Getting into Product Management – I

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

A quick overview of what we’ve covered on “Notes on Product Management” so far – Overall: The PM RoleThe 4 key skillsRemote + Pandemic PM5 Decision Making frameworks/heuristicsProblem finding/solving with executives5 habits – high velocity product teams

– Skill #1 – Problem finding: Most important skillProblem statement and hypothesisBuilding StrategyValidating problem statements and hypotheses

– Skill #2 – Selling: Sales and MarketingWriting for executive audiences

– Skill #3 – Problem Solving: RoadmapProduct specs

– Skill #4 – Building effective teams: Knowing thyselfYour managerProduct team culture

I started writing “Notes on Product Management” nearly 2 years ago. The most requested post topic that I’ve received since then has been – how do I get in? 

I’ve waited all this time because I wanted to paint the picture of what the job is actually like before talking about how to get in. As a result, the past 17 posts have all about the 4 key skills required as an IC product manager – problem finding, problem solving, selling, and building effective teams. 

While the series is not yet done, I hope you have enough of an overview of the skills required to decide if you think you will be a good fit. And, assuming that is the case, I thought now might be a good time to talk about getting in. We will cover this topic in 2 parts. Today’s note will focus on the worst about product management and the 4 paths in.

(1) The worst about product management

I like to begin any discussion about getting in by laying out the worst about product management. The 5 biggest complaints I hear from folks at larger product driven companies are: 

1. I spend too much time attempting to align and influence large groups of people who all seem to have different priorities. Once I do that, I need to to influence my leadership to give me resourcing. Everything seems to political – it is exhausting. 

2. My manager/leadership keeps asking me to move faster. But, they don’t help with any of the alignment and they seem to keep changing their mind about about strategy and goals – this creates a lot of churn that I need to manage.

3. Some proportion of my cross-functional partners are either difficult or unhappy with me because they don’t feel as included in the product development process. Or, they think I’m making the wrong decisions. It is wearing me out.

4. I am in meetings all day. When do I get work done?

5. Does the product I work on really matter? I seem to be stuck dealing with minutiae about it every day and I’m not sure if it is improving the world in any real way.

And, the biggest complaints from those who are not in product driven organizations is – “How do I show the key function (typically engineering) that I can add value and that they should trust me?”

While they don’t show up all at once in every product team, they’re meant to paint a picture of the challenges involved in the product development process.

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At this point, I’ll digress for a moment to talk about segmentation. The key lesson in segmentation is – you need to find segments that love what’s good about you and don’t mind what’s bad about you. It is great marketing advice. It also happens to be great life advice – in picking a significant other, a co-founder, or even a career.

That, in turn, gets to why I like starting out conversations by outlining the worst about the job. Product management is a “hot” career in technology right now. There’s a lot written about the opportunity to drive impact, make key decisions, and lead. While some of that is true, it is easy to buy into an incredibly rosy picture.

Like all careers, it has its positives and corresponding negatives. And, like all choices, just because it is “hot” may not mean it is the right choice for you. We spend all our waking time doing our jobs. And, spending those hours doing things we don’t enjoy or don’t want to get good at is a sure-shot way to be miserable. 

So, the question that follows is – what is your reaction when you see the list of complaints?

There tend to be (variants of) 3 responses:

a) I don’t like the sound of it. But, I’m still interested to get in because I want to make decisions/think it will be good for my career.

b) I get that this stuff is hard. I think I will find portions of it hard too – but, I think I will also make it through because the upsides – i.e. being able to facilitate the product development process – are worth it.

c) I love obsessing about bringing groups of people together and obsessing about things to build. So, I think this will be great.

a) is a red flag. b) can work – especially in organizations and teams with cultures that fit you. c) is a sign that you’ll thrive.

(2) Getting an interview – the 4 paths in

The way into product management is a pain for most people. This tends to be the case with any “hot” career simply because the list of people trying to get in is much longer than the list of people actually being hired. This is especially the case at successful companies/companies with strong talent brands. 

