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How to move Into Product Management

By Saeed Khan

At ProductCamp Austin, someone, and I apologize, as I don’t remember his name, came up to me and asked me the following.

I really want to become a Product Manager. How can I make that move?

I wrote about this a while back in Open Question: How did you get your first Product Management or Product Marketing job?. Some readers also gave their experiences. But taking a step back, there’s a more fundamental question here.

How do you enter a field, where there is no singular definition of the role, no standard preparatory courses, and few defined hard skills to measure against????

Other fields are not as bad as Product Management.

Sales gets 2 out of 3 (i.e. there is a singular definition of the role, and a very clear measure of success (sales generated), but few if any standard courses).

Marketing get 2 out of 3 (singular definition and standard prep courses – yes, hard skills — not so clear)

Engineering gets 3 out of 3 (clearly defined, standard prep courses, and well understood and measurable hard skills).

I’ve actually never thought about it this way before, but now that I have I can more clearly see the issue for people wanting to move into the field.

For an outsider, it’s really unclear how to make the transition. So here’s my first attempt to put some structure on this task.

What do they mean by “Product Manager”?

One thing to keep in mind is that because there isn’t a commonly understood definition of Product Management, some companies say they want a Product Manager, but really want something else.

e.g. a Project Manager, an “Agile” Product Manager (e.g. you’re sitting with Engineers all day), a Business Strategist  (this is Microsoft’s view), or a superhero who does everything (which is what a lot of startups want).

So first, get a clear understanding of what they actually want when they say they want a Product Manager.

What do YOU mean by “Product Manager”?

Within a mature Product Management organization, you should find a number of different roles. If not, but it’s a large organization,  then it’s not really that mature.  These roles can include Product Manager, Technical Product Manager, Product Marketing Manager, Solution Specialist, Analyst etc.

Think about what kind of role in Product Management fits best with your background and skills and pursue that type of role. e.g. If you are a much better communicator than technologist, then Product Marketing may be a better fit.

Qualities of Product Managers

In my Open Question, I did indicate that the following were important skills for Product Managers, though not necessarily in this order:

  • Domain experience
  • Communication skills
  • Decision making ability
  • Business understanding

There are other skills that are useful as well, though some are harder to measure than others. Technical knowledge is definitely useful. Empathy is also important. Judgement (related to but not the same as decision making) is another. Negotiation skills and sales skills are two more.

Match your skills with an appropriate role

But the question really is, what does a hiring manager need to see if they decide to hire someone with no formal Product Management (or Product Marketing) experience into that role?

Want to know the answer? Put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes. What would you look for? And how could you position yourself?

Look at the table below. I’ve listed out a number of different roles who I’ve seen move into Product Management (there are of course many others not listed), and the TYPICAL strengths of people in those roles. (Your mileage will definitely vary).

(click image to enlarge)

Now, see if your skills are similar to those shown, or whether you are stronger (or weaker) in areas. For example, a QA Tester maybe a good fit as a Technical Product Manager, but without stronger domain experience (e.g. market/customer/competitor understanding) and stronger business skills, they may not be a good fit as a Product Manager.

Just to be clear, this table is provided as a high-level reference to give an additional level of clarity to different roles in Product Management departments. It’s not meant to pigeon-hole anyone or any roles. And as mentioned before, there are many other roles people have that could lead them to Product Management. For example, I’ve met former Sales people who became Product Managers.

So, if you are thinking about moving into Product Management, think about your skills and background, but also about what kind of Product Management role is a best fit for you. While this won’t guarantee you a job in Product Management, it may help you narrow down your search and help you leverage your strengths and minimize any gaps that hiring managers may use to disqualify you for a certain role.

Let me know what you think.

Saeed

Tweet this: How to move into Product Management http://wp.me/pXBON-3cj #prodmgmt #career #prodmktg

 

0 comments
  1. Tim Johnson

    Saeed,

    Hmm. Did you read my latest blogs? We’re on the same topic, driven from a similar experience. The answer is there are no clear routes into the job but for PM, you have to have some exposure to the technical side. If nothing else you’ll need to be able to call BS on Engineering when they give you bogus delivery dates.

    Exposure to the customer side of things is more important for product marketing.

    Thanks.

    Tj

    1. Saeed

      Hi Tim.

      Actually I didn’t read your latest posts. I’ve had this one fermenting since my trip to ProductCamp Austin.

      Agreed, there is no clear route into the job, which is exactly why the question is a difficult one to answer explicitly. But given the breadth of skills and the various responsibilities of the function, it’s clear (at least to me 🙂 ) that some guidance is needed and helpful.

      I don’t believe that the “one person who does it all” mindset that many companies have is good for the company or for the individual. And for people breaking into Product Management, they have to be able to leverage their strengths while learning and building out on their weaknesses. An Engineer could make a great Technical PM, but may not have the business or market savvy to deal with pricing, positioning etc. that a PM or PMM would deal with. Likewise from the other direction — someone with great market and customer knowledge but light on the technical side shouldn’t be expected to jump into a Scrum team and deal with daily standups etc.

