The role of product manager (PM) is the most fascinating role within tech teams right now. PMs are closest to the center of the action, have a disproportionate amount of influence over key decisions, and often go on to start their own companies. It’s no surprise then that product management has begun to show up on lists of the best, hottest, and most promising careers in the U.S. (and not just in tech).
Seven years ago, after joining Airbnb, I decided to take the leap myself and transitioned from engineering into product (becoming one of the first few PMs at Airbnb). Since then, I’ve helped a number of folks inside and outside Airbnb transition into product from other functions, including from Operations, Data Science, and Finance. This post is a summary of everything I’ve learned and recommend when asked for advice on making this transition. I’ll cover how to make sure the PM role is right for you, advice on landing your first PM role, and the skills you’ll need in order to excel.
Start with Why: Make sure PM is right for you
Though I never planned to become a PM, I now couldn’t imagine having any other role within an org. It’s often a thankless, nerve-racking, and all-consuming. But, when it works, you feel like you were born to do it. Before you take the plunge yourself, take an honest assessment of what drives you — is this role actually right for you?
Become a product manager if you are fulfilled by:
- Solving people’s problems (both your users’ and your team’s) 🙇♂️
- Driving business growth 📈
- Working closely with a variety of people 👨🎤
- Developing a strategy 🤔
- Getting shit done ✅
- Leading a team (through influence, not authority) 🤝
- Communicating often and broadly 🗣
- Making decisions 👍
- Creating amazing experiences for people 👌
- Being organized, detail oriented, and prepared 😎
Do not become a product manager if you are primarily fulfilled by:
- Appreciation 🥳
- Having your way 😑
- Being left alone 🚨
- Always being right 🤓
- Designing or building things yourself 👩🎨
- Everyone liking you 🥴
- Flow states 🧘♂️
- Avoiding meetings 🤐
- Avoiding email ✉️
- Avoiding people 🤨
You don’t need to connect with every item in this list, but if the gist feels right, keep reading.
Plan the How: The four most common paths into PM
Based on my experience, and the many experiences shared with me, here are how most people get their first shot at product management:
- Internal transition at a large company — Generally the easiest and quickest route, but requires three things aligning — an internal transfer process of some kind, having a chance to demonstrate the skills outlined below, and most importantly an internal PM champion for your transition (generally your new manager). If two of three exist, find a way to make the third happen. Otherwise, pursue one of the other paths. More advice on how to execute this move here and here.
2. Finding a junior PM role at a large company — Likely the most common route, but is limited to companies with APM or internship programs. This is an increasingly common route for MBA graduates (though an MBA is not necessary to become a PM). If you don’t have an MBA, look into programs such as Product School and General Assembly, and join communities like PMHQ. Otherwise, look for ways to practice the below skills in your current job. The key to this route is clearly demonstrating that you are smart, driven, and have raw strengths in a handful of the skills described below. More advice on how to land this here, here, and here.
3. Joining a startup with a burning need — The key to this route is having connections with startup founders, showing a lot of hustle, and delivering success when you are given the chance. Look for jobs at startups (HN/AngelList), find a way to meet founders, and focus on developing the skills I lay out below. Having a very strong growth mindset is key since you’ll have to learn how to do this job on the fly. In this path you can either start as a founding PM, or transition into it after doing the job for a while. The latter is how Airbnb’s original head of product got into product management.
4. Starting your own company —This is by far the most work-intensive path, and rarely planned, but hey, it works. This is how I personally got into product management. CEOs often become PMs after an acquisition since the job is very similar. Alternatively, founders can take on the PM role at their own company as the company grows. I wouldn’t actually recommend prioritizing this route to becoming a PM, but it’s something to keep in mind when starting a company.
Though this career transition often seems mysterious and random, it should give you comfort that every product manager working today has gone through this transition in one form or another. If you are still skeptical that you can make this happen, here are stories from PMs that came from engineering, design, data science, user research, program manager, consulting, sales, marketing, and business school.
Develop the What: The seven core skills to build
The role of product management varies by company and by team, but in my experience the following seven skills (in order of importance) are the most crucial to build early in your PM career. Along with a short overview of each skill, I’ve included a set of concrete suggestions for how to develop that skill, as well as links to my all-time favorite writing on each topic from industry experts. Don’t worry about being incredible at all of these — instead double down on your strengths and fill in the gaps.
1. Taking any problem and being able to develop a strategy to resolve it 🤔
The job of a product manager is to marshal the resources of their team to drive business value. Your team will be given problems (e.g. grow adoption of a product, reduce churn of a service, increase conversion of a flow), and your responsibility will be to guide your team to make it less of a problem. A strategy, paired with a clear vision, is essentially your route from problem to solution.
A good strategy is a set of actions that is credible, coherent, and focused on overcoming the biggest hurdle(s) in achieving a particular objective.
