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Breaking into Product Management — Starter Pack

I frequently get asked about breaking into product management. Instead of continuing to share top-of-mind thoughts on a one-off basis I decided it’d be worth writing down my thoughts and sharing them more broadly. So here’s my advice:

Stand Out From the Crowd

There are a lot of people with general business, marketing, or operations backgrounds trying to break into product management. It’s helpful to differentiate yourself to stand out from the crowd. Below are some ideas:

  • Learn how to code
  • Work on a side project [1]
  • Create product teardowns of companies you’re interested in [2]
  • Learn how to use Sketch, Balsamiq, or Moqups to express product ideas
  • Learn how to perform user research and run an informal study for a company you want to work at
  • Learn SQL to analyze data

Be Open to Tangentially Related Roles

There are many existing product managers, developers, and designers applying to Product Manager roles, which can make it harder for someone with no directly relevant experience to break into product management. In addition to Product Manager roles, be on the lookout for:

  • Entry level “Associate Product Manager” roles
  • Tangentially related roles at a small company that will let you take on product management responsibilities [3]

Be Honest With Your Strengths & Weaknesses

Don’t worry if you don’t have all the skills “needed” to be a product manager. Product management can mean a million things depending on team dynamics and company stage.

There are a myriad of skill sets that can be useful for a product manager: technical background, design chops, being data driven, user research, communication, collaboration, strategic thinking, prioritization, project management, business literacy, etc. I’ve met very few people who are above average in 75%+ of these areas. So don’t worry if you’re not an expert in all these areas either! Instead, be honest with your strengths and weaknesses. Both to yourself and to others. It will help make sure there is good alignment between what you’re good at and what the company needs.

In addition to being upfront about your strengths and weaknesses, be clear about the areas you’re actively working on and excited to improve. Humility and eagerness to learn are very positive traits for aspiring PMs — or anyone for that matter.

Know What You’re Getting Yourself Into

Make sure you’re excited about product management for the right reasons. I meet a lot of people excited about product management because they envision themselves spending all their time making strategic product decisions, being the one who comes up with all the new ideas, and having authority to make all the calls. However, if you’re breaking into product management it’s likely you will be spending a lot of time doing somewhat less appealing work at first (project management, helping out with whatever is needed, etc). Even after your PM career has gotten off the ground, many of the best PMs I know continue to focus on these types of activities throughout their career. Noah Weiss, Head of Search, Learning, & Intelligence at Slack, does a great job of debunking common PM myths in this blog post.

If you’re not excited about doing a lot of the grunt work and facilitating other people, product management may not be the right role for you.

[1] There are more and more tools that allow people to build stuff w/o knowing how to code.

[2] Check out UserOnboard and Underglass for some teardown inspiration.

[3] Smaller companies usually have more nebulous roles where people wear many hats. If you take on product management responsibilities you can highlight these when applying to PM positions moving forward. You may also be able to switch into a formal PM role at this company in the future.




product design @seatgeek | i like to build stuff |

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Adam Waxman

Adam Waxman

product design @seatgeek | i like to build stuff |

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