All companies are now tech companies. And with product managers leading the vanguard, it is no wonder why interest in the role has skyrocketed. On Google Trends, interest in “product manager” hit an all-time high in April 2019. This is roughly a 3x growth since the 2008 recession.
In addition to this long-term trend, I believe interest is also being fueled by short-term hype (i.e., people chasing the late stages of this bubblicious business cycle). With more opportunities, there is more competition. It seems increasingly difficult to become a product manager when employers continue to raise the bar on required experience and breadth and depth of skills.
How does someone get into a role that does not really seem to have a typical path of entry? How does someone get product management experience if seemingly no one will give them a shot?
Why I Became a Product Manager
When I graduated, product management was not remotely on my radar. My friends and I were trying to get into finance, management consulting, law, or medicine. Despite having a strong interest in technology and psychology, I did what seemed like the smart thing to do and majored in economics. 🙄🤣
I had no idea what I wanted to do but did know a few things. I wanted to help people in a meaningful way. I wanted to increase my impact through scalable systems (people, tech, and financial systems). I was particularly interested in the intersection of these domains — psychology and economics (behavioral economics), psychology and technology (UX), and economics and technology (tech markets and businesses).
After many years of trying stuff, I can better articulate my career mission — I want to help people access better lives through technology. And I want to do that through product management.
If product management is the intersection of people, business, and technology. My career path reflects my clumsy discovery process:
- People: Early in my career, I did tech user and market research. I developed research skills to learn about user needs and how vendors devised solutions to meet these needs. I eventually wanted to apply my domain knowledge and became drawn to the idea of making bets to capitalize on tech trends.
- Business: I broke into investment banking and learned what makes tech companies valuable and marketable. I strengthened skills in quantitative analysis, strategy, marketing, project management, attention to detail, working in a demanding environment, and being able to switch seamlessly between high- and low-level thinking. Advisory was fascinating because I got to work with many talented teams across industries. I also gained full access to understanding how a company operated. I empathized with entrepreneurs and began to feel a desire to build something myself.
- Technology: I founded my own startup and quickly learned hard lessons, such as how difficult it is to assemble a great team, prioritize when there’s a million things to do, find product-market fit to build something valuable and sustainable, and persevere against terrible odds. I made mistakes that now seem embarrassingly obvious. But they helped me truly learn the challenges of building a successful product and business. After failing to get meaningful traction, I realized that I had a lot to learn and looked for a formal product manager role.
How I Made The Transition
- The trend was my friend: I transitioned at a good time. The current tech boom was well underway, creating unprecedented demand for a unique skillset.
- I had portable skills: Even though I didn’t have formal PM experience, I had a lot of transferable skills. Even before leading product at my startup, I had owned major projects, was responsible for key metrics, led cross-functional teams, and had to persuade a lot of different stakeholders with data and strong relationships. I also “programmed” logic in complex Excel models and had to understand competitive dynamics in a market.
- I positioned myself deliberately: I took the equally important step of communicating to potential employers why my skills were relevant. To prepare, I researched the PM role extensively and then practiced explaining why my experiences were directly applicable.
- I built stuff: With my startup, I had the opportunity to build a team, relationships, mobile app, marketing collateral, etc. If you saw them, you would be disappointed. But the point is that I tried and overcame a common hurdle that I couldn’t build product because no one would give me the chance. Hiring managers will consider your experience (in and out of work) building something, anything, that you created from start-to-finish.
- Luck: Like most things in life, I also got lucky. After getting rejected from many companies, I met a manager who was able to see past my unusual background. She saw that I was ultimately a problem solver who could execute. Despite not having much direct experience, she saw that I had potential and made a calculated bet (like good PMs do).
Common Paths To Becoming A New Product Manager
New product managers come from all types of backgrounds. I don’t believe there is currently a “typical” entry path, but here are the most common patterns that I’ve observed:
- Graduated and went to APM program: Many undergrads know they want to be a PM and start preparing early. They may major in engineering, take relevant courses on design, psychology, and business, and join projects and clubs to build products or ventures. Upon graduation, they join a large company’s formal Associate Product Manager (APM) program. This path is comparable to people who know they want to go into banking or management consulting and join analyst programs at top-tier companies. Advantage: You can get ahead of the curve, avoid mid-career competition, and start getting experience.
- Promoted from an analyst role: Some earlier-career professionals join a company or advisory firm as an analyst before getting promoted to a PM role. They may have been working at a large company or startup as a business analyst, data scientist, or in FP&A, corporate development, or business development. Or, they may have been at a bank, accounting, or consulting firm then transitioned in-house. Advantage: An analyst role is a great launching point because you get to become a product (and business) expert, show your analytical chops, influence decisions with data, and start winning the trust of key decision makers (e.g., executives, functional leads).
