So, You Want to be a Product Manager?

How do you become a product manager?

Its not a job that has a single path in. It’s not like consulting, banking, or law where you go step by step through the process, do the right thing, and end up one day leading a product management organization.

Personally, I randomly picked Intuit’s Rotational Development Program to start my career. I couldn’t have described the difference between product management and any other job at the time, and really didn’t even understand what I’d be doing until I actually started. I just had used QuickBooks for one of my dad’s businesses and thought “hey, that software wasn’t too bad, maybe I should work for them.”

Good PMs can literally come from anywhere, with a variety of backgrounds. It doesn’t necessarily require a technical background, a business background, or anything. I know PMs who are just as good coming from a technical background as those who may have studied something as non-tech related as English in school.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t defining characteristics. I wrote about that pretty extensively in an earlier post. So how do you open the door to become a product person in the first place?

It certainly depends a bit where you’re coming from, so I’ll try to go through some scenarios on how to get that first PM job or get the skills where someone will even consider you an acceptable candidate.

Recent College Graduates, people still in school, or people with no PM background:

So, you have little to no skills and a bachelors degree in something? What the heck do you do to become a PM?

I have a couple of ideas. Why not try to help a startup as a lowly paid or even unpaid intern? Remember, startups have small amounts of cash and don’t want to invest the time to train you. So no, I’m not recommending that you get on a job board and randomly apply for every internship. Instead, find a way to show the company how you could add value for them. Does their social media suck and need help, do you know something about new channels or about the college market that they don’t, are you great at math and excel and willing to come in and be a cheap data analyst? Tell them about something you can do for them right now, and even put in a bit of work beforehand to show them what you’ll produce.

Also, think about what adds value for a product manager. PMs are notoriously time constrained and asked to make multiple decisions throughout the day. If you can aid them by providing data, helping them to understand market trends, setting up customer interviews (or conducting customer interviews), or any number of other things, then they will view you as adding value to their job instead of just being another person they have to deal with to get shit done. Show that you can aid them in the process and not that you’ll just be another person who might get in the way.

Every single thing I listed is something you can do before you ever have a job. Pick a startup in a space you find interesting, preferable something you have personal passion about. Then, spend 1-2 hours actually analyzing data about the site, or trying to talk to their customers through craigslist, or looking at their social media (or lack therefof) and then give the company an example what you could actually produce for them. And if you’re willing to continue doing that work for 3-6 months for low wage or unpaid, there’s a decent chance they’re going to at least be interested in talking.

Does this immediately get you a PM job? No, but at least you may now work for a tech company, hopefully for a product person. The best path to product is to be tied to someone who knows the ropes, respects you, and can teach you along the way.

Don’t want to go the early stage startup route? There are lots of great programs out there for recent college grads that will eventually get you into PM, either immediately or over time. I already mentioned the one I did at Intuit (Intuit RDP) but Google has a fairly famous Associate Product Manager program and many other tech companies do as well.

The biggest thing with programs like these is that it all comes down to the quality of the company and the team you join. Make sure the company will actually add value to your resume in the long term.

And like anything, they are highly competitive to get into. Be ready and willing to show them why you are different and interesting. I used to be one of the people scanning resumes for Intuit. I think about 80% were eliminated at this phase, maybe 10% made it through a phone screen, and we eventually hired 12 people a year for the entire class. That’s a tough field to make it through, so you better be able to show that you’re special. You can use many of the tactics for getting an internship above that I recommend.

People with Expertise in Other Areas that Want to Break Into Product Management

If you’re already a great marketer, technologist, or could help a tech company and want to be a PM, I’d recommend just getting a job at a company which has a strong product management function. Generally, PM isn’t going to hire you without experience, but you might be able to get a job as an analyst, as an engineer, as a marketer, or any other number of ways.

Once you’re at the company, it’s your job to start to become friends with the folks on the product side and employ tactics to help them understand how you could provide value for them over time.

If you do this, I also highly recommend that you look for opportunities in product management that are similar to your day job. So, if you get a job as a marketer, see if you can help with landing page optimization, email testing, social media product strategy, or any number of things related to your area.

If you’re an engineer, look for a technical PM job or look for a PM job in the part of the business that you’ve been working on.

Remember, you’ll be learning a lot of skills outside of your core functional area when you become a PM, therefore, you want to reduce the cognitive burden. If you have to learn both how email marketing works and how to be a product manager, your chances of success at much lower, than if you understand the functional area and are just learning the skills to be a good PM.

A Thought on MBAs

Last, but not least, I DO NOT view an MBA as a defining degree for becoming a product manager. Lots of people come to me saying, “I got my MBA and now I want to be a product manager!” My response is typically, “great, I’ll pay you 50k to be an analyst until you prove you have the skills to be a real PM.”

I do not think MBAs prepare you for the day to day of product management. Some programs are trying to get there, but I haven’t yet met the first time MBA PM who was immediately a rockstar. In fact, I generally avoid them because they often come pre-packaged with a bunch of set in stereotypes and management methodologies that take a long time to break.

Do great PMs come from MBA programs? Of course. Does an MBA make you a great PM? Not at all.

Thoughts or comments? Let me know!

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