5 Paths To Your First Product Manager Role
The most common question I get from aspiring product managers is how to land their first product manager role. Unfortunately it’s not an easy question to answer because there isn’t a single straightforward path into product management, but instead a variety of paths from which product managers typically come from. I wanted to share the five most common paths that I’ve observed for individuals landing their first product management role and how to increase your chances of landing the job through each path.
These are certainly not the only ways to get a product management role and I know product managers that don’t fit into these archetypes. But since they are the most common paths, it’s helpful to see if you can fit into one and leverage it to land your first role. This is also not a commentary on how an employer should hire PMs, but simply a reflection of how hiring in-fact happens for product roles in tech firms today. There is a separate post that could be written on the ideal hiring process for PMs, but we’ll save that for another day.
So let’s jump into each of the five common paths into product management.
The Computer Science Graduate
Large tech firms do hire entry-level product managers typically into a 1–2 year Associate Product Manager program, complete with training, mentorship, speakers, and often rotations across a few different product teams. Google popularized the program concept and it is now common across large tech firms like Microsoft, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Yelp, Uber, and more. It’s a great way to learn the ropes at an established tech firm with structured learning and mentorship. Additional tech firms hire entry-level Associate Product Managers leveraging similar criteria, but often into a far less structured program.
The challenge is landing one of these roles. Most employers are typically looking for recent computer science graduates with top grades from a top computer science university, like Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, etc. They typically streamline their university recruiting programs to specifically recruit from a dozen or so schools to fill their APM program pipeline.
Simply graduating from one of these top programs with good grades is not enough. They are specifically looking for a set of skills on top of those evidenced through computer science programs. Specifically, they want to ensure strong leadership, communication, and analytical skills. From a leadership perspective, they are typically looking for natural extraverts who can get along with just about anyone. They’ll be looking for evidence of leadership from, say, your college extracurricular activities. In terms of communication, they want to make sure you are clear, succinct, to the point, and can make strong compelling arguments. And finally, for analytical skills, they want to make sure you understand the math behind dashboards, A/B testing, etc. This is where your stats class is more interesting than the computer science math classes that you typically have in computer science programs. So make sure to brush up on these skills as well as find ways to evidence them in your interview.
The Engineering Undergrad + Recent MBA Graduate
Another common path to entry-level product manager roles is having an undergraduate degree in an engineering field (often computer science, but not always) as well as recently graduating from a top MBA program, like Harvard, Wharton, Kellogg, Stanford, Haas, etc. Folks from this background are often hired into large tech firms with a Product Manager title instead of an Associate Product Manager title, though I’ve seen both titles used. These students are attractive to employers because they not only have technical foundations from their engineering background, but have rounded out that experience with business fundamentals that are helpful when thinking through product and business strategy. Many MBA programs also are analytically rigorous, often through finance and stats classes, ensuring students come with those skills. Additionally, MBA students typically have a few years of work experience under their belt, ensuring they know how to get things done in a corporate setting.
The students that standout from this background are ones that can parlay their work experience between their undergrad and MBA into a strong narrative for their desire to move into product management as well as specific skills and experiences they have had that are relevant to a product role. Similarly they often leverage their time as an MBA to exhibit their entrepreneurial talents, either starting something on the side or working alongside others in internships, part-time, etc.
The Adjacent Role
One of the best ways to land your first product management role is to work with product managers inside of a tech firm in an adjacent role and then leverage that experience to parlay it into a product role at that firm. I’ve seen designers, engineers, marketers, customer support, sales, and business operations managers all leverage this as a path into product management. The goal here is to find an adjacent role that you are qualified for that works closely and regularly with a product manager. These are often roles that are part of the broader R&D team. They then knock the socks off the product team that they are working with and become an indispensable part of the product team.
To make this successful, you then have to find opportunities to take on more product-oriented tasks and responsibilities in your adjacent role. Maybe it’s writing a spec for a small feature related to your area. Or maybe it’s running point on a project. These experiences then create proof points for the product management leadership team that you could potentially take on the role and since you’ve been an absolute rockstar in your existing role, the willingness to give you a try as a product manager. The key here is parlaying that adjacent role experience into a product role at the same employer. It’s much easier to do this than seek a product role at another employer because the team knows you well and will leverage that trust to take a shot on you. This same trust and evidence doesn’t exist when going to another employer, though it’s certainly still possible to land a role that way.
This path works in both large and small tech firms. The large tech firms often have many different roles that work with product, creating lots of opportunities to work with product managers. They also often hire significant product managers so they have open roles available. Startups are another great path for this given how roles are more loosely defined and they are usually more willing to move people around with limited previous experience when needed to attack whatever is the most crucial project at the moment.
You also see many previous startup founders ultimately in product management roles. Many tech startups have both technical and non-technical co-founders and I’ve seen both types of co-founders end up in product roles. As a startup co-founder, you either have direct responsibility for the product or indirect responsibility given that the team is so small. And this direct experience serving informally as the product lead for your startup ends up being highly relevant to the product management role. Entrepreneurs also typically have a broader view on products, since typically in a small team that are worried about all parts of the product’s success, including user acquisition, engagement, monetization, and so much more. They are also usually very familiar with making things happen and the details of execution because more often than not they are directly participating in many of the aspects of pulling the product together. They also typically have opportunities to showcase their creative thinking in the very fact that they are working on a startup that hopefully is differentiated from the status quo of the market’s offerings.
While these attributes reflect positively on why an entrepreneur could be a strong product manager, an entrepreneur has to combat some challenges of coming from this background. First, often startups are moving so quickly that they don’t typically leverage product management best practices in developing their products. Flying by the seat of your pants are not the attributes employers are looking for when hiring product managers, so they want evidence that you are familiar with and can leverage product management best practices in driving a product. As an entrepreneur you typically wear a hundred hats, so it’s also important to evidence that you have specifically worn the product hat with some rigor. Most startups also fail and that’s fine, but you need to have learned something from that startup experience and be able to tell a strong narrative around it to parlay it into a product role.
The Domain Expert
I’ve also seen domain experts in an industry or specific vertical be able to leverage that experience into a product management role at a tech firm that specifically specializes in the market of their expertise. For example, I know a sales operation manager who was able to leverage that experience to become a product manager at a sales-related software startup. I know an MD who was able to leverage that experience into a product management role at a health-care startup. Or someone with a Masters in Education that became a product manager at an EdTech startup. Employers are hungry for real experts to help take their product to the next level and thus are open to looking beyond those with typical experienced product backgrounds.
The key here is not only being an expert in the field but establishing your reputation as such an expert. Blogging, attending and speaking at relevant industry events, and knowing the other thought leaders in the space are all ways you can do this. The more niche the field is and the more relevant it is to your target tech firm, the better. You need to stay on top of the field and the application of technology to the field in order to keep that expertise relevant. And you want to leverage that thought leadership to create a network of connections and relationships with folks in the field and potential employers you want to join.
I hope this gives you a look into some of the most common paths into a product management role. While certainly not the only way into a product role, you do increase your chances of getting a role when you can align with and optimize a common path into it. And hopefully you can leverage some of these tips to help you land your own first product management role.
Sachin Rekhi is the Founder & CEO of Notejoy, a collaborative notes app for your entire team. It helps you get your most important work out of the noise of email & Slack and into a fast and focused workspace. He’s also written over 125+ essays on product management and entrepreneurship. Subscribe to new essays at sachinrekhi.com.