      We need to segment the responsibilities of overall Product Management into well understood, realistic roles so that truly scalable and effective Product Management teams can be created.

      I’ll take a look at your posts and leave comments if I disagree with anything. 🙂

      Saeed

    2. Saeed

      Tim

      Tried several times to leave a comment on your post on essential skills — http://value-prodmktg.blogspot.com/2012/03/essential-skills.html — but kept getting strange errors and was not authenticated. So here’s my comment.

      ———-
      Tim

      The excerpt you have from job ads:

      “…a deep understanding of both the technology space and the business context, a highly intelligent and strategic mindset, a creative marketing instinct, combined with “six-sigma” execution ability.”

      is what I find troubling in the industry. I’ve talked about the problem and a potential solution here:

      http://www.slideshare.net/ProductCampBoston/no-more-superheroes-creating-pm-orgs

      I think companies have unrealistic expectations of Product Managers. I was speaking to a CEO of a startup recently. They hired their first PM about a year ago. They did a thorough search. When I asked him how the PM was doing he said:

      “Good, but he’s more of a Product Marketing Manager. He’s great in front of customers and understands the market, but not as strong on the process and analytic side when it comes to the product.”

      Companies need to stop searching for rock stars and superheroes and realize the “all jobs in one” PM mindset is not workable or scalable.

      Saeed

      1. Tim Johnson

        Saeed,

        Thanks for trying on my blog. Several other people have had the same complaint. I think you need to sign in using a Google account.

        That excerpt was from a Director of PMM role so they can always ask for the moon. Not everyone is a Seth Godin (or other “rock star” that you can name). Nor should they be.

        As for your example, there’s a double ‘shame on you’ there. Shame on the CEO for either not being clear about their needs or not recognizing the lack of fit and shame on the new hire for not turning down the gig for lack of fit.

        Tj

        1. Saeed

          I don’t know if it’s a “double shame on you”. I think this is in fact a VERY common situation. People looking for work won’t back off because they can’t do everything. Who can?

          This is true for any role, not just PM/PMM. And once you get into a job, you always decide where you need to focus, which is usually related to where you are strong or where you are incented to focus.

          WRT to the CEO, I don’t think it’s an issue WRT lack of fit. The fit is there — they guy has worked there for a year — but it’s not a perfect fit.

          In the end it’s simply more evidence that teams of Product Managers, Product Marketers, Technical PMs etc. are the right way to create and scale a PM org.

          Saeed

  2. Ana

    Hi,

    I am currently working as a business analyst and also have presales, market research responsibilities which I perform very well. I am interested in moving to a Product Manager or Product Marketing Manager role and have discovered that there are a lot of common functions ( as much as 70-80%) between my role and the PM role. However, most people seem to have a bias of not having direct PM experience before applying. Any thoughts on this?

    1. Tim Johnson

      Ana,

      Next step is to tailor your resume to highlight the PMM or PM stuff you’ve done. See how much you can match up to the description of a job you are interested in. Then work with a reputable headhunter who can help you tailor it further and give you pointers on interviewing, any gigs he has that may fit, etc.

      The other thing is to get known in the PMM/PM community. Comment on blogs, write your own if you can find a niche, participate in product camps or other local organizations, etc. Also look for additional PM/PMM things you can do outside of a paycheck, like the marketing plan for your church’s fund raiser or other non-profit activity. Maybe put together some training or sales tips for your school’s fund raiser, etc.

      The idea is to show you have the chops and some relevant experience to make the move. If you can’t get all the way to PM or PMM, get close, like training, sales enablement, field marketing, Sales engineer, etc. and move later.

      Think of yourself as a product and market or improve the product until it can be sold.

      Good luck.

      Tj

    2. Vivek Vijayan

      Ana,

      The first cut into the title of Product Manager, even if you are currently doing most of the stuff (or more) than what a Product Manager does, is tough. You will need to start believing (position) that you are already a Product Manager and approach the matter accordingly and then you will start getting better results. Most hiring managers are risk-averse and will not want to try someone if they feel are “new” to product management. You just are a Product Manager with out the title.

      All the best.

      Vivek.

  3. abhay

    The ultimate competency a product manager must possess is business understanding, he/ she should focus more on purpose that his product is expected to serve.

  4. Luke W

    Excellent primer, thanks for sharing – have RT’d and shared on our channels.

    @Abhay reminds me of a quote by a literary critic that’s slipped my mind- roughly paraphrased ‘we must produce, not just consume meaning’ – it’s a nice well-traveled truism

    Luke W
    Community Manager
    OneDesk

  5. Tyler Murphy

    Thanks for the tips on moving into product management. There are so many different career paths and different angles to go down when it comes to product management, you definitely need to weight up your existing skills and try and for see where you want to go in your career.

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