How to break into product management

This is part two in a three part series on product management. You can view part one here.

How do you break into a career path which has no formal training path? Not easily. Very few people are going to hire you as a PM if you don’t have any software development experience. That’s not to say you wouldn’t be capable, it’s just saying it is unlikely to happen.

Find your personal Yoda (mentor).

Think about it this way, the average engineer’s salary in New York is currently $120k, plus benefits and multiplied by 5–6 engineers on a team and you’re looking at as much as $1M a year in resources being given to someone unproven. Not to mention in a company of 100 employees, one feature team could easily be responsible for 25% to 33% of the company’s feature output. A bad PM could very easily take this to 0%. Even though there are plenty of capable people out there, common wisdom in the startup world is that you shouldn’t be the company to take a chance on a first time PM. That said, there are a few commons paths people take to become a Product Manager.

Outside of pure happenstance, the three main ways people get into product roles are: APM programs, moving from another closely related position within a company and building your own projects (or company).

Rotational APM programs

Google, Facebook and a few other big tech companies run Associate Product Management programs. These programs consist of rotational training opportunities for people with technical backgrounds. Generally they are for new graduates or people still really early in their careers. Within these large companies, individuals get to shadow established PMs and understand the role before being given part of a product to own themselves. In addition to Google and Facebook’s programs which are the most well known, Yahoo, Yelp, Uber and Linkedin also have APM programs.

Move from another closely related position within the company

This is the most reasonable approach. As a designer, QA engineer or feature engineer working within a scrum team with a PM there are always opportunities to step up and take on more “product” related projects. Especially less glamorous stuff the regular PM might not be thrilled about doing. Consistently displaying the necessary skills to be a good PM in a software development environment will make you a strong internal candidate when the next PM role becomes available.

Build your own projects / start a company

Ever wonder what happens to a small company’s CEO after they get acquired by a giant tech company? The CEO often becomes a PM of the feature that was previously the entire company as it is consumed by the big tech company. This is because in small companies, the CEO often does the job function of the PM. Obviously it’s totally ridiculous to found a company with an end goal of getting acquired and landing a PM role. Side projects are the less extreme version of this. Showing that you’re capable of leading a small team from vision to execution of a concept or idea goes a long way. There’s a great book by Antonio García Martínez called Chaos Monkeys which follows his journey from being CEO of a small company which gets acquired by Facebook where he becomes a Product Manager. The book is the most realistic, no bullshit version of what a PM actually does that I’ve ever read.

What about classes or certifications? While there’s no formal education or product management equivalent degree, there are a handful of related classes and certifications. Despite what many of these claim, no one is going to hire you because you’ve completed a basic course. A few classes and certifications in addition to one of the three paths listed above might help you make a stronger case, but at the end of the day nothing is superior to real experience.

If you read this and want to chat or have further questions about breaking into product management, let me know. I’m always happy to offer advice to an aspiring masochist (the subject of the third and final part of this series).