This results in companies adopting some bizarre methods to filter people out. One such method that was in vogue for a long time was the Computer Science degree requirement. Another was the coding interview. And, some programs insist that you must start at an entry level position regardless of past experience – this makes it harder to switch if you aren’t early in your career. 

If you’re facing some of these hurdles, I feel your pain. The only consolation is that it isn’t personal. After watching folks go through this process for the past 5 years, I’ve learnt that there is one certainty. People who have both the drive and skills find a way in and have good outcomes. It may take longer than they expect but it tends to work out. 

And, it happens in one of these 4 ways. They are ranked from most probable to least probable with rough percentage estimates.

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i) Internal transfers (50%): This is the most common path into product management.

Why it works:

– You can build a reputation internally that helps you find a sponsor within the product management organization who will give you a shot.

– You can work on an internal product before becoming a product manager. This already proves you can do the job and helps in the internal interview process.

– It is agnostic of company size. In start-ups, you get a combination of fewer available roles and more flexibility/lack of any internal mobility bureaucracy. In larger companies, you have to deal with more rigid transfer processes but also will have more opportunities come by.

Who it works best for:

– Folks who work in functions with strong proximity to product managers. Function that are closely involved in the product development team – e.g., Engineering, Design, Biz Ops, Data Science, Product Marketing – tend to be the biggest beneficiaries of internal transfers.

– It tends to work best for folks who find opportunities in areas that are adjacent to their skillset. For example, a marketer can be great for a product that is trying to find product market fit with customers, a data scientist can do great in a data-heavy AI product, and so on.

Why it doesn’t work: Internal processes can make switching painful. And, cultures that are less open to internal transfers can exacerbate the pain.

ii) University hiring and APM/RPM programs (20%): This is most applicable to folks interested in larger companies (Amazon, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) with established programs.

Why it works:

– Such programs typically give you a clean slate/fresh start and typically offer a lot of mentorship along the way

– You are typically competing against people like you – so, you don’t have to deal with that company insider who has already been working on the product over the past 6 months

 Who it works best for:
– For folks in undergraduate or graduate school programs who either have companies come to them (campus recruiting) or proactively reach out to campus recruiters and potential hiring managers.

There are obvious exceptions to this. Amazon, for example, hires hundreds of MBA students every year but is famous for not being influenced by proactive reach outs to recruiters.

Similarly, Facebook’s RPM program is open to folks with experience in other functions (vs. just students). But, as a general rule, being proactive helps unless you’re sure your experience will stick out amongst a pool of hundreds of applications.

Why it doesn’t work: Lot of competition.

iii) Companies or hiring managers who are desperate enough to take a bet on you despite your lack of experience (20%):

Why it works: It is born out of need and it often sets folks who’re hired up for success because you’re hired to get a specific job done and can use the experience to build up PM skills.

Who it works best for:

– Companies with weak talent brands who are desperate to hire strong talent who would not break into PM roles directly elsewhere. (It is important to note here that having a “weak” talent brand isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most startups, by definition, have weaker talent brands compared to a Google.)

– People with deep expertise in specific areas that a company needs – e.g. growth marketing, SEO, enterprise security, etc.

Why it doesn’t work:

– These tend to be more common in smaller companies vs. bigger companies. As a result, they are often more custom and built on existing relationships.

– As these roles are more common in smaller companies, they often come with limited mentorship/coaching that can cause problems down the line.

iv) Starting a company (10%):

Why it works: While the product manager is the “CEO of the product” trope gets old very quickly, there are many aspects of the PM role that are similar to building a company – especially one that is trying to find product market fit or scale beyond a niche set of users.

Who it works for: Startup founders/CEOs who either get acquired, acqui-hired, or look for jobs after winding down their startups.

Why it doesn’t work: As you can imagine, this definitely not a recommended path into product management as this shouldn’t be a reason to start a company. But, it is a path in nevertheless.

The purpose of today’s post was to provide a lay of the land as you consider product management as a possible career while also providing an overview of the common paths in.

Next week, we’ll look at the process of preparing for that first set of interviews as well as examine 5 practices that I’ve found to be helpful in breaking into that first PM job.