Breaking into Product Management with Open Source

Photo by Finn Hackshaw on Unsplash

“How did you break into product management?”

That’s a question that a product manager quickly gets used to being asked. As the role has evolved from a marketing function to one of delivery, so has the appeal.

If the in-person interest is on the rise, then the digital world is ablaze. There are an overwhelming range of Slack channels, Facebook groups, LinkedIn Groups and training courses to jump into, engage with, and learn from. Product is 🔥. Managing it even hotter.

What is surprising given this trend is how few people are taking advantage of what is possibly the most under-utilised path to practical product management experience.

Open source.

Start your product career in open source

I‘ve written elsewhere about the power of open source as a way to break into careers like technical writing. Documentation is regularly described as the single greatest unsolved issue of modern developer culture — and something we’re on a mission to solve at Corilla.

But product management? How about that?

Open source is more than code

I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t open source just for developers? Isn’t it just a kind of code on GitHub? Something to do with a penguin and angry people with beards?

Not anymore.

What began as a movement encouraging the open sharing of source code has evolved into a powerful product model with a beautifully diverse community. Here’s the cheat sheet for what changed in the favour of product teams:

  1. Open source won and is now realising it probably needs to make money instead of begging for it.
  2. Companies like Red Hat proved that open source projects can be viable open source products.
  3. The incredible advances in consumer technology have become a powerful motivation for enterprise design innovation.
  4. The open source community refined a range of distributed collaborative models that have turn out to be useful for all kinds of things.

What does this mean to product managers?

Startups and enterprises have realised that the open source way gives them a market advantage. Even something as simple as Twitter releasing Bootstrap showcases the impact a project can have on an ecosystem.

Back on the product side we see Red Hat sailing through the two billion dollar revenue mark, boosted by a focus on cloud services beyond the origins of “that Linux company”. But for every Red Hat, other great technical teams like RethinkDB have crashed and burned. The sector is valid — but only for those with a valid product-market fit.

Now at the same time that open source is coming out of the basement to embrace product culture or die — oh no — the average consumer device suddenly becomes a magical everything machine. And it looks amazing! Dammit. Who could help close the gap between an era of developer-centric software and the expectations of customers spoiled by the runaway success of Apple’s design-first aesthetic?

It… it sounds a lot like an opportunity for product leadership, doesn’t it? But what’s really in it for you?

Open source as opportunity

The immediate benefit of open source is being able to gain experience in something by actively doing it. And usually with the encouragement and support of a team that itself benefits from any level of meaningful contribution you can muster.

The long tail benefit of open source is probably the most significant. Everything you contribute to an open source project becomes a powerful public record of your development as a product manager.

Evidence of your ability to work with teams, willingness to take the initiative and general development within the role is more what will land you that breakthrough role. Far more than any vague reference to a previous corporate job or training course (aka “your resume is less important than products shipped”).

Open source as community

It’s also worth repeating that open source is also as much about the community as the technology. Most of which are always in need of additional support across all possible functions. It’s not just software development that turns an enthusiastic project into an actual product, but roles like marketing, documentation, design, UX and… product management.

Two open source paths into product management

There are a number of avenues for those starting out in product management to engage with the open source community. Here’s two that sit on either side of the ecosystem.

The enterprise route

At one end of the scale are the larger and enterprise-backed projects and products. The advantage here is that the community is relatively well structured and following some form of process. They are resourced by talented contributors and employees and contain some form of onboarding process.

The advantage of getting involved with open source enterprise projects or products is that you will have the opportunity to learn a defined process. Ideally with the mentoring of experienced product managers who work for well-known companies. Keep in mind that many open source companies tend to hire directly from the communities that gather around their ecosystem.

A contrarian takeaway from this route is that you will also observe the inefficiencies of scale and the challenges of upstream and downstream product alignment. Like any form of leadership the value of a manager comes from not just being able to prescriptively follow a process, but being able to get 💩 done when 💩 goes down.

The startup route

If you think an open source enterprise project needs you, wait until you meet an open source startups. Hi 👋.

The advantage of engaging at this level is that you will have more direct involvement and more rapid learning cycles with often intensely talented teams.

Like any startup you will be challenged with a general lack of process. This is perfect for an ambitious product manager to showcase their direct influence on the success of any given initiative. The direct challenges will give real-world application (or inspiration) for applying any other learning avenues you’re undertaking. Startups are an engine room of just-in-time learning.

If enterprise is where you learn and network with a consistent pace, the startup is where you prove your ability to move the dial in a meaningful way. And if you’re anything like me, you will already be thinking…

My spirit guide.

Finding open source projects as a product manager

This is where things are easier than you probably expect. If you’re reading articles like this then you already know who cares enough about the topic to dedicate time to it. Reach out in the comments or find the authors on Twitter or directly by email.

Speaking of Twitter — use that too.

In terms of discovery mechanisms there are a few options. AngelList has a directory of open source companies and a search for “open source” on CrunchBase returns over 6000 results.

Going to the source (pardon the pun) on GitHub can be useful. Recent updates to GitHub Explore have been excellent and a major stop forward for what has moved beyond a code repository to an important community destination in itself.

Another area for strategic discovery is to reach out to developer advocates. The entire devrel ecosystem is built atop technically savvy people with a passion for community engagement.

And finally, there’s probably few communities more versed in open source and the opportunities within it than opensource.com team. Tell them I sent you.

You got this far (so keep going)

If there’s any single point to repeat it’s that open source needs exactly this kind of motivation and product focus to survive and thrive. If you choose this little known path, you come in at what is likely a tipping point for the industry. And that’s both as a wonderful way to advance your product management career as well as a chance for you to bring your ideas and perspectives into the ecosystem realising it can’t just keep begging for support — it needs to earn it with market-defining products.

My own journey isn’t far from this experience—the story of Corilla is well documented these days but is built atop this exact path. A bunch of technical writers building their own content product internally. And then spinning out to build it properly this time around. What could go wrong, right?

If there’s anything I can do to help nudge you towards your own opportunities in similar context please let me know. Whatever you are drawn towards just please get started. If this is a mission you’re on — make it happen. The sooner you do the sooner you get to make something amazing for the world.


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