A question that I get every week is “how do I get my first tech product management job?” See old posts here and here, Quora responses, etc. My answers were feeling theoretical and out-of-date, so I converted this into a market research question: what are hiring managers asking for in entry-level product management candidates? Objective data rather than my opinion.
One of our researchers pulled 41 current postings for US technology product managers, evenly split between B2B and B2C. We tabulated the qualifications and hiring criteria: prior years in product management, market segment experience, technical skills, degrees, certifications, etc. These are not cookie-cutter jobs, and the interview process tilts toward soft skills and “fit” rather than paper qualifications, but if hiring managers are asking for specific qualifications, I assume they are important.
Here’s what we found:
- Most (but not all) hiring managers want someone with product management experience, even for first-line jobs. 76% asked for previous experience in a product management role, averaging 3.3 years. [I expected this to be even higher.] Another 17% asked for extensive experience in related roles. Only two postings from big companies (IBM and HP, representing 5% of the sample) had openings that new college graduates could qualify for.
- 93% asked for excellent verbal and written communication skills. They called out cross-functional teamwork, executive and customer presentations, and market-sensing abilities. Product management as a contact sport. No staring at your shoes.
- 88% called out experience in their market segment as very important. B2B SaaS companies want data center and enterprise software experience; health information vendors want e-commerce and healthcare knowledge; streaming media companies crave interactive TV advertising experience; consumer audio players want product managers with consumer device smarts, etc. I believe that strong product managers can quickly learn a new product space, but hiring managers say they want the perfect candidate.
- 83% named specific technologies. 35% called out Agile, 20% hope to get PMs who also have UI/UX experience. They are looking for familiarity with the company’s underlying product tech (virtualization, email/SMS, big data, mobile and web games, financial analysis, testing methodologies). Given a choice, every manager wants someone who can “hit the ground running.”
- 93% want a BA/BS (68% prefer CS/EE). This may seem like overkill, but product managers who can’t hold their own with opinionated development teams are hobbled. Likewise, 32% want MBAs. Need to know how to build a credible business plan (and when the boss is blowing smoke).
This may seem like a caricature, but companies are paying recruiters handsomely to find product managers with segment-specific experience, awesome people skills, CS/EE + MBA credentials, and the ability to drive results in matrixed organizations. Perfect candidates are slightly less rare than unicorns… but you’ll need to check most of these boxes to get through an external resumé screen.
There was not a single mention of product management certifications. (One posting did ask for Pragmatic Marketing training.) We might want employers to value various emerging product management certification programs, but the market clearly does not. (Yet.) I’d recommend that product management hopefuls not invest in certifications as a way to land their first PM gig.
FYI, I am a big proponent of product management training and education: classes, Product Camps, workshops. I’m just back from a week in Dublin teaching and evangelizing product management. But the hiring market clearly isn’t there: I don’t see any facts that tie certification to hiring success. It’s incumbent on educators and certifiers to show that we add value.
Where Does That Leave Candidates?
If you’re already a product manager – probably a great communicator with a track record, technical and business degrees, and a good social network – your LinkedIn message box is already full of recruiter inquiries. Nice to be in demand.
If you’re looking to break into technology product management, the external recruiting cycle isn’t your friend. I still see most product managers get their first PM job via internal transfers: sales engineers or business analysts or developers who already know their company’s market and technology, find a mentor within the product management team, demonstrate product skills, and campaign within their company for the opportunity.
Technology product management is an odd mix of technical, market and organizational skills. It’s not a “book learning” role, so real experience under fire is what hiring managers want. Consider your fit for what companies are searching for, and find a path that combines optimism with realism.
BTW, thanks to Colm for collecting and analyzing the data. Feel free to collect your own sample, or re-analyze ours.