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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

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