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Last updated on 9/10/20

Learn how to get into product management

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Product management is a relatively new discipline, and as a result,  you will rarely see a degree in product management. With that said, you may well be asking questions like:

  • How did the people currently working as product managers get their first product manager role? 

  • What kind of path might I take to become a product manager?

Most of today's product managers have emerged from other existing roles in the organization. They probably did some product management training course and taught themselves by reading books, following blogs, and learning through practice (i.e. on-the-job).

Let's have a look at which specific roles within an organization frequently transition into product management, as well as a common route that many people take to begin their professional career (i.e. get an entry-level role) as a product manager (directly after college).

Where do product managers come from?

Let's take a look at some of the common roles people hold before becoming a product manager. The transition from working in any of the following roles into working in the product space is quite common.

Project Manager

The role of project manager and product manager are quite different. The project manager does not spend a lot of time interviewing customers and researching competition. Rather, they are concerned with taking requirements from stakeholders and making sure that there is a solid management plan in place and that the right resources are available. They will manage a budget, track progress and dependencies,  handle any delays or issues in the project's delivery, and provide reports to the management team.

With that said, managing a product's progress is (one) part of product management, and the prototypical project manager has a good nose for what makes users happy and unhappy.  Therefore, a project manager can make an excellent product manager. Often, when a team adopts an agile methodology,  the existing project manager will become the product manager, and they will typically will handle the role very well. 

Strengths and Challenges for the project manager moving into product
Strengths and challenges for the project manager moving into product management
Engineer

In smaller teams, or teams where the product is very technical by nature, the product manager may be someone who previously filled an engineering role. Engineers have strong technical knowledge and can easily envision which solutions may be more expensive or technically infeasible. Many engineers have also previously worked in a team that had a product manager, so they have likely seen first-hand what the role entails.

There are many aspects to the product manager role that may be new to someone with an engineering background. In particular, product research, competitive analysis, customer interviews, and the development of a product vision are all examples of product manager responsibilities that may be somewhat unfamiliar to an engineer!

It is also important to note that all departments in the organization, such as sales, marketing, and legal, will submit requests to the product manager.  Fundamental parts of the role include carefully listening to these requests, understanding the context, and sometimes saying no!

Prioritization and "saying no" are vital to the delivery of the best product in the desired time frame, but the product manager must "say no" in such a way that the other party understands the reasoning and does not feel any loss of dignity or "lose face" that their request was rejected.

The product manager excels at their position by being persuasive, being prepared, and being likeable. They do not have direct authority over the tech team, so they must inspire the team by having a compelling vision and convincing rationale for their proposals.

The tech team in particular may challenge the product manager on the validity of choosing a certain strategy or feature choice. This can be a particularly difficult situation for engineers because typically they may choose their own approach when writing code (or may have input from a senior developer). Being challenged in public by other team members and people from other departments in the organization (e.g. sales, marketing) can be stressful, but product managers become very proficient and handling this scenario. In fact, they welcome such feedback as an opportunity to test whether their ideas and proposals are indeed robust or need improvements.

Strengths and Challenges for the engineer moving into product
Strengths and challenges for the engineer moving into product management
Support

Some very successful product managers have previously worked in the customer support department ( a department that responds to the user's technical questions and problems). Customer support teams know the existing product intimately and speak to customers about their frustrations, problems, and issues very often. They know what customers love, as well as what they hate. Note that the customer support agent is focused on providing an immediate fix (where possible) to the support issue that a customer has. In contrast, the product manager needs to understand the motivations behind what customers are asking, and to design a future product that will solve these problems.

If a customer support person transitions into the product manager role for the first time, there are likely some unfamiliar skills that they will have to master, such as leading a tech team or managing a backlog of feature requests.

Strengths and Challenges for the support person moving into product
Strengths and challenges for the support person moving into product management

Marketing

It is worth noting that marketing professionals are typically very good at developing a product vision, understanding the customer, interviewing customers, and researching competitors and market trends. They are also excellent at communicating the product's benefit to the market and helping to decide the positioning of the product relative to its competitors.

A noteworthy challenge for marketing professionals is to be able to work effectively with the tech team. The product manager has to do planning and estimation sessions with the developers and must have enough technical knowledge to be able to communicate and evaluate possible solutions with the tech team. When professionals transitioning from the marketing space to the product space learn to work effectively with the tech team, they tend to become excellent product managers.

Strengths and challenges for the marketer moving into product management
Strengths and challenges for the marketer moving into product management

Product manager as an entry-level job

It is a myth that you cannot get a product-related role straight out of school/college. Many employers know that product management can be taught, so they look for people who they can train internally. They look for a set of personality traits (e.g. passionate, analytic, curious) that every good product manager has (note that we examine these personality traits in a separate chapter in this course).

If you have these traits - and can demonstrate them well - many companies will be willing to train you in the product management field.

Creating your own product or website is also an excellent first step to demonstrating your passion and skills. Showing your previous work (even if it is your own side project) on a real product, a website, a prototype or a mobile app is a huge start! It shows passion, ability, and entrepreneurial spirit.

You can further demonstrate your skills by displaying past interview data where you presented your product to potential customers and received constructive feedback. If you have your own website or app and you analyzed data (e.g. Google Analytics) to drive decision-making, presenting your management of this process is also an effective way to demonstrate that you have very marketable characteristics. If you can demonstrate leadership, perhaps by making an app, leading a charitable project, or starting a community, your portfolio will stand out above the rest of the future application pool.

Summary

Product managers come from many diverse backgrounds. The important thing to realize is that the product manager role is a multi-faceted role. You may have some new skills to learn, depending on your background, before you can become a great product manager. The good news is that most people started their first job in product management moving from another department of the organization or straight out of school/college so having product management experience is not a must-have to get your first product management role.

Additional Resources

Aha Blog on where product managers come from

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement