How to Break into Product Management

Tips for understanding and channeling your inner PM

Zakir Tyebjee
Product School
10 min readNov 3, 2020


Photo by Jaye Haych on Unsplash

I enjoy mentoring others, whether guiding them in their careers, inspiring them through my experiences, or hyping them up to pursue their next opportunities. Lately, a lot of career conversations have been about the increased demand for “product management”. So, this post is for aspiring PMs that are looking to get their foot in the door, either transitioning from another discipline (e.g. engineering, consulting, operations) or applying out of college (e.g. undergrad, MBA, grad school).

My goal is to first walk you through the realities of product management, then offer thoughts on how to channel your inner PM, and close with tips to market yourself and land a PM interview.

Remember that everyone brings a unique strength to product management, so I hope this post helps unlock your inner PM and allows it to shine as you prepare, recruit, and interview.

Understanding Product Management

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’ve already read dozens of other articles and posts about what product management is and what a product manager does. If you’re interested in learning more, some of my favorite Medium posts are What Is a Product Manager, Actually? by Alex Valaitis, A Product Manager’s Job by Josh Elman, and What Does a Product Manager Do? by Brent Tworetzky.

However, with the wealth of information available, there are some pre-conceived notions that may not match reality. Based on my own 6+ years as a PM in big tech and those experiences of others I’ve mentored along the way, I’ve realized there are some important themes to highlight when understanding product management.

Myths Busted

First, let’s dispel three key myths…

  1. PMs are not the “mini-CEOs” of their product — You may have read that PMs are the CEOs of their product — while PMs (like CEOs) usually do lead, do set the vision for the product, and do have ownership of their product space, they lead through influence instead of authority. To draw an analogy to sports, I like to refer to PMs as the quarterbacks for their product: they inspire the team with a vision (like winning a championship), craft a strategy to achieve their vision (like calling their offensive sets), influence others to execute (like their wide receivers or running backs), and deliver the highest impact for their customers (like scoring the winning touchdown). PMs may not be the best players on their team, but the QB in them should lead by example and be the engine that powers their team to succeed in achieving a shared vision.
  2. PMs do not need to have a computer science background — While some companies may be biased towards PMs that are more technical, a CS degree is certainly not a requirement for you to be a great PM. In fact, many of the most respected PMs I’ve worked with are not technical at all. They succeed by driving clarity with a compelling vision and set of goals, using data to experiment and test hypotheses, and obsessing over customers by bringing that empathy into day-to-day product decisions. Remember, PMs are not actually building their products, so they instead need to bring strong leadership, effective communication, and the ability to inspire others.
  3. Product management is not the same at every company — Product management exists in every industry, but each company has their own unique requirements. For example, Amazon AWS may require PMs to be familiar with cloud technologies, while Facebook Messenger may require PMs to understand growth and user engagement. If you’re trying to get your foot in the door, target PM roles where you can maximize your strengths from previous experiences. Do your research, reach out to PMs at the companies you’re interested in, and leverage your connections to understand which PM roles would be easiest for you to break into.

Responsibilities Defined

Now that we’ve busted some myths, let’s define some realities. The truth is that PMs come from a variety of backgrounds, work in all types of industries (tech and non-tech), and function at all levels of an organization. There is no “perfect” description of a PM because there is no “perfect” PM — everyone brings a unique strength to product management.

That being said, there are core responsibilities that are consistent across effective PMs and I categorize those into three key themes:

  1. Vision & Strategy — PMs live in the future and craft a strong vision for the direction of their product space. They are customer-obsessed and bring user insights to inform their product strategy. They are industry experts and can understand where products meet business value. They are both passionate and cautiously optimistic. They are able to see around corners to ensure their product is moving in the right direction.
  2. Execution — PMs transform vision into a roadmap. They turn customer needs into functional requirements. They prioritize based on goals and key performance indicators (KPIs). They use data to inform day-to-day decision-making and are comfortable making tradeoffs. They work with their engineering teams and partner teams to execute on their plan.
  3. Communication & Leadership — PMs lead by influence instead of authority. They earn trust with their stakeholders through effective communication. They write succinctly and gain buy-in from senior leaders. They collaborate frequently with stakeholders and are well-informed.

Channeling Your Inner PM

With a foundation of the core elements to product management, you’re now ready to channel the inner PM in you!


Start by asking yourself, “What am I driven by?”

Understanding your deepest motivations as a career professional will bring clarity to: a) Which PM roles you should go after, b) How you should channel your skillsets to match those PM roles, and c) How you should market yourself to maximize your strengths.

As you introspect, think through the following questions:

  • Can I be comfortable operating in ambiguity?
  • Can I craft and sell a vision?
  • Can I inspire others to execute?
  • Can I work well with multiple stakeholders?
  • Can I ruthlessly prioritize? Do I know when to say “no”?
  • Can I put myself in the shoes of customers?
  • Can I be comfortable with imperfection and iterating through experimentation?
  • Can I be objective, confident, and data-driven in decision-making?
  • Can I write and communicate clearly?
  • Can I be comfortable with a never-ending to-do list?

While you may not need to answer “yes” to all of the above questions, understanding which ones resonate with you most will help you determine which of your strengths to leverage when targeting PM roles to break into.

As you prepare, you may even want to think about crafting your stories to answer some of these questions. As a consultant, that could mean putting yourself in the client’s shoes and working backwards. As a designer, that could mean selling the vision of the customer journey. As an analyst, that could mean using data to bring an objective perspective to a tradeoff decision.

