Looking over dozens of discussions, presentations and Quora threads from the last few months, a frequent question has been “How do I get a job in technical product management?”  Here is the first of three posts split along job levels:

  1. How do I move into tech product management, especially if I’m currently a developer?
  2. How do I move up from an individual PM role to Director
  3. I’m a Director of Product Management, and want to be a VP

Senior product folks are asked these all the time, from both engineers and marketing folks. Likewise, forums and twitter streams are full of variants… see Quora posts here, here, here, here and here.  Let’s start with #1, getting into product management.

First, remember that hiring managers strongly prefer candidates who are already product managers. Unfair?  Sure. What you want to hear?  Probably not.  But that’s the cold, hard reality.  Would you want to hire a newbie as your own software architect or heart surgeon or investment counselor?

A good place to start is from the hiring manager’s perspective. Here are a few reasons I usually want to hire experienced product managers (PMs):

  • They’ve made their first few mistakes on someone else’s product. We can share “lessons learned.”
  • Product management sounds sexier than it is. Not much glitz or glamour. I listen for humility and reasons why someone wants to stay a PM.
  •  This is a “people” role. How you deal with unpleasant co-workers (without taking it personally) is a critical skill which often trips up engineers.
  • The PM community is very small. My best candidates are probably personal referrals, and come with strong back-door references.  If I don’t already know you directly, we’re only one LinkedIn hop away.
  • There are a lot of product managers on the market, some with experience in my market niche. Less mentoring required.

In other words, your enthusiasm and good looks are not enough to get you a PM job at some generic technology company when competing against seasoned product managers. You need to find opportunities where your specific talents and experience are highly valued.

Start inside your current company

Your best shot at moving into a new title/role is within your existing company. (It’s much harder to change companies and roles at the same time.) You should already know a lot about your company’s products, market, technology, so…

  • Meet all of the members of your current PM team, and let them know you’re interested
  • Give good feedback on the specs, use cases, and other artifacts your PM produces.  Show that you can straddle the business / technical fence.  Ask about personas.
  • Sit in on customer briefings (and DON’T SAY A WORD)
  • Ask to be a “back-up” PM on a project: do some of the research, competitive analysis, and customer interviews.  Starting with the grunt work will earn you respect and help you determine if this is a good fit.
  • Read about the role (my book and many others)
  • Study your company’s product literature, pricing, and competition.
  • If you have real customer interactions, share recommendations with the PM team on how to improve sales, open new markets, improve user experience, or streamline support.  50 bonus points for each customer quote.  Assume that PMs have talked with lots of customers.
  • Go to a Product Camp.

In other words, volunteer to do some product management stuff.  If you’re good, the PM team will want more of you.

Target your technical expertise

Companies sometimes hire into PM roles for technical expertise or special domain knowledge. If you happen to be a whiz at logistics software (or chemical analytics or financial clearinghouses), check out companies that focus on supply chain (or gas chromatography or program trading). Managers in niche markets struggle to find product candidates who are both experienced and subject matter experts. Your market knowledge could replace some functional expertise.

Consider stepping-stone roles

career ladder

If you really, truly want to be a product manager and these approaches don’t work, think about jobs that get you closer to PM. Ask the product folks in your company where they started. For example, Sales Engineers and Professional Services folks sometimes make the jump to product management since they combine great technical knowledge with hands-on sales/customer experience.

BTW, don’t do an MBA just because a lot of product managers have one. You’ll face the same barriers at graduation as you do today.

Sound Byte

It’s tough to break into product management. On-the job experience really matters, and few companies will seriously consider external newbies. Look inside your current company first, and think strategically from the hiring manager’s point of view.

{Posts #2, 3 and 4 coming next.}