How I Got into Product Management

Kat Li
Kat Li
Jan 12, 2017 · 7 min read
Never-before-seen footage of me scrambling into product management

One thing that was new and bizarre this past year, as I joined Digit and became Head of Product, was the influx of people asking for my advice. I’ve been so used to being the one benefiting from wiser people that it came as a total surprise when GSB students, people new /aspiring to tech, and other PMs of various levels started reaching out to me.

To be clear, I’ve enjoyed helping the people I’ve met when I can, no matter where they are in their journey. There are so many people who’ve helped and supported me along my way that it feels pretty great to be in a place where I can try to put some of that goodwill back into the ecosystem.

By far, the most common question that all of these meetings yielded was: I think I want to be a product manager. How does someone get a PM job at a hot startup these days?

I don’t have all the answers, by any means. And I want to recognize that I had a lot of specific advantages. Although I’m a Native woman who doesn’t have an engineering degree, I still grew up in the Bay Area. I had a parent working in the tech industry. I’m part-Asian. I went to Stanford. All of these things absolutely contributed to paving the path for me and making it a little bit more possible for me to land my dream job.

That said, I wanted to write down the things that I’ve identified as actionable steps I took that brought me to the door of product management. My goal in sharing this is twofold: 1) to help other folks who’ve been looking to move into product roles find ways to make their dream a reality and 2) to show people who’ve been thinking product management seems interesting that it can be a long process to grow into a role and should not be undertaken lightly.

  1. Without knowing that I wanted to get into product management (or even what it was when I first began working), I got my start by working in adjacent roles. Product marketing, product analytics, and user research tend to be the most popular routes that non-technical / non-design folks take. In my case, I worked on partnerships and product marketing at Quora and on the growth team, focusing on fostering the community of developer users while at Stripe. The skillsets I developed in both roles became ones that I continue to draw upon as a product manager today.
  2. If you’re not an engineer by training, get more technical. Learn what an API is, understand how mobile and web apps work. For me, being at early stage startups where I had the opportunity to work directly with engineers was the best learning experience. The curve was steep, because there was no safety net of people in between the “technical” and the “non-technical” people, but I loved it. A lot of aspiring product managers will often try to teach themselves how to write code or enroll in code classes, but in my relatively jaded opinion, there is no substitute for time and exposure to real life product development. Much of the nuance and what’s referred to as “technical knowledge” is based on experience building and shipping products that actual users consume. Making fun mini iOS apps that never get a single real user or see the light of day will not expose you to those parts.
  3. Again, specific to me not being an engineer or designer by training, I’ve found it incredibly useful to learn the lingo. This is a little embarrassing to admit but I often ping my closest engineer or designer friends who I know don’t judge too much to ask them what the right term I’m looking for is, or to explain a concept I realized I’m not too familiar with. For example, last year I asked Ross to explain SOAP vs REST. My friends mostly think of it as just a funny Kat quirk, but one of them recently told me that these little efforts made a whole lot more sense to him after an interaction with a PM at his company who sounded somewhat clueless when he used the wrong terms to describe the requirements. So now I’m a little less embarrassed to share this :)
  4. A good PM learns to check their ego at the door: no task that needs to get done to ship great product experiences is too small or not in the scope of their role. By happily contributing in any shape or form to a product launch or development process, I found opportunities to get closer to product. I secured partners needed for launches and acted as an account manager, I wrote blog posts drafts, and communicated directly with users. By adding value to the launch, I got to be at the table and see the sausage being made. This gave me a chance to understand how products were built and shipped, and helped make me even more sure that product management was the right direction for me.
  5. I’ve always been honing my written skills. In high school I was an editor of our newspaper and at Stanford I worked part-time as a copyeditor for letters from students to alumni donors (sorry, to all of you TSF writers reading this!) and as the sole copyeditor for the newspaper one summer. For me to get good at something, it helps to get a lot of exposure to other people’s work because I need to find see a lot of examples to identify the patterns of what’s good (and what’s not). By the time I joined Quora’s beta, I felt ready to start publicly sharing my own writing and used the platform to learn how to communicate effectively. At larger companies, as a PM, your primary communication need will primarily be an internal one: sharing the product direction with your team, keeping other teams in the loop, advocating for your vision. At startups, you’re more likely to do quite a bit of user-facing communication, whether it’s drafting blog posts, social media posts, email announcements, etc to users for launches, or, like I do at Digit, shape the voice and messaging of our bot.
  6. At the end of the day, one of your most critical skills is your product sense. Develop product opinions. This comes through spending time exploring all sorts of apps and products out there, identifying what feels natural and magical, what feels clunky. Talk to people about what products they love and hate. Even if you don’t agree, you’re building your own understanding through additional datapoints. Once you’ve begun to identify your own intuitive viewpoints, you’ll be able to start articulating their underlying rationales and learning how to communicate them to others.
  7. Choose your adjacent role jobs wisely. Even before you become a product manager, work at companies with legit products that are known and widely used. Make sure you yourself identify with the mission and love the product (regardless of if it’s consumer-facing or no). When you’re being considered for a product role, the products you chose to be a part of in the past will absolutely be part of the evaluation of your product sense. If you have only worked on products that have failed quietly and sadly, it’ll be harder to get past the resume review. The fact that I was early at Quora and Stripe is probably one of the best things I did somewhat unintentionally for my later career as a product manager.
  8. The last thought I want to leave you with: you have to really want it. Working in adjacent roles whet my appetite for being in a more direct product-shaping role. There were multiple times during my process of transitioning to product that people made me doubt myself and my ability to be a good product manager. Senior PMs told me I wasn’t technical enough, recruiters that I was too junior, and mentors that I was unlikely to find a product role at a startup that was really going somewhere. In some ways, what was even harder than all of that, was receiving non-PM offers for companies and products that I loved and respected. Finding your next job is scary af and turning down plausible offers because they weren’t the right role is not easy. The only way you will have a chance at becoming a full-fledged product manager though is by acknowledging the temptations and moving on.

Sometimes I still can’t believe I’ve made it to where I am today—there were times I really came close to giving up. Occasionally I’ll hear stories of people who Alice-in-Wonderlandish stumbled upon product management serendipitously and ended up loving it. Although this seems to be more of the case 5 years ago, when product management at startups was still an emergent field, even today I’ll occasionally meet new PMs who fell into the role without knowing what they were signing up for.

That’s certainly not an experience that I can identify with and seems to be growing less common these days. In spite of all of my privilege, I fought hard to get here: it required all of my conviction to keep myself convinced and then convince others that I could do this. And it was worth it. Product management is the perfect blend of skills and duties that I’ve been working towards all along. If this resonates with you, keep at it and be willing to be in it for the long game.

Update: we’re currently looking to bring in the product team’s second user researcher! Details here:

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