Want to be a Product Manager? Be One

One of the most common questions I get, especially from engineers and designers, and even some forward looking data scientists is “how do I break into product management?” Some people have this myth that you need an MBA to become a product manager. Some believe that you need to become a “project manager” first. Some think that you need a magical ‘product sense’, or have some sixth sense about people and behaviors.

None of that is true.

But before I explain what I think it takes to be a good product manager, let me tell you what I think product management is. Especially because there is no universal definition of what product management is or what a product manager does. It’s probably one of the vaguest roles ever. Every company views it differently and many don’t get it right.

What is Product Management? Simply put, product management is “problem management”. As a product manager, you’re doing anything and everything it takes to solve a problem. Usually in building a product that means 3 things:

  1. Understanding who you’re solving the problem for — the target audience.
  2. Understanding exactly what problem you are solving — the pain point.
  3. Understanding how exactly you’ll solve the problem with the team and resources at hand — the solution.

In our own daily lives we are all product managers by design and product managing all the time. Every time we decide to buy something, make a choice between two things, figure out what school to put our kids into, we are essentially being product managers. In fact, we’re being an extremely effective product manager, because we are the target user and we know the problem very well and we solve it in a way that works for us. It’s so ubiquitous we hardly realize it.

In a professional context, product management is no different. In many cases, the target audience might be someone else, the problem might be something you never encountered, and the solution might be something you’d have to think hard to come up with. But product management as a craft is no different. Just that it was never defined well or formalized.

There’s a lot written about what good product managers do. Most of it can be ignored if it doesn’t fall into the 3 categories above: a) they understand their target audience very well, b) they understand the problem very well, and c) they come up with a vision and roadmap to solve the problem in the right sized chunks bringing together the skills and resources needed. The best product managers are obsessed with solving the problem. They think about it all the time, learn a lot about it, and come up with the best solutions they can imagine, research and execute.

Underlying the “what a product manager does” is “how they do it”. They work in teams to solve the problem. That means their success is determined by the quality of people around them — so how well they work with those people and whether they can hire the right set of skills they need to solve the problem is critical to their success.

Which is why hiring good product managers is hard. Most companies take the easy route — they hire people that come from good schools or that worked on successful products. If you were part of the Google APM program or had a brief stint at Facebook as a product manager, you will not have a problem getting hired as a PM whether or not you actually are good at product management.

Moreover, past product management experience is not a strong signal for future product management success. In consumer companies, the fact that you PM’ed GMail doesn’t mean you can successfully PM Evernote. Your Gmail product experience certainly helps, but you’d still need to dig deep into the Evernote user base, understand the nuances of the problem, and come up with solutions to solve it. The GMail experience can get you the job, but you’d be starting all over again.

So how do you break into product management? By taking the time and effort to actually research the user, the problem, and the solutions, and over time, proving you can build and influence teams. That may seem hard, but it’s actually a lot easier in today’s day and age where there’s a ton of information publicly available about products.

I am hiring product managers at LeanTaaS — we’re a healthcare predictive analytics company that’s helping 40+ providers improve patient access. We just closed our series B round and are growing fast. Our product managers are, by all means, CEOs of their products. They are entrepreneurs that have all the resources they need to solve problems for our customers.

I am open to hiring anyone — literally anyone — as a PM. 2 conditions:

  1. Research the heck out of our products and enlighten me, send me something I don’t know that I should. Educate me.
  2. Show me you work well with teams, and in turn hire the skills your team will need. Sometimes leading, sometimes following, but never being a “victim”

If you do that, I’ll hire you. I don’t care about your resume. I don’t care about your background. Just prove to me that you are obsessed with the problem we are solving, you understand the problem better than me, and come up with some insights about our solution — that’s most important. Combine that with “I do well with people and I know the importance of hiring right” and you are hitting the sweet spot of who we are looking for.

You can use the same approach to any company you’d like to join. Just dig deep into their users, the problem they are solving, and their solution. Read their website, watch their videos, play around with their product if you can, read its reviews, and then make a presentation with your thoughts and email it to their product team. Teach them something they don’t know and tell them what you’d like to improve on their product. Keep following up until you hear a no (product management is hustle).

Just don’t send a resume saying how passionate you are about the company or the space. Passion is not enough. Education or experience is not a strong signal. The only thing that matters is how well do you understand the problem we’re trying to solve and how you’d like to solve it. And that you will love working with other complementary skill-sets to solve the problem. If you can show me that, you have the job.

So, don’t just apply for PM jobs. Take the time to understand the product, users, and solutions — be the “unofficial” PM for a while — and then approach the company with concrete ideas for improvement. Even if your thesis or ideas aren’t compelling enough, people will appreciate that you took the time and effort to do it. Even if you don’t get the job, that’ll get you noticed and set you apart for sure.

Email me (sanjeev@leantaas.com) if you are interested in a PM job at LeanTaaS.