How To Get Into Product Management (And Thrive) ✨

Figure out if this role is for you, how to make the move, and what skills you’ll need to build in order to be successful

Lenny Rachitsky
May 16, 2019 · 13 min read

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

Become a product manager if you are fulfilled by:

  1. Driving business growth 📈
  2. Working closely with a variety of people 👨‍🎤
  3. Developing a strategy 🤔
  4. Getting shit done ✅
  5. Leading a team (through influence, not authority) 🤝
  6. Communicating often and broadly 🗣
  7. Making decisions 👍
  8. Creating amazing experiences for people 👌
  9. Being organized, detail oriented, and prepared 😎

Do not become a product manager if you are primarily fulfilled by:

  1. Having your way 😑
  2. Being left alone 🚨
  3. Always being right 🤓
  4. Designing or building things yourself 👩‍🎨
  5. Everyone liking you 🥴
  6. Flow states 🧘‍♂️
  7. Avoiding meetings 🤐
  8. Avoiding email ✉️
  9. 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

  1. 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

1. Taking any problem and being able to develop a strategy to resolve it 🤔

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:

2. Executing, getting shit done ✅

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:

3. Communication 🗣

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 🤝

[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:

5. Making decisions, informed by data 👍

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:

6. Building great products, and having taste 👌

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:

7. Always being prepared 😎

[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:

Bonus: Skills you’ll need to build over time to continue to excel

  • 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


For more writing like this, consider subscribing to my newsletter or following me on Twitter @lennysan. 🥳

Sincerely,

Lenny

Big thank you to Yelena, Ben, Isabel, Godfrey, Galen, and Craig for reviewing drafts of this post. 🙏

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Thanks to Ben Yoskovitz and hacker noon tech

Lenny Rachitsky

Written by

Tinkering. Previously, Growth PM Lead @ Airbnb, Founder/CEO, Software Engineer.

HackerNoon.com

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