get an opportunity to work to side by side with product managers, shadow them, take advantage of company training programs and chat with people who had already made the switch between disciplines.
A product manager background doesn't have to be technical
One of the biggest misconceptions about product management roles is that you need to know how to code. In reality, it’s enough to know how code works and be able to explain it to non-technical stakeholders.
It doesn’t hurt if you have an engineering background. Who’d better work with a tech team than a former engineer? But the candidates from a business side, with a background in customer support or marketing, may get a PM job just as well thanks to their pre-installed user-centered optics.
A poll conducted among product managers on Reddit has shown almost equal percentages of tech and non-tech people in the profession.
The career stories from Redditors in the comments prove that you can transit into product management from literally ANY background. I swear to you, there was even one belly dancer. But the most common career paths, except of engineering, turned out to be:
- Project management > product management
- Product ownership > product management
- Design > product management
- Marketing > product management
- Journalism > product management (surprise)
- Teaching > product management (bet you didn't see that coming)
Project manager roles are probably the most common point for a transition into product management. Both positions have “management” in their names and sound so similar that people often confuse them.
That matching “management” means that a candidate already has the time management, team leadership, and problem-solving skills product managers need. All that's left is to get product manager technical skills and familiarize themselves with the world of digital software development.
User experience design
UX design, together with coding, are two elephants that hold the product creation process on their shoulders — telling you that as a UI/UX agency. That’s why design is a great starting point for a PM career.
First, you know how to talk to users, how to understand user needs and architect the product users are going to love. Second, you have probably worked in a product team together with product management, so the management process is not a complete mystery for you.
A successful product should not only satisfy users’ needs but also bring desired business results. An advantage of a PM with a marketing background is that they have this business aspect of product management covered.
Marketers also tend to be user-centered, which is always good, and masterfully handle user journeys, jobs-to-be-done, and other user-research methodologies.
Doesn’t sound like a common career path, but according to their stories on Reddit, journalists perform a lateral transition to PM just as often as designers. All thanks to the power of personal proactivity and internal promotions.
*The author of this article starts to evaluate her PM career perspectives*
Another unexpected twist is people switching from teaching to PM. Their path can teach you how to benefit from your non-PM experience in a product job. All you have to do is apply for the PM position related to products that operate in the industry of your former profession:
- If you are a former teacher, turn your attention to EdTech startups.
- For salespeople, there might be career opportunities in CRM apps.
- Recruiters can apply their knowledge and skills in HR startups.
Wrapping up with some theory
This article offers you a huge truck filled with pieces of practical advice on how to get product manager skills and jobs. Let’s wrap it up with some recommendations from product managers on how to get theoretical knowledge on the topic. Here are the candidates for being your PM handbook:
- The typical advice given on this subject is to read Marty Cagan's Inspired. This is a legendary book that communicates the spirit of modern product management. You’ll find it in any PM reading list. This book is a good place to start, but it’s not self-sufficient because it can’t really explain how to implement the best practices it promotes.
- As a complementary book that would help you put Inspired into practice, Jackie Bavaro's Cracking the PM Career is often recommended.
- The Lean Startup by Eric Ries is another legendary (and highly theoretical) product book. The book started a revolution in digital product building, introducing a methodology that reduces the risk of building the wrong things.
- Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen is a practical guide on building products that leverages the Lean Startup principles.
- Escaping the Build Trap by Melissa Perri — another product managers’ favorite, which explains how to stop producing new features to meet their schedule rather than the customer’s needs.
That’s all for now. But if your ambition is not only to become a product manager but also to become a good product manager, the list of PM’s most wanted superpowers is a must-read for you.