How to get into product management
A comprehensive overview of where PMs come from, and concrete steps you can take right now to land your first PM role
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Oh, how the above meme nails breaking into product management so perfectly on the head.
If you're reading this with the aspiration of breaking into product management and landing your first PM job – be prepared to put in the work – because it's a lot harder than most other roles to get into.
Why? Well, the short and easy answer is that there is no defined path. Want to be a doctor? Then follow the clear, age-old, steps many others have walked in and become one.
But, want to be a PM? Not so straightforward. Sorry, that's a euphemism – it's difficult.
And there's a few reasons for this…
For starters – competition.
On a given team – PMs make up a very small percentage of the headcount. A company will almost always hire more engineers and designers. Also, the PM role is still relatively new compared to many other roles in tech, and as more and more people are becoming interested in the role – competition is fierce.
There are no degrees (i.e formal path) for it.
At college or university, there is (very sadly) no track designed to pump out product managers. No guidance counselors are saying “You'll be a great PM!" . There's definitely a trend though – and that's that of the degrees that PMs do have, computers/information systems is a commonality. More on this soon.
The role can be seen very differently across companies - meaning what people care about and look for is different.
On some teams, hiring managers are looking for highly technical PMs – on others, they want people who have experience with consumer marketplaces. The point here is that the role of the PM is already very ambiguous as it is, and mix that with the requirements and opinions of different hiring managers, team structures, markets, business models, company stages, growth stages – what people look for in a new hire can vary pretty widely. Of course, there are fundamental skills that cut through all of that – but the nuances do make getting the first job harder.
PMs need a wide range of skills and experience.
You have a lot that you need to demonstrate you have in order to be hired as a PM. The hard skills, to the soft ones – and in real-life situations too.
It's very hard to “create a portfolio” to showcase your work.
With roles like engineering and design – it's definitely easier to prove the work you do by making stuff. Say you're a designer – you can do concept redesigns of existing products and create new UI/UX's – adding those to your design portfolio. In other words --you don't need to have been hired as a designer before to show you know how to design.
With product, that's more challenging.
Finally, hiring a first-time PM is risky business.
You've probably heard of companies saying things like, “We aim to snatch up the best engineers right out of college”. Meta, Google…they compete for that! But, they're not saying the same thing for PMs, that's for sure. When hiring PMs, people want to de-risk the hire by seeing experience. Why?
For starters, the PM role is hard to test for during interviews. Give an engineer a test – you'll find out quickly if he can code. No bullshit.
Second, once hired, it's hard to see how good, or bad, a PM is at first. It can take time to realize their decisions are bad, etc. This means hiring managers take on risk when bring on a new PM – and need to invest extra time mentoring and keeping an eye on their work.
I wanted to start by first setting the expectations, which I think I've done. Now, all that being said – becoming a PM is still very doable.
So, let's get into it.
Where do PMs come from?
Lots of places. And that should be expected when there is no defined paths to becoming one.
When I'm interviewing people for a PM position, one of my favorite things to look for on their resume is their transition into the role – and the routes people come from are always different. I also like to ask people (as one of my first questions) to walk me through the story of how they became a PM, and why they chose to. It reveals a lot, and always interests me.
That being said – here are four common places people usually come from as they move into a product management role. Note – I'll get into advice on each of these in a moment.
1. Transition from another functional role internally.
Remember, PMs sit at the intersection between design, engineering, and business. Probably the most common and easiest way to get into product is to transition internally from a role that brings one of those skills. We'll get more into the mechanics of doing this below - but essentially this is a great approach for both you and the company since (1) you're already hired, (2) people know/trust you, (3) you likely know the company, market, and customers already. This reduces risk for both sides.
2. Find a junior role in APM program.
Most companies don't have this, but some of the bigger ones with established product functions like Google do. This is an Associate Product Manager program or an internship, and they are competitive to get into given the interest in the role, the overall scarcity of the programs, and the allure of the big brands that do offer them. Still, this is a good option to look into when trying to land your first gig. Essentially, associate product managers do what a product manager does, but at a smaller scale – and usually with more senior PMs on the team who can mentor.
3. Join a startup.
This route is all about hustle – and leveraging any people you know who are starting their own company, or are working at one. Very early stage startups hire people who end up wearing lots of hats (and are willing to) – and getting into a company this way and then working hard as hell to put your newly learned PM skills to use is a solid path to becoming the first PM on the team. With this path – you can either try positioning yourself to be hired as the first PM, or take on another role and aim to transition to that. Early stage startups often fail to hires PMs, investing their scarce dollars rather in engineers. This is an advantage you can leverage – more on that soon.
4. Make something yourself.
This, obviously, is the hardest and longest option to becoming a PM. Nevertheless, I've personally looked at countless resumes with PMs who've at some point had their own venture going on, and I've seen a ton of bios out there across LinkedIn and Twitter of those who've had companies – some with exits, some failing. Some big, some small.
This was also the path that led me to becoming a PM – and I can personally confirm the underlying trend here that of the people that ended up in product management this way – this is the accidental path into product.
Essentially, there are three things that can happen here leading you into product management. I'll start with the most likely – the company fails. This might seem counterintuitive, but you'd have gained that much needed and unique experience by making something, that you can leverage in your story and value pitch to other companies – especially those in the same market/industry. Second, your company works out and you're able to transition your role and focus into the product management side of things (this will take time). Finally, you sell the company or get “acqui-hired” (where another company buys some, or the whole company, purely to get the talent) – and move from CEO to product manager. Again, this is a longer path that I wouldn't suggest starting brand new on. However, many of my friends who've asked me about breaking into product management already have some backstory with their own company – and if this is also you, then this is a very viable path you can take.
Your first steps
Okay, so above we covered just the high-level origin stories for PMs. Now we'll get more into the weeds of those with some real-talk advice on how you can tap into one of those routes.
This advice comes from my personal experience breaking into product management, insights from other PMs and lots of online research. The purpose is to move from the abstract and give you tangible steps on what you can start doing, now.
The Universal advice
This advice is the foundational stuff every person should do when thinking of getting into product. Think of this as your phase 1 – and there is nothing that should be a blocker for you doing this.
1. Understand the role, and skillset.
There's no way you can, or should be saying, I want to be a product manager without knowing what you'll be doing if you get the job. A good place to start is reading this post, “What does a product manager do?”
2. Assess your product skills
Now that you know what a PM does, and the broad hard and soft skills needed to perform the job, you should do a self-evaluation to see what your current overlap is. For instance, at a high-level, you may have a strong background in business and strategy, but have no experience with design or tech. Those then are your gaps you'll need to close.
3. Ask Why! Figure out of this is for you.
After completing step 1 and step 2 above, you have all the information necessary to do this next part – one often overlooked.
You need to ask the important question of, “Why do I want to be a product manager?”. I didn't ask this, but that's because I became a PM by accident ("Build your own startup" path). If you're thinking of choosing any of the other common routes with the deliberate intention of being a PM – which require your time and effort – make sure that's what you want to be putting it towards.
Lenny Rachitsky, previously the PM lead at Airbnb and now product thought-leader, perfectly sums up 10 reasons to become, or, to avoid, being a PM – listed below.
Become a product manager if you are fulfilled by:
- Solving people’s problems (both your users’ and your team’s)
- Driving business growth
- Working closely with a variety of people
- Developing a strategy
- Getting shit done
- Leading a team (through influence, not authority)
- Communicating often and broadly
- Making decisions
- Creating amazing experiences for people
- Being organized, detail oriented, and prepared
Don't become one if you're fulfilled by:
- Having your way
- Being left alone
- Always being right
- Designing or building things yourself
- Everyone liking you
- Flow states
- Avoiding meetings
- Avoiding email
- Avoiding people
4. Learn the skills and close your gap.
You're now in a position where you've decided that being a PM is a good fit for you – and you know where you are now, and where you need to be skill-wise.
Now you have to fill those gaps by learning the key skills and putting them to practice. This phase of the becoming a PM is truly time-dependent on you – on how much you want it, and how creative you can get taking the stuff you're learning and transferring it into something you can demonstrate.
Some skill gaps will be easier and feel more natural for you to close. Don't get too caught up on being really good – that will only happen over time and over mistakes you make on a team.
