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How to break into product management

Product management is one of the hottest jobs in tech today, which means landing a role can get quite competitive, especially for newcomers.

At Product School, we specialize in product management training for folks currently working in other fields, like engineering, UX, marketing, or even relatively unrelated fields like finance. Here are the four tactics we’ve seen work for people looking to break in and get their first PM role.

Do the job before getting the job

Getting a product management job is about a lot more than impressing the recruiter and hiring manager. In fact, it’s almost as though the employer’s decision is made before you even step into the interview. Of course you need to be able to answer the questions effectively, but many organizations are looking for someone who has taken initiative much earlier.

Beginning yesterday, you should be working on a side project, app, website, or whatever you’re passionate about. This is the secret sauce to getting the job and having this experience will set you apart from other applicants. Doing a side project will introduce you to the constraints and competing objectives that define product management.

There are a number of resources that can help you get started. For example, check out Ship Your Side Project for a free evaluation tool and consider attending a hackathon to partner with technical talent.

Meet your mentor

There is no definitive playbook for product management. The function varies drastically from company to company, and industry to industry. To wrap your head around best practices, it’s really helpful to simply seek out and learn from people performing the job. In particular, product managers who have recently made the switch are typically the best mentors. They understand the process and the challenges and they are usually more than happy to help out.

So where can you find a mentor? First, there’s a program literally called The Product Mentor. There’s a waiting list and the application process is fairly competitive, but it may be worth checking out as the program will pair mentees with experienced product leaders for one-on-one sessions.

Beyond that, there are a couple event syndicates around the world, including Product Tank and our own series, featuring speakers from Spotify, LearnVest, and other leading tech companies. If you’re in the Bay Area, you can also check out Products that Count Meetup with SC Moatti and Lean Product & Lean UX Silicon Valley.

Presentation matters

Product management, like many business disciplines, is about the art of perception. And that begins even before you land the role, so it’s important to take your LinkedIn and resume seriously. Make them centered around the skills you’ve acquired in past roles that are also relevant for a PM job.

What did you do while working with your teams? How did you manage conflict? Did you bring new ideas to the table and take ownership of your work? Did you take on additional projects? If you were an engineer working with design teams, focus on that aspect rather than the tech stacks with which you’re familiar.

Before:

After:

Nail the interview

While the aforementioned tactics will help you stand out, at the end of the day you still need to nail the interview. We’ve compiled a comprehensive list of product management interview questions, and it’s worth spending several hours preparing and doing mock interviews.

Very few candidates excel at their first interview or get the first job they apply to. Like everything in product management, it’s a numbers game where iteration is the key.

“Never say no to an interview because you never know how it’s going to work out.” Randy Edgar, a Product Manager at Uber, explained. If nothing else, every interview teaches you how to get better at interviewing.

One of the most common mistakes I see is when candidates have expectations that are too high. Product management is a great career path which means getting a role is really competitive. You have to assess your current expertise and map out a realistic career path, taking interviews for roles that might not be exactly what you’re looking for, but might set you on the right trajectory.

We teach product management in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and New York. Check out our courses at www.productschool.com.

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Carlos G de Villaumbrosia

Carlos G de Villaumbrosia

CEO at Product School — Global leader in product management training