The Many Paths Into Product Management

Plus a list of tips and a decision tree to decide which one is right for you

Image Source: Unsplash

Product management is a hot career for many reasons, so it goes without saying that countless professionals and new grads today are looking to break into it — maybe you are one of them.

After years in product management myself and many coffee conversations with product leaders and aspiring product managers alike (many of whom have now successfully made the leap), I’ve created a decision tree of suggested paths and a list of tips.

Despite the simple decision tree, keep in mind that transitioning into product is never this easy. Everyone’s journey is unique and more often than not, also non-linear, unconventional, and unexpected.

These paths are not the be-all end-all. So, if you’ve tried one path without success, like a good product manager, reflect on what didn’t work, iterate your strategy, and persevere.

Image Source: Claire Ha

Before We Begin

If you’re new to product management, you may not be familiar with the acronyms APM and RPM, so let’s define them.

RPM (Rotational Product Manager):

  • RPMs are entry-level product managers that are a part of a program with structured training and mentorship.
  • The program has a set number of rotations and time of length within each rotation. After the RPM completes the program, they are typically hired on as a PM.
  • For example, Facebook’s RPM program is 18 months total and consists of 3 six month rotations on a different product.

APM (Associate Product Manager)

  • The definition of an APM can vary from company to company.
  • At some companies, it’s a term that is interchangeable with RPM — it’s an individual in a structured program with training, mentorship, and a specific end date. — Note that when I mention APM programs in the decision tree, this is what I am referring to.
  • At others, it’s simply another title for a junior product manager and is not a part of any program. In these cases, the role is either defined by years of experience (or technically lack thereof) or limited scope (e.g. supporting a product manager instead of leading your own products and team). Because there is no program to complete, in order to become a Product Manager and shed the APM title, you must get promoted or join another company. — Note that when I mention APM roles in the decision tree, this is what I am referring to.

Paths Into Product Management

Transfer Internally

One of the most popular paths, and the one that I took myself, is to transition internally. Making the pivot within the same company allows you to leverage your existing influence and network instead of being solely defined by your resume.

Another benefit is that you can capitalize on your domain expertise. For example: although I did not have professional product management experience when I made my pivot, I understood the intricate complexities of our users, our products, and our company, which would take an external applicant months to understand.

Tips

  • Network, network, network! Grab coffee with product managers within your company to: (1) ask questions (2) seek mentorship (3) inquire about open roles (4) see if it would be possible to shadow.
  • After every conversation, ask if there’s another PM within the company that they can connect you with.
  • Do your research beforehand and keep questions prepared in your back pocket — this will make the conversation more effective and help you stand out.
  • Find out who the recruiter for product manager roles at your company is and meet with them to introduce yourself.

Apply to APM and RPM Programs

If you’re a new grad or early in your career, this is the best path for you; however, if you have 4+ years of professional experience, you may not want to play chutes and ladders with your career (but that’s completely up to you).

Tips

  • Create a list of companies with APM and RPM programs. Be mindful of the application deadlines and requirements. Jot down anyone you know at those companies and apply with referrals.
  • Don’t be afraid to network and ask strangers for referrals.
  • Google is your friend. For the top programs, there’s great content on the internet for how to succeed throughout the process.
  • If you’re still an undergrad student, find PM internships for the school year or summer and then apply for APM/RPM programs once you’re eligible.

Get an MBA

If you have the means to do so, get an MBA. Though it’s a big hit to the wallet (unless you get scholarships or a sponsorship) and it’s a heavy time commitment, MBA programs offer networking opportunities, extracurricular organizations, and even classes for Product Management.

Tips

  • Get actively involved in networking events and extracurricular activities.
  • You will also have the opportunity to intern, which allows you to test the Product Management waters in various industries.

Apply To APM or PM Roles

Reframe your experiences to highlight your transferrable skills and accomplishments. Then, cast a wide net and apply to all companies with APM or PM roles.

Tips

  • When I say all companies, I mean it! Agencies have product manager roles and these tend to be less competitive, with the added benefit of a variety of experience and clients. You want to look for agencies that produce websites or apps, like Huge or Code & Theory.
  • Beggars can’t be choosers! Keep in mind that your first product role is for mileage in product experience, not the money or interesting technology (though it would be nice to have all three).
  • Add side projects to your resume to exhibit your PM skills and entrepreneurial spirit!
  • Some helpful books specifically for the application process and interviews are Decode and Conquer and Cracking the PM Interview.

Start a Side Project

Regardless of which path you decide to take, flex those product management muscles and show what you can do with a side project.

Tips

  • You can develop your own product requirements documents and bring side projects to life by working with product designers and developers. Either work with your friends or hire your own using freelance services like Fiverr.
  • If you are risk-tolerant, you can even create your own startup and use the experience and accomplishments to break into a more conventional product manager role down the line.
  • The sky is your limit. I’ve even seen high schoolers create non-profits and add that to their resume for Product Management internships!

How did you land into product management? I’d love to hear! Tell me in the comments 👇.

Check out my LinkTree to see what else I’ve been up to. 🚀

- Claire & Harley

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I am my own work-in-progress product and this is just another product manager’s growth journey.

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Claire Ha

Claire Ha

Product @ HubSpot. Passionate about personal and professional growth.

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