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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.}

Comments
  • Geoffrey Anderson Reply

    Rich,

    Thanks for this. It is a very common question, but I often sit back and wonder about someone who wants to do this job. They probably don’t know how it really is, and how little glamour is involved.

    I would say that your line about making the jump within your own company is spot on. And the fact that Sales Engineers, or Field Engineers are often fertile backgrounds to make the transition as well. That technical savvy combined with customer experience is a good crucible to form the foundations of product management.

    Looking forward to the other installments!

    • Brian Anderson Reply

      I agree with Geoffrey about moving into a PM role from within your own company. It seems to be fairly common, especially in companies such as mine with a lack of definition around the whole area of product management (“…if you want to run with it, be my guest!”).

      I want to do this job and the lack of glamour suits me just fine! My reasoning? I want to be a startup CEO in the future and if I can be successful as a product manager then – in my opinion – I’ll have proven to myself that I have at least some of the skills and attributes needed to run a successful company.

      In the grand scheme of things, not many people are cut out for tech entrepreneurship, but the odds must be better for those who have successfully launched and maintained products while keeping their team motivated in a PM position.

      So, glamour or no glamour, if you want to start your own startup, I’d suggest that a PM position might be a good grounding for you.

      As my namesake Mr Anderson states, roll on the next installments!

  • Scott Magdalein Reply

    I’m moving from being the pm at a startup that has done really well. I’m looking for a new, challenging product that’s just getting started. So this post is timed perfect for me as I’m just getting started in my search for a new exciting product.

  • Giles Farrow Reply

    For most people it will depend on opportunity: location and timing.

    Most cities / countries don’t have a large number of tech companies to work at. So you may need to relocate. Of course, outside the big tech centres there are fewer jobs but they’re more likely to accept a first-timer.

    As Rich points out, given the choice experienced PMs will get hired.

    Surest route to start is to follow Rich’s advice above and build up skills, related experience and wait for cyclical economy to pick up, they you’ll be able to choose.

    I also agree generally about not changing role and company at same time. But I did that for my first product manager job and changed industry, continent, and went from large enterprise to start up – it was a lot of fun (just before 2000 bubble burst)

  • Scott Sehlhorst Reply

    Great topic, Rich!

    I kinda chuckled about the “glamour” of product management. I think it is pretty much the opposite. Think about internal demos, and the responses when they go well – “great design”, “wow, that is elegant”, etc. Never – “gee, that is sure to resonate with buyers and close deals for us.”

    For me, product management is _enriching_, in the sense that a job well done is something to be proud of, and investing in yourself to get better at what you do (whatever it is) is also intrinsically rewarding.

    Great start to the series!

    Scott

  • Joel Maslyn Reply

    Rich,

    Thank you very much for this information and keep it coming. A PM does provide guidance and solid people skills. Another area that I believe strongly correlates to a PM role is the Quality advocate who usually provides the PM with insights before it is too late.

    This being said, a Quality Assurance resource working closely with a PM is also a nice branch into the PM role.

    Joel

  • Quora Reply

    Do hiring managers find any value in AIPMM certifications when hiring Product Managers?…

    With all due respect to AIPMM and the good work they do promoting product management as a discipline, I’ve never considered any PM certification of real value in interviewing or hiring real-live PM candidates. My #1 criterion for interviewing and hiri…

  • santhosh Reply

    Hi Rich,

    Very well said. I agree with you and i am sure the information shared here will be put to use by many wannabe PMs.
    I started my career as a techie and progression ed into a PM. I followed pretty much the same path what you have highlighted here.

    • Sandeep Reply

      Hi Santhosh,

      Can I pick you brains on the various things you worked on initially to get into the PM role? I am interning with my PM team but am not feeling confident that I am picking up skills that I can use to interview for a full time position anytime soon.

      Thanks.

      • Santhosh Reply

        Hi Sandeep,

        First and foremost one needs to change their mindset, for anything and everything one should ask the ‘WHY’ question first. Then start listening to customer queries, try spending lot of time with support and sales(pre-sales) function, This will give you a different perspective. Now try to think of a new functionality/feature within your existing product and try selling this idea to management. Again be 100% sure on why part.

        Hope this helps.

  • Dale J. Rodriguez Reply

    This was a good article, it pretty much describes how I got my current first PM Gig. It is definitely not glamorous, but it is nice to those of us who like to use business acumen with technical acumen, I would not go go back to my old life at all!

  • Paola Reply

    Great post!
    But let me ask you: what if your current company does not have PM roles or teams?
    I would end up being a newbie trying to change company at the same time…
    What roles would make company transition easier but still lead you to PM roles? (it does not have to be technical PM btw). I’m currently a Project Manager.
    Thank you for your insights!

    • Rich Reply

      If your current company doesn’t have product management roles, this transition is doubly hard: first, because internal moves into PM are *much* easier than changing roles and companies simultaneously; second, because you probably lack peers or mentors who can help shape your ideas of what this is. ProJECT management tends to be the inward-facing resource management partner to market-tech-straddling product managers.

      So take as given that this transition is very challenging. Many (most) who point themselves in this direction end up somewhere else. That said, you might land roles at another company — pre-sales engineer/field engineer, customer success manager/implementation lead, partner marketing — that brings you closer. Once in the new company, make a point of meeting the product managers and expressing your interest. You have to do really well in your official position, though, over a reasonable period — I wouldn’t take ANY job with the intention of moving in less than a year. By then, you’ll have a chance to see their product managers in action and decide if you want to campaign for that job.

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