“How do I get my first job in product management?”

TWG’s guide to breaking into product management
By Jonathan Buccella

1. What exactly is a Product Manager?

A Product Manager is the person responsible for the success of a product. Product Management straddles the fence between UX, technology and business. To succeed in this role, you need to be outstanding in at least one of these things, and know how to get the best out of people across all three disciplines.

I like to think of Product Managers as negotiators. Your role is to advocate for your users and figure out what’s best for your team whilst keeping the goals of the company in mind. You are the point person, greasing the wheels where they need to be greased, helping your whole team succeed in any way necessary.

A Product Manager is a Jack/Jill of all trades. Your goal is to help your team build something awesome by connecting the dots, managing stakeholders and making sure you’re building the right thing for the needs for business.

  • You‘re continually collecting feedback from your team, and prioritizing items based on the impact they will have on your organization’s bottom line.
  • Management tasks you with solving problems, like increasing sign-up flow completion. Then, you’re working with design and development to solve those problems.
  • When your organization is pushing you to release a product, but your development team isn’t confident in its current state, you’re helping management understand what another week of development would save in customer support issues.

Still confused? Josh Elman has a great Medium post that sums it up perfectly. You help your team ship the right product to your users :)


2. What’s the difference between “Product Manager” and “Project Manager?”

Project Managers are responsible for the successful delivery of a project, which often has a single goal. Product Managers are responsible for the continued success of a product on an ongoing basis. One cannot function without the other and each contribute equally to the success of a product.

  • A product is what you are providing to a set of users
  • A project is a series of activities in order to get to an outcome with defined start and end date.

Product Managers are: Focused on facets that will help improve the product, such as strategy, ideation, features, product-market fit, users, and profit and loss. You are asking questions such as, “Why are we building this?” or “What problem are we trying to solve?”

Project Managers are: Tasked with the implementation of a feature, or a release. They are concerned with budget, delivery, resources, managing teams, and problem resolutions. They are asking questions like, “What is the impact of this on our deadline/budget?” and “What resources are needed?”

There’s also a difference between Product Managers and Product Owners. If you are interested in understanding more about those roles in an agile software development project, John Peltier did a great write-up comparing the two roles.


3. Do I need a technical background to become a Product Manager?

Some companies won’t hire Product Managers who don’t have a technical background, so do your research on minimum requirements for specific roles. A background in design or development definitely helps, but it is by no means required if you’re passionate about the product and willing to learn.

You’re not expected to design or build the product. But in an agile world (like the one here at TWG) your day is spent with designers and developers, and you need to be able to speak their language. A technical background will help you better understand the problems you are trying to solve with your team, but it’s not the be all and end all.


4. Should I get my PMP?

No. The Project Management Professional (PMP) designation is designed to help demonstrate that you have the technical and procedural knowledge to manage high-value, long-term projects. While that may be helpful in some organizations, a proper Product Management role is more agile, and more focused on the continued success of the product and working with customers in order to help them succeed.


5. How do I get my first role in Product Management?

  1. Read this guide to product management. Bookmark it and reference regularly.
  2. Find a startup in a field you have experience in, and share your industry expertise in exchange for learning how to build and manage a product. Use angel.co, StartUp North or Toronto Startups List to find companies that could use your help.
  3. Get out and attend events around Product Management and the startup community in order to understand the space and the practice better. Good ones in Toronto (where our studio is based) include:

4. Refine your craft by participating in product communities and blogs like Product Hunt and /r/prodmgmt

5. Build your own product. Take it from concept to MVP by yourself, or sign up for a hackathon and try your hand at building something with a team, Startup Weekend style.

Lastly, do yourself a favour and give Ken Norton’s (oldie but goodie) How to Hire a Product Manager a read.


6. What makes a good Product Manager?

I’d like to try, but I can’t sum it up any better than Andreessen Horowitz’s Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager. It’s over 15 years old, but the fundamentals of it still ring true today. What I can speak to is some of the qualities that I think make a good Product Manager.

  • Curious- You need to be able to channel your inner 5-year old and keep asking why until you’re blue in the face.
  • Empathetic- You understand the pains and needs of your users and can put yourself in their shoes.
  • Humble- You’re great at what you do, and you let your work speak for itself. You’re ok with being wrong.
  • Resourceful- You roll up your sleeves and get whatever needs to be done, done.
  • Empowers others- You know how to get the best out of other people
  • Knows how to say no- And can back up your choices whilst maintaining trusted relationships with stakeholders.

7. I have an MBA, will that help me get into product management?

I’m not convinced. An MBA teaches you to solve a variety of problems, no matter what they may be. Does it give you an advantage over non-MBA product managers? It all depends on how you use the tools you are given.

If you are looking to jump into a business-focused Product Manager role at a company like Facebook, Google or Amazon you will find that an MBA is a minimum requirement in most cases. However, this speaks more to the fierce competition for product management roles and less to it providing the required skillset to do the job.

At TWG we ask that you have a university degree in “something interesting.” We look for people who bring a wide range of experiences to the table, whatever your background may be. MBA or not, you can check here to see if we are hiring at this link.

The debate is still very much ongoing, so do your research on the organizations you want to work for and talk to Product Managers in that role to see what they are looking for in potential hires.


8. What’s it like being a Product Manager at an agency vs a product company?

TWG builds software for a really diverse mix of clients, from fast-growing startups to huge enterprise companies. That means the problems we’re solving keep changing, and we get to work with really talented industry leaders from lots of different fields. At a product company you get the opportunity to go really deep on a problem over a longer period of time, with a team that’s all focused on the same thing.

Agencies tend to work within a set scope, which determines the budget that you will be working with. All items that can’t be completed in a given budget usually move a backlog for future work. With a product company, your time is mostly spent taking a ‘blue sky’ approach to the business, and then prioritizing features to be built.

During product development, the biggest difference is who you’re ‘negotiating’ with. In a product company, you work with in-house stakeholders in order to manage expectations on product deliveries. As a Product Manager in an agency, you’re responsible for managing client expectations, scope and feature set based on the given timelines. We also emphasize the role our Product Managers play as educators, so another difference is that we spend time helping our clients to build their internal product management capabilities, in addition to managing a particular product on their behalf.

Once a client’s product ships, that may be the end of your involvement in the product. However, my experience is that we see a high percentage of follow-on scopes of work, and Product Managers at TWG are often defining work to be done at the start of a fresh sales cycle.


9. Can you recommend some good resources to up my product management game?

Here are a handful of good blogs and people to follow in the space:

Bloggers:

Podcasts

Slack (because of course there is a slack channel)


10. Are you hiring?

Yes! TWG houses one of Canada’s largest and best product management teams, and we’re currently looking for a few good people to join us. Check out our careers page at twg.io to view our openings.

You’ll get to work on a wide range of problems for companies who value your expertise. No two projects will ever be the same, and you are guaranteed to be kept on your toes by the ever changing set of products and customers you focus on.

In addition, you will get to tackle these problems with the help of a highly-skilled team composed of some of the best designers and developers in the industry. For people who are passionate about product management, the value is clear: Solve interesting problems with the best of the best, and take your craft to the next level in the process.

Apply at twg.io/careers

About the author: Jon Buccella is a Product Manager at TWG. He builds and grows businesses through software, leading B2C and B2B product development from concept to launch across the education, media, financial and health industries. In his previous life, he sharpened his teeth growing digital audience and developing revenue generating strategies for media companies around the world.