Highlighting Appropriate Skillsets

Despite all of your preparation, there is always a risk of getting the common response from a recruiter or hiring manager: “We are looking for candidates with prior PM experience”. This is the classic chicken-and-egg problem — how are you supposed to get prior PM experience if no one will offer you a PM opportunity?

The solution to this vicious cycle is to either tailor your existing experiences to highlight the appropriate PM skillsets or take the extra initiative to gain new experiences that strengthen the PM in you.

Below are three core PM skillsets, at least one of which you should hone in on to demonstrate your inner PM:

  1. PMs are builders — This is mainly for the non-engineers out there, but go build something. Showcase the entrepreneur in you by taking an idea from inception to launch. This does not necessarily need to involve code, but should at least be something creative, whether that is an app, a website, a podcast, or even a Medium post ;)
  2. PMs are leaders — For those of you that have been in more executional roles, you need to showcase your ability to lead. In your work, this could include leading ideation for a new product feature, convincing senior leadership on investing in a key business opportunity, or proactively identifying and resolving a customer pain point. Beyond work, this could include extracurricular activities like starting a non-profit or forming a group to support a social cause — your initiative and ability to galvanize others is important to showcase.
  3. PMs are customer-obsessed — Exhibit your ability to work backwards from customers, whether that customer is a client, an end consumer, or a developer partner. Ruthlessly prioritize to maximize impact for those customers and highlight the “why” over the “what” when describing your past experiences. Focus less on fancy frameworks and more on crisp structure that starts with the customer, provides context on the problem, and ties back to impact or a tangible success metric.

“If you want to prove you can build products, you have to start by building products.” — Carlos G de Villaumbrosia, Founder & CEO at Product School

Marketing Yourself

When you’re finally ready to put yourself out there, you need to have a plan and consistent approach that maximizes your strengths. Positioning yourself for product management is one aspect, but marketing yourself to land the right interviews is a whole new ballgame.

PM the Process

In typical PM fashion, I recommend you start with a plan:

  1. Create a spreadsheet of opportunities— An opportunity in this case is a combination of the right company and role. Remember, quality over quantity. Every opportunity has different PM requirements, so focus on roles that play well to your strengths. Don’t take the shotgun approach of applying everywhere, as that will distract you from diligently going after the right priorities.
  2. Identify network leads — Don’t underestimate the power of your network. Go through your phone contacts, emails, and friends to identify leads for the opportunities on your list. Use LinkedIn Premium extensively if you truly want to maximize your leads (it’s worth the $30 per month even if you’re cash-strapped, and it’ll pay for itself once you get the job). Find every 1st and 2nd degree connection for each of the opportunities in your spreadsheet. Identify the recruiters or hiring managers for the roles you are interested in.
  3. Prioritize and rank opportunities — By this point, you should have a comprehensive spreadsheet of opportunities and leads, so this is where your true PM skills come in handy. Determine the criteria which matter to you (company profile, role scope, location, compensation, etc.), assign weights to each of the opportunities in your list, and stack rank every opportunity on the list.
  4. Start recruiting — Go through your list and start reaching out to your leads. Keep your messages brief and purposeful. Don’t waste space explaining how you are motivated or passionate. Instead, focus on highlighting your accomplishments and why you stand out over others. Customize these messages to each opportunity. Cookie-cutter templates don’t work well, especially when you want to sell your unique story.
  5. Be persistent — Your hit rate will be low, but do not let that stop you. If you don’t hear back, follow up. If that doesn’t work, go back to your spreadsheet and go after the next opportunity. Landing the right opportunity requires hustle and persistence, so never give up until you are completely satisfied.

Maximizing the Recruiter Call

Once you get your foot in the door, the recruiter call is where you have your first real opportunity to market yourself and make a strong impression. To do so, you need to master the art of storytelling.

Treat yourself as a product — one that has a vision (your background), a set of key features (your experiences), and strong impact (your ability to deliver). Use the recruiter call to sell that product and help the recruiter understand your strengths. You should also use these calls to gather as much information as possible about the company, role, and expectations, so you can use that information to channel your inner PM for each opportunity.

During this process, it’s important to know that the recruiter is on your side. You’ve gotten their attention with your background and preparation, and now you need to market yourself towards what the company is looking for. This takes a lot of practice to feel confident, so practice makes perfect. I recommend both watching mock interviews and finding a few close friends who you feel comfortable practicing with. If all else fails, you can always practice in the mirror or record yourself — you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see how well this simulates the feeling of a real interview.

Closing the Deal

After the recruiter call, landing the job is up to you! Since the intent of this post was to help you best position yourself to get your foot in the door, I won’t spend time going into how to land an offer. Instead, I recommend you leverage the ton of information already out there for interview prep — two popular books are Cracking the PM Interview and Decode and Conquer. Additionally, Product School is a fantastic online resource with videos, podcasts, and posts to help you prepare and practice for interviews.

At the end of the day, the best way for you to close the deal is to remain grounded in the preparation that got you in the door. Stay genuine in your approach and remember that everyone brings a unique strength to product management!

Thank you for reading through my first Medium post. Let me know in the comments or message me directly if this was helpful and/or what topics you want me to dive into next month — I can’t promise you I will make you the best PM but I can promise you that I will bring a realistic perspective that inspires you to be a better one 🙌



Zakir Tyebjee
Product School

Product @ Hopin | Former Amazon, Microsoft | Ex-Founder. Publishing stories on all things product management.