Should I Become a Product Manager?
One of the most common questions I’m asked as a Product Manager is: “how do I become a PM?”
Although product management is still an evolving field, it’s become a staple of successful development teams, forming a strong pillar to stand aside engineering, design, marketing and customer success. However, the paths into product are different than the route to end up in one of these other disciplines.
Rather than focus on how to become a PM, it’s more important to have confidence that this is the right role for you. Here’s what I’ve learned on how to think about a career as a PM, whether you’re a new graduate or have 10+ years of experience on your resume.
Let’s talk about the why.
You should choose a career in product if you’re obsessed about your customers and the problems they have. Your job is all about bringing the customer pain to the team; being crisp on what you’re solving and why it’s worth solving. You should be able to feel your customers’ pain like it’s your own and have a strong urgency to represent their needs to your team.
I’m always discouraged whenever I ask someone why they want to be a product manager and receive one of the following:
- “I want to be the person to make all the decisions on a team.”
- “I have a lot of really good ideas we should build”
- “I don’t really have core skills in engineering, design, marketing or customer success. I’m not passionate about any of those things.”
All of these individuals would make terrible product managers. Being a product manager is not about being the ‘idea’ person, listening to product pitches and randomly choosing designs. There’s a big difference between what makes a good PM vs. a bad PM and I highly recommend you have a clear understanding on what a good product manager does before exploring a career in it.
Product management includes being part of the decision making process with an equal amount of grunt work and heavy lifting you can’t be unnerved by. If you’re interested in gaining some initial experience at non-decision making work, start observing/analyzing your product’s core metrics. Try to derive one insight every day and share it with others on your team. It can be a hunch you have based on the data & trends you’ve analyzed, or a question you have now that you know more!
What do you need to get good at?
PMs need to be good at roughly three things (and I’d argue in this order):
- Execution — you need to be able to take a task (big or small), break it down into digestable pieces and deliver on them. No excuses. If you can’t ship it 🛳, you’re not going to make it.
- Win with a team — building product is a team sport. If you can’t energize a team around a customer problem, work cross functionally, communicate well, build consensus or influence others, then you’re dead in the water. You’ll quickly learn the success of your product is largely representative of the health of your team. The only way to get recognized as a great PM is if your team is great, not if you are. Healthy teams deliver amazing products. Toxic teams build 💩.
- Have vision & discipline — vision & discipline are all about developing a strong framework to learn about the right problems to solve. You need to know what’s important to solve, who are you solving it for, why is it worth solving, and how do you measure success? You need to make customer & data informed hypotheses to find the right problems to focus on, with the patience to be occasionally wrong. You need to learn how to stay focused on a couple things, and say no to everything else. You should value working with a team to figure out what behavioral & analytics signals can help guide where you should go.
How you can get some experience
The best PMs have experience to bring to the table.* They have depth in previous expertise, such as engineering, design, marketing, or customer advocacy. They’ve been part of teams that have built product before and have success stories on what went well and learnings from things that didn’t go well.
If you are still interested in product, here are ways I recommend getting useful experience to help make sure this is the right role for you:
- Know your customers. Find ways to know more about your customers than they know about themselves. Know them like the back of your hand. Know their names, what team they’re on, what success looks like to them today, tomorrow, or in 3 to 6 months...Know what would make them look like superheroes in the eyes of their team and their manager. Try to know their next move before they even make it. More importantly, earn their trust, respect, and their ears. The best ways to gain this experience is to be part of customer interviews & usability sessions. You could even ask to do a tour of duty with your support team.
- Obsess about the design and experience. Write out the 1 or 2 core actions a customer needs to take in order to be successful with your product. Is it easy to onboard and learn about your product’s core actions? Is the first time experience so delightful that there’s a high probability they will share it with a friend? Ask a friendly designer (or use the internet) to help teach you how to do a storyboard or a UX wireframe. Come up with a few suggestions, with supporting data, on some experiments you could try. What metrics would you pay attention to if your changes were successful? Finally, try and pitch a team to give it a try.
- Become a great storyteller. You need to be the best story teller to your team, to your customers and to the market. Do you know what you’re building, and more importantly, why you’re building it? Try to write a mock blog post about a future product feature and share it with a few close customers. Do they have a strong reaction that prompts them to ask you when they can use that feature? Work and get them to be your first beta testers when you’re ready for external feedback. From there, break that end goal down into milestones and see if you can excite your team based on that narrative and why it’s important to tackle the problem now.
Becoming a product manager is less like becoming a “CEO of a product,” and more like becoming the conductor of an orchestra. A great musical experience isn’t simply hitting the right notes, it’s about the accuracy, quality, and order of those notes that makes it a masterpiece. Your team’s execution depends on their ability to express themselves and work as a group. As a conductor you’re balancing the interests, and expression, of each of these subgroups with the final piece and audience in mind.
I’d love to hear from you about what you’ve done to work on some of these skills. How have you gained experience to grow your confidence about a product role?
*New grads — this does mean I discourage you from trying to jump straight into product unless you’re part of a rotational program that ramps you up into product. Even then, I highly recommend getting experience in another field and bringing that to a PM role.