Becoming a Product Manager
Hint: It doesn’t happen “by mistake.”
It isn’t easy to become a PM.
There isn’t a Product Management degree. It’s not a core part of any curriculum. Many people don’t even realize there’s a PM role until they enter the industry. Most PMs already come in with a degree in Engineering.
Being a Product Manager means learning another skill set on top of one you studied. The best way to do so is by doing projects.
The other way to learn is by reading the words of those who have came before.
- Ben Horowitz’s Good PM / Bad PM explains the role of the PM as CEO of the Product.
- Steven Sinofsky’s Zen of PM frames how to execute.
- Julie Zhou explains the complicated work that goes into making sure PM, design, and engineering all do their best work.
- Quora has tons of content on what books to read, how to prepare for PM interviews, and whether or not you need to be technical.
Even if you learn all the general content, it can still be hard to get a job.
The ratio of PM:Engineering is usually from 1:2 on the super-high end (Microsoft) down to 1:10+ many other places. There just aren’t that many of these jobs.
You also need to learn a lot of specific subject matter to get a good PM job. When you prep for PM interviews, you want to know the product as well as the person interviewing does. When they’ve worked on it for years, that’s near-impossible.
I tend to put at least a week into prepping for a full-day PM interview. Getting my current job took six months, 10 interviews, and I wrote a full spec.
Gayle Laakmann McDowell and Jackie Bavaro even wrote an entire book on how to get through PM interviews.
You don’t end up as a PM by “mistake.” You end up as a PM because you did a ton of work.
Having the Job isn’t a Cakewalk.
Once you’re a PM, you have a bunch of specific responsibilities.
- You figure out what research you need, and do it. It might be an ethnographic interview, and it might be hard data. It’s not uncommon for a PM to write their own SQL queries.
- You prioritize. There are always more things than can get done.
- You negotiate and persuade people without having managerial power. You have to convince the other PMs and leadership that your ideas have merit and are worth resourcing.
- Developers and designers work with you, not for you. You need to have a compelling reason for them to want to build your ideas.
- You decide exactly what you’re going to.
- You make sure things happen.
It’s a broad role. While you might not be actually doing every job, you still need to understand every job.
The PM role is hard to understand.
It’s easy to understand what an Engineer or Designer does — they make the Product. The PM role is much more nuanced, so it makes sense that the media often forgets how technical it is.
Unfortunately, this ends up hurting women in Product Management.
This weekend in the New York Times, Claire Cain Miller wrote an excellent article focusing on why we don’t have nearly as many women working in technology. You can read the full article over here. Most of it is spot on. Unfortunately, it over simplifies the PM role.
“Women often take on the role of product manager, or P.M., which entails the so-called soft skills of managing people and bridging the business and engineering divide. Yet even though this is an essential job, it’s the purely technical people — not the businesspeople — who get the respect in the tech industry.”*
I’ve seen this time and time again. I felt very similarly while reading Kate Losse’s The Boy Kings. When we try to write about Women in Product management, we don’t celebrate. Instead, we couch it as “women don’t feel comfortable going into pure technology.” We emphasize that “the role is full of soft skills.” We discuses how it’s “non-threatening,” for developers to have female PMs. Then we assert that “pure technologists are the ones with all the respect.”
Product Management isn’t just lady-person “soft skills.” No Product Manager would describe herself — or himself! — that way. Within the discipline, we portray things in a much more masculine manner. We talk about leadership without management authority, negotiation, and execution. Due to that, women work even harder at a lot of the nuances of PM than their male peers do.
If you think about most of the media’s current discussions about women in management, they also apply to the PM role. If you’re assertive about what we need to build, are you bitchy? If you react strongly to a proposed feature cut, are you emotional or passionate? It’s a precarious balance. During my career, I’ve gotten feedback that comparable male peers didn’t get. In no way is being a woman Product Manager easy.
Women in PM don’t need to be pushed into Engineering.
While article’s like Claire’s raise many good points, they also raise problematic ones. They insinuate that women are PMs because they “didn’t try hard enough.” That’s insulting, given how much work women do to get into Product Management.
I’m sick of feeling like I have to defend my choice to be a PM over an engineer, when my male friends never do. I’m sick of the media subtly implying that the women we need to get into engineering jobs are the ones that are already PMs. It implies that I’ve failed, even though no one else would say that’s true.
On top of that, the insinuation that the women who ended up in PM are the ones who “should have” been engineers shows the lack of understanding of the PM role.
Being a great PM and being a great Engineer do not need the same skill sets. Engineers spend their time solving problems and figuring out how to make something happen. Product Managers spend their time figuring out what the user needs and how to balance that need with any others. Engineers tend to get to focus on fewer projects, but Product Management can end up being reactionary.
Take the Kickstarter office. If you’d come into the office a year ago with the simplistic logic that female PMs should be engineers, I would have been your “best bet.” I’m on the PM team. I have an Engineering degree, I write “Engineer” on my customs forms, and I did a cute hack week project that involved writing code.
We did move a woman to the engineering team this year — and — surprise! It wasn’t me. It was Emily, who shared her experience over here. Emily has a different skill set from mine. She likes solving the technical implementation details of a project. She doesn’t want to decide how it should be — she wants to build it. She’s going to be a great engineer.
Blaming the PM discipline for our lack of female engineers is flawed. Having Women in PM is not the reason we don’t have Women in Engineering. Let’s stop pondering “why we have so many women PMs.” Let’s stop blaming the women in technology for “not being technical enough.”
Instead let’s make technology, and engineering jobs, more comfortable field for women.