Every few weeks, I receive an email asking me how to break into product or become a better Product Manager.
While there is no perfect answer to this question, I will do my best to point you in the right direction, and I will focus on Product Management.
That said, this article really applies to anyone who is thinking about joining a product team. The best answer I can give you:
Every great Product Manager who I know has an unfair advantage that makes them special.
Ok. So what is an unfair advantage, you ask?
I have written a quick guide with skills you can learn to develop an unfair advantage that will make you valuable on any product team.
The pre-requisite for these skills is that you must be a clear thinker with unique perspectives. Unfortunately, no Medium article can teach you that.
But let’s assume you can think clearly and have a strong product intuition.
Unfair Advantage №1: Technical Background
You studied computer science or taught yourself how to code. You understand how to build high quality software applications and feel at ease communicating with engineers.
Some of the best Product Managers I have worked with are former software engineers.
Because of their unfair advantage, former engineers often end up working on products that are not viewed as “fun consumer products” by other PM’s: internal tools, algorithm optimizations, backend projects, etc.
Being assigned these features might frustrate a former engineer who wants to build the next big consumer feature, but the reality is that these folks are assigned these projects because they are better at building more technical products than other PMs.
In any team sport, you must assign roles based on talent and skillsets — and former engineers are often better than non-technical PM’s at solving complex technical problems.
Unfair Advantage №2: Design background
I am seeing a group of designers who are moving towards Product Management, and they are a highly skilled and dangerous (in a good way) group.
That said, you do not have to be a professional designer to make design your unfair advantage — that is not the design background that I am talking about here (although being a professional designer certainly helps).
For this unfair advantage, I am speaking more about Product Design (original ideas, the ability to wireframe, designing basic UI/UX). A few traits that members of this group typically have:
- You have a natural ability to visualize product funnels in your head as you conceptualize a product.
- You understand what is actually important to your business and can design products that achieve those goals.
- You are skilled at prototyping products using tools like Framer (this is become more common among the best PM’s).
While being a professional designer is not necessary for an unfair product design background, a rare breed of Designer/Product Manager hybrids does exist and I believe the industry will make this a requirement at some point.
Designer/Product Manager hybrids are highly effective because they can prototype their ideas and bring more life to their vision.
That said, Designer/Product Manager hybrids often decide to focus more on traditional design work after realizing that Product Management involves lots of meetings and internal politics.
Unfair Advantage №3: Data Backgrounds
There is a PM breed emerging that has an especially unfair advantage — data scientists and data analysts.
When I talk about a data background as an unfair advantage, I am not talking about the ability to query dashboards or run basic SQL queries — those are commoditized skills at this point.
I am talking about a PM who has spent years working on data teams and possesses the ability to discover opportunities that others cannot see.
The challenge with Data PM’s is that they sometimes focus too much on the data (makes sense, right?) and their solutions to solving product problems are not always user friendly or fun.
Data PM’s will become increasingly relevant as product teams require specialists in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.
At many companies, those team members exist outside the product organization, but I believe every product team will have AI/ML specialists who sit on their teams in the future.
Unfair Advantage №4: Unique backgrounds
Many of the best product managers I know have unique backgrounds that give them a different point of view than everyone else on their team.
What does that even mean? I’ll try to explain.
Early in my career, I was asked to optimize landing pages from Facebook campaigns for a year. I designed over 300 versions of a landing page throughout the course of a year, a painful but rewarding process.
The process of spending an entire year of my life optimizing landing pages has informed my approach to building high-converting revenue products.
One other unique part of my background that make me valuable: I went to USC Film School. While this background might seem random on a product team, the process of generating new ideas and working with strong personalities helps me every single day.
Similarly, you might have a unique background that brings a special point of view to a product team. And maybe your background is not even in technology.
Perhaps you work at a law firm and are joining a startup that is building blockchain-enabled contracts.
Maybe you spent years at a real estate brokerage, built a few side projects in your spare time, and are seeking a product role at a real estate startup.
Maybe you spent years living in a foreign country that happens to be a key market for a growing company.
Having a unique background is an unfair advantage on a product team, but you must find a company that aligns with your unique experiences, and that isn’t always easy.
The good news is that we are all unique in our own ways, and if you can utilize your background as an unfair advantage, you can differentiate yourself on a product team.
What is your unfair advantage? Figure that out and be really honest with yourself. If you don’t have a unfair advantage right now, you must work hard to build a new skillset if you want to work on a product team.
The best Product Managers I know have multiple unfair advantages. If you can become great at 2 or 3 of these skills I mentioned, you will be a huge asset to your team.
Did I miss anything? Feel free to add “unique advantages” in the comments section. We can make this an ongoing list for product teams and hiring managers.
Good luck 🙌