How to transition to a Product Manager role

Over the years, I have had a lot people who are interested in becoming a Product Manager ask me how to transition to a PM from their current role. I myself made a transition from Product Analytics to Product Management. The ones I’ll list are from my own experiences and others I’ve encountered while working at tech companies where the PM role exists. Of course, there are a lot of variables in career transitions, but with the evolving list of qualifications that can lead to a successful career as a PM, it’s a path that may be closer than you realize.

1. Find projects that allow you to work with Product/Eng teams within your current role

Almost all functions at a tech company work with Product or Engineering teams in some way. For example, the Customer Support team will work with Product teams to bubble up key feedback and inquiries from the customers as well as surface issues and conduct investigations to help Engineering identify the root cause.

Also, some might work with an engineering/IT team to make sure the company’s proprietary tool or a 3rd party tool, such as Salesforce, has the right integration for the team. In this case, Supporters are the customers of this product, and the person who is in charge of the integration is assuming a part of the product manager responsibility.

In all my years of working at a tech company, I have never seen a case where there isn’t a shortage of PMs. This means that there are more than enough products/initiatives that can use some PM love. See if any of them is related to your current role or knowledge you have. Talk to your manager and see if you can spend a part of your time acting as a product manager for that area.

As an example, when I was a product analyst at Facebook, I worked with engineers on geo-location algorithms as an acting PM. The partnership made sense in two ways: it was an important area without a PM, and the highly analytical nature of the product made it a good fit for an analyst. At Square, I have a mobile app release manager, who transitioned from the Customer Support team, working on a side project of product managing the Help section of the app with guidance from senior PMs.

2. Make it a two-step process

“I am in Sales, and I have no experience working with PMs/Eng. But I want to be a PM.” Errr…. sorry to break it to you, but it doesn’t work like that. You should go back to my point #1 above and look for opportunities where you can work with PM/Eng. After all, how are you going to know what a PM does and whether you will like it or not without a little field research?

Related to that point, if you are not in a role in which you are not working with PMs closely already (e.g. Eng, Designer, Product Analyst, Product Marketing, etc.), I highly suggest you look at it as a mid-term goal and consider a two-step transition.

The ideal scenario for your transition is that other PMs and Eng will support and vouch for you, because they have worked closely with you, and saw that you have the skill set and potential to become a successful PM. If you are not in a role where that can happen, consider transitioning to a role that will allow you to do that first, almost like a pre-requisite.

3. Get experience elsewhere that preps you for a PM role

Sometimes people will leave the company to join a small startup, found a company, or get an MBA. Small startups are great in that you will have a lot of opportunities to try a different role or wear multiple hats, and prior experience might not be as necessary as at more established companies. Getting an MBA seems to provide somewhat of a free pass to change your career. However, companies will still look for some relevant experience for MBA PM interns, so keep the aforementioned two points in mind.

Also, if you are serious about transitioning to a PM role, each company will have its own process for internal transfers and interviews. So I recommend you get more information about it upfront to know what’s required or expected.

Product Management is a role that requires a variety of skills, and product instinct and user empathy do not necessarily come from one particular background. More and more companies are realizing that and moving away from the once very rigid technical background they looked for in product manager candidates. So if you want to transition to a product manager, keep working towards it! You won’t regret it! :)