- Startup created new role and a generalist filed it: Earlier-stage startups often hire generalists over specialists because they don’t know how the business and product will evolve. They often look for smart, adaptable problem solvers. Someone who was hired for one role (e.g., marketing manager) might find themselves wearing a different or second hat as a product manager because the need arose. This scenario is probably harder to anticipate and occurs when a startup gains traction and actually has a product and users to manage. Advantage: You don’t have to formally apply for the role. You naturally start doing it and get valuable experience, growing with the startup.
- Switched from a neighboring function: This is a large category of switchers from inside a company. These are people who transition from related customer-acquiring or customer-servicing roles. People transition from functions that grow the business through new customers (e.g., sales, pre-sales engineer, post-sales implementation specialist, solution architect) or grow the business through customer satisfaction (e.g., account manager, program manager, project manager, customer success, customer support). Advantage: You should have a great perspective on customer needs and experience in delivering value and business growth.
- Mid-career switch after business school: These people started in a different industry and role and go back to school to learn product management and get space to start their own project, venture, or intern at a tech company. Advantage: You can have a clean reset and pivot into product management.
- Switched from engineering or design: One of the larger sources of new PMs, devs and product designers were intimately involved in the product development process and want more say in what gets built. Often, they gradually take on and are effectively playing the PM role before official recognition. Advantage: Your role is a natural candidate for the switch because you have been a partner in the product development process.
- Switched from marketing: Product management is about growth. So marketers, who drive growth by acquiring new users or re-engaging dormant users, are a natural candidate for extending their responsibilities into product management. Frustrated marketers who know what customers want but can’t seem to get it built end up becoming PMs, or doing both (e.g., growth hacker, acquisition specialist, product marketing manager). Advantage: You are in a natural position to understand the market, customer, and what a marketable product looks like.
- Joined company after founding a startup: Entrepreneurs come from all types of backgrounds. Startup experiences can vary greatly but the common theme is that founders get a crash course in how difficult it is to build and lead a team, build something valuable, get meaningful interest, and develop a repeatable, scalable, and profitable company around it. Advantage: You have a business owner mindset and learned hard lessons about what it takes to build something valuable. You have a mindset of doing whatever it takes to reach a goal.
- Others: As I mentioned, this is not a comprehensive list and there are undoubtedly additional paths into product management, including from academia, nonprofits, government, etc.
As you determine the best approach, it’s good to consider your goals, existing skills and experiences, career narrative, and which specific organizations offer the most opportunity.
Different organizations make it easier for certain backgrounds to make the switch. For example, a consumer internet software company that is engineering-driven, might be a better chance for former engineers, whereas a sales-driven enterprise software company might accept more PMs coming from sales and delivery roles.
If you have specific domain expertise, such as fashion, education, ads, you can target startups that value your knowledge and relationships. Once you get your foot in the door, parlay product expertise.
Tips for Making the Transition:
These are things you can do now:
- Figure out your long game: What are your career goals? How does being a product manager fit into your story? Are you trying to get into product for the right reasons?
- Create a plan: If you can’t seem to break into product now, what intermediary roles can you take to get there? One person that I spoke with recently decided to start looking at customer success roles to get one step closer to product. Be a problem solver and don’t give up.
- Strategically acquire necessary skills: Look at product manager job descriptions — then start working backwards to build requisite skills and experiences.
- Practice telling your career story: Rehearse why you would make a fantastic PM and point to specific examples. Write down each skill required and list relevant experiences that you can speak to. Script and practice telling your story, just like I did when translating my banking experience to product management.
- Network: Meet with as many product people as you can, as well as people who work with them. This not only increases your knowledge but also your exposure to opportunity (you never know who is willing to take a chance). This includes in-person, one-on-ones, as well as online communities (e.g., there are several great Slack communities).
- Build something, anything! This is the single most important step that I can recommend. Often, I hear the excuse that someone can’t build a product because they can’t code. If you can’t code, who cares! Most products don’t have any code. That is one reason why many product interviews ask you about physical products. If you can code, great! Build an app from start-to-finish. Have the discipline to actually release it and try to grow the user base. If not, you can create a website (e.g., using Squarespace, Wix, Wordpress), start and grow a blog or Youtube channel. Pick a problem to solve and do customer development — grow a community on Instagram (e.g., yoga challenges, help people find affordable apartments in your city). Make and sell physical products (e.g., crafts, jewelry, furniture, or anything else that you love to create). This can be your hack to get experience without being in an official PM role. What is really stopping you?
- Read everything you can about product management: Yes, read the books and articles to talk the talk. There are many great resources about product management, including my blog.
- Keep investing in your personal development: Ultimately, I believe product management is about personal effectiveness and interpersonal effectiveness. Opportunities to learn and practice can come from anywhere. There are probably lessons to be had in your current role, through classes, side projects, hobbies, or even by being a parent. Continue to optimize for learning. Over time, being able to lead and manage a product will be a byproduct of your character and capabilities.
Want to chat more? Hit me up on LinkedIn.