Some recommendations for developing your strategic thinking:
- Ask the best PMs you know to talk you through the vision and strategy they developed for a recent product initiative (they’ll be excited to share, trust me)
- Take a problem your current company (or friend) is having and come up with a framework that breaks the problem into solvable chunks
- Learn about the difference between vision, mission and strategy
- Read WTF is Strategy? by Vince Law
- Read How to Become a Strategic Leader by Julie Zhuo
- Read Applying Leverage as a Product Manager by Brandon Chu
- Read The Ultimate Product Strategy Guide by Joe Daniels
- Read A Three-Step Framework For Solving Problems by me 🙃
- Read about and practice Amazon’s working backwards strategy
- Buy and read Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt
2. Executing, getting shit done ✅
A PM that is good at nothing else but execution is valuable to a team, while a team with a PM that can’t execute is better off without that PM. Tactically this includes things like building a roadmap that everyone on your team is aligned behind, setting and hitting deadlines, and ruthlessly unblocking blockers. For new PMs, my advice is to begin practicing this skill immediately.
Executing well is like captaining a tight, smooth-sailing ship. You need to make sure that everyone knows what they need to do and then does it, that the crew hums together in unison, [and] that you estimated the journey well enough to have packed ample supplies.
Some recommendations for developing your execution skills:
- You’ll only learn how to execute by doing. Find a friendly PM and ask to take on the “project management” duties for one of their projects (pro tip: don’t ever call a product manager a project manager 😳).
- Pay attention to people around you that are good at shipping — how do they run meetings, how do they address issues as they arise, what systems do they use to keep their team aligned?
- Learn about OKRs and goal setting by reading Measure What Matters by John Doerr
- As Sachin Rekhi suggests, regularly ask yourself “how am I going to move my product forward today?”
- Read Building Products by Julie Zhuo
- Read A Product Manager’s Job by Josh Elman
- Read about Sheryl Sandberg’s Career Advice
3. Communication 🗣
Engineers code, designers produce designs, and product managers …communicate. Everything you do as a product manager is done through writing, speaking, and meetings. As Boz puts it, “communication is the job.” You can never be too good at this, and it’s very difficult to over-communicate.
The burden of communicating among teams, in between departments, and being the go-to get-it-done-guy/gal for CEOs and managers — it all tends to fall heavily on the Product Manager’s shoulders. Product Managers are the linchpins of their organizations. The fillers of “the white space” — the processes and tasks that need to happen, but for which no one is specifically responsible.
Some recommendations for developing your communication skill (borrowed from my previous post):
- Emails: Force yourself to look at your email at least once before sending it. There’s always something you can cut or clarify. Here’s an email strategy I love, courtesy of the military. Also, know that it’s very difficult to over-communicate.
- Docs: Always ask for feedback from at least one person before sharing a doc widely. Focus on clean and consistent formatting. Close out comments before sharing with execs. Make it easy to scan. Keep pushing yourself to learn to write better.
- Meetings: Include the primary goal of the meeting in your invite, ideally along with an agenda. If you attend a meeting that doesn’t feel productive, call it out. Invite as few people as possible. Leave with clear action items. Follow up over email with the action items and owners. Read How to Run a Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting by Gibson Biddle.
- Presentations: Are you sure you need to do a presentation versus an email? Make sure your audience knows the goal of the presentation — are you looking for a decision or general feedback, or purely sharing information? It’s not as obvious as you think. Get feedback on your presentation; fresh eyes always catch the glaring issues. And keep it short — no one ever wished that presentation went longer.
- Storytelling: This is a meta-skill that will make you better at all of the above. This framework is an excellent tool for laying out your pitch, and a few more helpful guides can be found here and here.
4. Leadership through influence 🤝
Generally, PMs have all of the responsibility without any actual authority. It’s a tough and rather unusual gig. But when it works however, it’s extremely fulfilling. In order to succeed you need to be able to build trust with your teammates, make decisions but also give everyone a voice, and keep morale up no matter what’s going on. The best PMs quickly become the de-facto leaders of the team, not because of any actual authority, but because they help everyone on the team do the best work of their lives.
[A great product manager] is both trusting and trustworthy. She knows the difference between trust and blind faith, and invests in building a working environment where people have each others’ backs. She sets an example with her own behavior and works from the assumption that people have good intentions. She listens and always strives to understand others’ context, point of view and perspective.
Some recommendations for developing your product leadership skills:
- Watch PMs around you closely — how do they get things done when they don’t actually manage anyone on the team?
- Find a small project that you can lead, ideally working closely with a PM mentor
- Foster culture within whatever team you are on. Establishing fun rituals and customs, plan outings, and create a lasting identity for your team.