Something that I did when I knew I was transitioning from founder to PM – and many others have done too – is invest in some specialized online training. There are many online courses and programs, some more expensive, some only a couple of bucks (i.e on Udemy). Do some research on the different options and pick one that you feel is a good fit for your budget, and needs. Note that the primary purpose of this is learning and filling skill gaps – not to spice up your resume. Most hiring managers won't care that you did a Udemy course.
Here are a few other ways you want to immerse yourself in PM learning:
- Lots of online reading!
- Practice product thinking
- Conversations with PMs
5. Find a mentor, meet other PMs.
This is something I wish I did. If you have PMs on your team – setup time to speak or meet with them and get first-hand insights into the role at the company you're already with. If there's someone you already know and trust, strongly consider asking them to be a mentor. A mentor can be an invaluable asset to help you as you close your skill gaps, get feedback on what you're doing, address question, and overall just get deeper into the product role and mindset. They can also help further down the line with interview prep.
If you don't have someone who comes to mind, you can reach out to people on LinkedIn, or just Google “Product management mentor" and go from there. Keep in mind, you'll pay for their time.
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Situation dependent advice
Anyone looking to become a PM can do all the 5 things above – regardless of your current situation. What we'll get into now is stuff that's more dependent on where you currently are – meaning only one or two of these will be things you should focus on.
1. Focus on one of the core 3
If you're still going to college or university, strongly consider a degree that will give you lots of exposure and training in either Engineering, Design, or Business. This will be like killing to birds with one stone – you get your college degree and you tick off 1 of the 3 big skills.
The primary reason for this is so that you can get a job as an engineer, designer, or in the business function. From here, you can start to wedge your way into an internal transfer.
2. Move within a company
If you're in a company already, ideally in an engineering, design, or business role – your best leverage point is to aim for an internal transfer into a product role. This is probably the easiest and most common path, but to work, the most important thing is having a supporting manager – this is essential. From here, even if your company doesn't have an internal transfer process in place, there's wiggle room to make that happen with a good backer.
The first step is talking to your manager at a performance review (where career growth is an important talking point) – and being very clear about your goals to move into product. The end-goal here is to have alignment on your transition plan, with checkin points for getting there. To do that, you need to be well prepared for this discussion – with concrete recommendations to bring to them.
Without being prepared, you risk an abstract conversation that won't give you a clear path forward.
For example, you want to to have suggestions for projects you can take on that give you the space to demonstrate the PM skills you've been working on learning. You also want to propose concrete potential next-steps at the end of the plan – painting a picture around what the actual transition will look like. For instance – if you have an existing product team, an idea could be to move into a junior PM role. Your manager may propose other options, but being prepared at least sets the foundation for a constructive conversation.
If your manager is not the hiring manager of other PMs on your team (if the team has) – the you also want to have conversations with that person, ideally working towards having another champion on your side for the transfer.
3. Make something yourself (low-hanging fruit = a portfolio)
This is all about building some credibility, and I'll start with the easiest version of making something yourself – the one that doesn't require you to build a company.
Case studies can be a really useful way to demonstrate your product thinking. Essentially, they are scenario-based exercises you do on companies and products people know, to show people how you structure, and communicate, your work:
Here's how to do it:
1. You take a product that you know (i.e, Spotify)
2. Think about things like potential customer problems, improvements, and growth opportunities. This could be for the business, or specific to one focus area of the product (i.e Discovery)
3. Craft a strategy to address the big ones, with goals
4. Put together an example roadmap [just based on your ideas]
5. Write a product requirement doc for an idea you have
6. Bonus…put together some designs to show your design thinking. This can be low-fidelity wireframes (tool like Whimsical), or more fleshed our mocks (tools like Figma or Sketch).
6. You're done, now put that on a web page so it's available for others to see.
Presentation and structure are key here. You can easily spin something up using just Notion.so to create it, and then use a site like Super.so to publish your notion page. This is a super easy, cheap, and overall great combo for presenting case-studies and building your product brand.
Repeat this a few times to build out a portfolio for yourself.
The second way to “make something” sits somewhere between the theoretical case-studies, and founding a company. It involves actually conceptualizing and some-what building something new – but the intention is not the same as starting a company Here, you don't plan on actually making a company, hiring people, raising money, and aiming to get customers. Your goal is purely to “create experience” to help become a PM.
Sounds odd, I know.
It goes something like this:
1. Identify a problem, need, or clear want that hasn't been solved.
2. Form a hypothesis about the market.
3. Do some research. Interviews, market sizing, online reading, etc. (documenting it all, of course)
4. Refine your business strategy and product idea.
5. Put together a pitch deck for it. This needs to explain the business opportunity and what the product is.
6. Put together a product roadmap for the MVP.
7. Now, ideally you actually create a functioning experience for your MVP. This can be done as a clickable prototype (easiest for designers, but also relatively easy to learn to do), or using a no/low-code site builder. For example, here is a functioning prototype I made in 2019 for an idea I had. I used Framer.com to create it, and Netlify.com to publish it for free.
Even if you're an engineer, actually coding something is probably not be worth the time investment.
8. Bonus – record interviews with people using your prototype or site, and document findings to inform iterations.
8. Done – now put this on your portfolio site!
The main difference between the case-study and the second option is that you're showing a more concrete example to new business and product idea – and the second ones takes a lot more time.
If you're building out a portfolio, a good goal would be 2/3 case-studies and 1 sample-business idea. Having this all live on a site is great to reference to in your resume and LinkedIn.
Lastly – and I'm not going to get into the mechanics of this here – you actually do something entrepreneurial. This doesn't mean starting your own company necessarily – it means you do something (even if small) that creates value for other people. A blog, podcast, small business idea – all of those are things that do something for people, and that's a fantastic way to build credibility for yourself.
4. Joining an early stage startup
Taking this path can make a lot of sense if you know founders or people working at early stage startups. Having connections makes this a lot easier, but you can do the cold outreach approach (founders of early stage companies are usually very receptive to messages). Very early stage companies are usually not hiring product managers, and don't even know how to – and someone on the founding team (usually the CEO) is largely filling that product role by leading research, decisions, strategy, roadmap, and driving execution.
This can be a nice advantage to you, because other more experienced PMs are probably not reaching, the company isn't looking, and the company isn't yet thinking about the value a PM can provide. Roles at startups are also pretty fluid – meaning people where lots of hats, and weight responsibilities differently as things change. This means there can be space to mould yourself into a product management role, or just aim to be the first PM hire.
So, once you get in touch with the founder, understand what their pressing needs and problems – and show how you can fill that gap. Filling that gap might mean being hired in an adjacent function to product management – but like I said, taking stuff on, showing success, and moving yourself more towards the PM role is a lot less process at a startup.
Okay, so how do you get in touch with the founder and start that process? Andy Lee in a 2017 Hackernoon post outlined a really nice approach – quoted for you below.
A 3-step approach
1. Find a product you like and use, and then send the founder some initial feedback on the product. A good founder is hungry for this – so be thoughtful . Tell them how you discovered their product, what you think of it, and some quick, detailed ideas to onboard users better and deliver value better.
2.Research about their idea. Understand who they’re trying to go after, what they’re offering, and where that fits. Why would people use it? Is it a nice to have or a must have? How big is the market for this? What would it take to build a business around it? How can we grow this and acquire lots of users cheaply?
3. Keep sending them your research and thoughts. They’ll appreciate it. Slowly start building a relationship with them and offer to help out for free during nights and weekends. Tell them you want to join as a product manager at the earliest opportunity. Offer to take a pay cut (in lieu of equity) if you can. Convince them to get you on board.
As an ex-founder, I can say I really like this approach. It shows grit and hands-on-ness – and that's gold. I have a good friend who told me a story about how he did this for a product he really wanted to work on – and the team was taken back because nobody else did it. He got the job.
5. Find an APM program
Lastly – the associate product management, or internship, approach. There's not much advice to give on this front. These programs are usually pretty competitive as larger companies, and designed to bring graduates into the product space. To figure out of this path is something you want to do, I suggest starting by taking a look at this helpful post outlining 15 APM programs:
Phew — that was a lot! Some nice for-shadowing for the patience and time it will take to become a PM. It’s really important to set the right expectations with yourself that it won’t happen overnight unless you are extremely lucky. It can take several months, or even a few years. However, if you know this is the role for you — and you really want it — you will find a way to make it happen.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoy the rest of your week — and this post is public so please feel free to share it 🙏
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