Starting Your Product Management Career

First Steps for Aspiring Product Managers

Hi all, it’s Carlos.

This week we’re going back to basics. Read on for my insider tips on the job application process and advice on what skills to develop as a product manager.

The road to Product Management is rarely linear, with many PMs having transitioned to the role from something else entirely. That’s exactly what I did, as I broke into product management from an engineering role.

I’ve been the CEO and founder of three companies and learned how to be a PM on the go, which took a long time. This is actually what inspired me to start Product School—I wanted to teach others how the product development process works.

When we talk about product management and talk to aspiring product managers, there are three main questions that often come up:

  1. What is Product Management?

  2. What is the recruitment process like?

  3. What skills do you need for product management?

Let’s see if we can’t answer these questions here.

What Is Product Management?

I define product management as the intersection between software engineering, UX design, and digital marketing. You’re the person in the middle.

You’re the go-between for software engineers, UX designers, and digital marketers in order to build digital products like websites or mobile apps. You don’t need to be the best at everything, but you need to know enough to feel confident about connecting with those groups.  

What Is The Recruitment Process Like?

This is a very competitive stage. Everyone wants to become a product manager these days.

Not only are you going up against other aspiring PMs, but you’re also going up against existing PMs with more knowledge and experience. You’re going to see designers that want to be product managers, as well as people outside of the tech industry who want to break into tech through a PM role. But don’t worry, I have some tips to help you stand out.

1. Optimize Your Resume for Product

Optimize your resume to get a phone interview. Highlight things you’ve done in your career that are related to product management.

For example, if you’ve worked with engineers and managed the team, you learned some PM skills there. Focus on the skills and experiences which are transferable from your current role to your next PM role. There are so many things that you’ve done that you wouldn’t believe are very similar to what product managers do.

A good application will lead to a phone screening, usually not with a PM but a recruitment manager.

Check out: How to Write & Format Your Resume For a Product Manager Position

2. Do Your Homework

There is usually a homework assignment during the job application process, like “create a product roadmap to explain where you would take this product in the next three months.

If you’re interviewing for a larger company, you can probably find examples of interview questions and these homework assignments from Glassdoor.

3. Prepare for Multi-Person Interviews

Companies may sometimes try to invite multiple team members; you might do technical interviews with someone from the technical team such as the CTO or software engineers, and also do some more business-oriented interviews with product managers. In some cases candidates interview with designers as well.

The company’s goal with this is to make sure that 1. The candidate knows enough about these three different components and 2. Is also a good fit for the team. At the end of the day, you’re going to be interacting with many different people, so it’s important that you’re on the same page as all of them and capable of earning the respect of many different stakeholders.

How do you prepare for that? Number one thing here is, don’t lie, don’t make up cases, especially for aspiring product managers. Try to think about cases or things you’ve done in the past that are kind of similar to what someone is asking you. So if you speak from experience you won’t have to sweat and try to make up an answer.

For example, let’s say you’re a software engineer and you are having an interview with a designer. The designer asks, “How would you work with my design team in order to connect these designs with the implementation?”  

If you’re a software engineer, the designer doesn’t expect you to give a perfect answer about how the design process works, because you’re not a designer, and they know that.

What they’re expecting hear is to relate to a previous case YOU have had, like “When I was a software engineer this is how we worked with UX designers.” Or “We have a project manager that helps us make sure the designers are on time. Sometimes we do brainstorming sessions, or we participate in user research with them.” Maybe, “The other day I had a great idea, and my product manager let me create some wireframes to share with my designers.”

This approach is way more valuable than trying to make up a story about how you’d do something you’ve never done before.

What Skills Do You Need for Product Management?

There are three skills hiring companies are always looking for from their product teams:

1. Industry Domain

You need to know a lot about a specific product or a specific industry even if you haven’t worked in product management in that industry.

Let’s say you are a digital marketer in e-commerce. You probably know a lot about e-commerce. Yes, you haven’t worked there as a product manager, but you’re more likely to get a PM role in e-commerce than anything else.

This is not just about applying to a competitor’s company; it’s also about understanding that there are a lot of companies in the industry that might be a good fit and are looking for someone they can hire for a product manager role.

If you work in e-commerce as a digital marketer, and you want to work in FinTech as a product manager, it’s going to be complicated to transition immediately because you’re trying to switch roles and industries at the same time.

If your passion is truly in a different industry, I would suggest to move horizontally from the digital marketer in one industry to digital marketer in the other and then try to jump into product management. Or move to product management in your industry, and then move over to another.

2. Technical Background

You don’t have to code, or be a software engineer (although if you are, that’s a huge bonus). If you are not a software engineer, you have to know technology.

You have to be comfortable enough talking with your software engineers on every single level; from a customer’s standpoint to software architecture, how to extract data, how to make certain technical tradeoffs, how to prioritize features, how to estimate how long the development of a feature will take, how engineers think.

This is not something you can learn by reading a book; you have to spend some time with them.

Check out: Product Managers and Technical Skills…What’s The Deal?

3. Communication 

As a product manager, even if you have an amazing technical background you’re not going to be coding anymore. If you used to be a designer, you’re not going to be designing, and if you were a marketer, you’re not going to be doing the marketing, and so on.

You’re going to stop executing (for the most part), and you’re going to start delegating. This means you have to be able to communicate with or influence others so they can execute.

So What Are You Going to Be Doing?

Communicating, and communicating some more. You’re going to be working with many different stakeholders explaining what the product needs to be and why it’s important, or why you’re picking one feature versus another.

You have to have a firm grasp of your product vision and convince stakeholders of it to help them focus on the important end goal.

Being a product manager is about understanding and feeling comfortable talking with people. It’s about knowing that you’re going to spend a lot of time having meetings, jumping between meetings, and touching base over email or phone.

You need to be comfortable with bringing that ongoing interaction, which is a skill that you will learn and develop on the job.

And those are the basics! Product management can be challenging, but also extremely rewarding. With these tips, you’re ready to put in the work to become an effective product manager.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Don’t forget to check out some of the previous issues!

Misconceptions About Becoming a PM [Podcast]

PM Skills: Influence Without Authority

PM Skills: Prioritization