- Read The Most Underrated Product Management Skill: Influence Without Authority by Sachin Rekhi
- Read 10 Traits of Great PMs by Noah Weiss
- Read What Makes a Great Product Manager by Lawrence Ripsher
- Read What distinguishes the Top 1% of product managers from the Top 10%? by Ian McAllister
- Read Product Management skills NO ONE talks about by Taruna Manchanda
- Read The Job of Leadership by Ev Williams
5. Making decisions, informed by data 👍
Teams generally look to the PM to help them reach decisions. Expect to be making dozens of decisions on behalf of the team daily. Your best friend in making decisions is a clear set of principles you aligned on previously, and hard data (both quantitative and qualitative). The less opinions you have to rely on, and the more facts you have at your disposal, the easier your life gets.
The decisions PMs make are the ones that unblock their team so they can continue to build. They don’t need to make every decision, but they are responsible for ensuring a decision gets made — whether by them, their team, or their stakeholders. Product managers are the hedge against indecision.
Some recommendations for developing your decision-making skills:
- Study how successful companies make decisions through experimentation (Airbnb, Uber, Netflix, Pinterest), and find a way to launch an experiment or two where you work today
- Watch successful leaders around you make decisions — how quickly are they making decisions, what do they ask about before making a decision, how do they communicate their reasoning?
- Always have a perspective on a decision (your own POV), but also be ready to change your mind given new information
- Read about Type-1 and Type-2 decisions
- Read Making Good Decisions as a Product Manager by Brandon Chu
- Read The Art of Decision Making as a Product Manager by Sachin Rekhi
- Read The Agony and Ecstasy of Building with Data by Julie Zhuo
- Read Your Job is Not to Make Every Possible Customer Happy by Steve Blank
- Read Product strategy means saying no by Des Traynor
6. Building great products, and having taste 👌
At the end of the day you are building a product for other people, and so you’ll want to build some experience doing this. All of the other skills above play into this, but there are a few unique skills to develop here, including building an instinct for what makes a product great, how to find the balance between art and science, and how to best work with other disciplines.
Product intuition is a skill: it is the observation of human behavior, trained by data, and applied to software.
Some recommendations for developing your product sense:
- Find a way to build a product yourself or with friends, and get it out into the world. Find a small problem and try to solve it for someone (or yourself). There’s absolutely no better way to learn than to do it yourself.
- Learn to notice what makes you like and not like a product. Consider keeping notes about what makes products good and bad.
- Learn about design thinking
- Read Building Products by Julie Zhuo
- Read How to Work with Designers and Engineers by Julie Zhuo
- Read Training your product intuition by Merci Victoria Grace
- Read How to Master The Discipline of Product Management by Eric Jorgenson
- Read Top 11 Frameworks Every Product Manager Should Know by Abhishek Shah
7. Always being prepared 😎
In my opinion, one of the most underrated yet most valuable traits for a PM to have is what I call the “I got this” aura. Everyone should feel that if you take something on it will get done, and done exceptionally well. The key to building this aura is to become increasingly detail oriented, to be more prepared than anyone else, and to have a higher bar than those around you. I personally started off being very bad at this, and saw a lot of growth in my career once I prioritized these skills.
[Great PMs] say what they’ll do, and then do what they say. Their follow-through is impeccable, and they don’t let details slip. When they join a team, quality and pace seems to dramatically improve overnight.
Some recommendations for developing your “I got this” aura:
- Never come to a meeting without spending at least a few minutes preparing and collecting your thoughts
- Keep a high bar for everything you do — re-read the recommendations in item #3 above (Communication)
- Build your “spidey sense.” Look ahead and around corners. What could go wrong and how can you prepare? Plan for contingencies. Read The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh for a world-class lesson on this.
- Find people around you that are very well organized and learn from them. What are they concretely doing to stay on top fo things? Ask them.
- Read Top Hacks from a PM Behind Two of Tech’s Hottest Products by First Round
- Read Time Management: Tips for Product Managers by John Cutler
Bonus: Skills you’ll need to build over time to continue to excel
- Vision — Determine your team’s north star, articulate it clearly, and get your team and stakeholders to buy into it
- Business sense — Understand what drives the business, and help your team and company build the right things in the right order
- An obsession with impact — Connect everything you are doing to the the impact it will have on your business and your customers
- A growth mindset — See yourself, and those around you, as ever-evolving and capable of improving
Where to go from here
The road to becoming a PM can often be long and unpredictable — the most interesting things in life often are. Zooming out, you can boil down the job of a PM into four words: “Figure out what’s next.” So, what comes next for your journey into product management? My advice is to start developing and demonstrating the skills I outlined above. Read, process, and put your learnings into action however you can (creativity is part of being a PM). Your job is to be as prepared as possible when an opportunity arises. As you do this, push forward on one or two of the paths I suggested. This may take a year or two or three. If you’re not getting anywhere, try another route. Meet PMs, listen to their feedback, and act. If you truly believe this is the right role for you, find a way.