How to Become a Product Manager

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One of my favorite things about product as a discipline is that a wide variety of backgrounds can lead to successful product careers. But if (almost) every job listing requires product experience, how do you convince someone who’s never met you that you’re capable of doing the job?

Broadly, one of these three strategies can get you closer to your dream job:

Transfer in from an adjacent job function

Product managers work with people with many other roles, such as engineering, marketing, and advertising. You can get a much better sense of what PMs at your company do by working alongside them, and you’ll have the opportunity to show managers that you’re a valuable employee who’s worth taking a chance on in a new position. Depending on the culture at your company, you might be able to take on some more informal product responsibilities before attempting to move into the role full time.

By transferring within your company, you’ll also be in the best position to explain, if relevant, how your past experience included product-esque tasks. A current employer who already trusts you to get things done is far more likely to believe you’re up to the challenge.

I personally had a role in The New York Times’ customer care organization, working as a liaison between care operations and what was then our mobile product team. I applied for it specifically because I had the experience on the care side and I knew I could use it to learn more about product than I could from reading while sitting on the outside. The position also gave me a clear understanding of who NYT app users are and what problems they needed us to solve.

Be a subject matter expert

While it’s important for all product managers to have a strong understanding of the industry in which their products and customers sit, this is more important for some PM roles than others. Someone who is an expert in their field and is looking to move into product may be able to leverage this into a job where the hiring manager understands you haven’t explicitly been a PM before, but they’re willing to mold you into the type of product managers they need.

Fintech and healthcare focused companies are a great examples​ of where this can work. Depending on the product, the learning curve to get a base-level understanding of those industries can be steep, giving someone with the right professional background who’s interested in tech an opportunity to demonstrate how valuable they can be, assuming the company is willing to invest in the development of their product skills. The New York Times has done this too, giving editors who were particularly interested in product development the opportunity to move into PM roles.

Get an MBA

There’s a reason this one is listed last. This really is only a good option if you were already considering going back to school since an MBA is not a requirement for a successful product career, and getting one is a significant investment of time and money. But if you were already interested in getting a business degree and you want to be a PM, this can be a fantastic opportunity to learn about product development while also achieving the other goals you had for the degree. Product internships are also more common for MBA students than they are for undergrads or those who are looking to change careers after graduating.

Hopefully at least one of these suggestions has given you some ideas for how you might plot your way into product management. If you have a journey into product story you’d like to share, add it in a comment below!