It’s easy to get stuck in the weeds when it comes to getting your start in product. With so many myths about product management circulating the tech world, you can easily get confused.
You may have been wondering if product management is the right job for you, but you’ve heard that you need a CS degree to break into the role. Or that the hiring landscape is too competitive to ever get a job.
Today, we want to break it down and make things as simple as humanly possible, to help you fully understand whether product management is right for you.
Myth 1: Product Managers Need a CS Degree
This myth comes from the misconception that absolutely everyone who works in the tech industry must have a deep understanding of technology. But, like any industry, tech thrives on a varied workforce with a myriad of abilities, talents, and experiences. Even the most basic tech company will still need HR, a marketing team, graphic designers, UX/UI designers…All of these are roles that require an interest in technology at most, but certainly not a deep working knowledge of how to build apps!
And yet many are held back from their dream product career because they do not have a CS degree. This is probably the most prevalent myth about product management, because it’s a myth that does have a grain of truth. Let’s look at the facts.
- A CS degree is not a requirement for all product management roles: The roles and responsibilities of product management do not actually involve building things yourself. In your day to day as a product manager, you’ll be working closely with the development teams who build things, but no one expects you to be coding for hours on end. Product managers care about the product vision, the user experience, and ensuring product-market fit. These are not things that you need a CS degree for by any means.
- Some companies require a CS degree: If your dream company to work for is Apple, Google, or Microsoft, then yes you will be asked for a CS degree. This is for a few reasons. Firstly, Big Tech can basically have their pick of applicants, so they would naturally want to choose those with more technical knowledge. The projects that development teams work on at Big Tech companies are more high level (and high stakes) than teams at smaller companies. Product development is a whole different ball game at these companies, and their product management teams need to keep up with that.
- Many product managers have a CS background: People who grew up interested in technology a decade ago (or two or three decades ago) didn’t have that many options for where to channel their passion. A CS degree was the most natural path for those who were interested in software development. That is why nowadays you will see so many successful PMs with a CS background, as they later made the transition to product when the role came into fashion.
- A CS background is useful for product managers: Is that all to say that CS degrees aren’t a useful background for PMs? Of course not. Knowing as much as you can about the technology you’re working with will help you to make more informed decisions. It will also help you to communicate more effectively with your tech teams, and allow you to progress through to Technical Product Management.
What to do if you don’t have a CS degree
Without a CS degree you can absolutely work in product! Some of the most successful and admired product professionals today never obtained a CS degree, so don’t let that put a cap on your ambition. After all, product roadmaps don’t get written in code!
If you don’t have a CS degree, look for roles which don’t require one. That means avoiding any job postings that include the word ‘Technical’ in the title, and as a rule of thumb any that come from Apple and Google. If you’re just starting out, look at roles with smaller companies and startups where your non-technical skills will be more valued.
If you want to increase your CS or coding knowledge (which we highly recommend you do, if only to make your non-technical role easier) there are plenty of courses you can take in your spare time, including CS50. Education is a long term investment in your future, and worth spending the extra time on, even if it’s not to degree level.
Myth 2: Product Managers Are The CEOs of Their Products
This used to be a very popular expression back when product management was relatively new, and nobody knew how to explain it.
What people mean when they call product managers ‘the CEO of the product’, they mean that product managers are the visionaries who oversee various teams and have an overview of product development. They don’t deep dive into only one aspect, they have a handle on everything and everyone.
And that’s true, to a certain extent, so it’s not necessarily a bad metaphor. But there’s one significant aspect of a CEOs role which a product manager has absolutely nothing to do with, and that’s authority.
As an entry-level product manager, you won’t be in charge of the hiring and firing of team members. You won’t have the power to allocate resources to your teams, or decide which direction the company is taking. You may work on building products in emerging markets, but you won’t have any say in which emerging markets. You can’t sell parts of the company, or negotiate collaborations with other brands…in short, there are important tools in a CEOs toolbox which you simply don’t have access to.
Anyone in product management will tell you that the most valuable skill for a PM is ‘influence without authority,’ because you have to somehow tell people what to do without having the authority to enforce your ideas on them.
How to influence without authority
A common saying in product is a clever twist on everyone’s favorite Spiderman quote.
“With great responsibility comes no power.”
The best advice anyone can give when it comes to influencing without authority is to always explain the why behind your decisions. Don’t just tell people to do something, show them why it’s the right thing to do, and back up all of your decisions with data. Without data, you’re just a person with an opinion. When you’re first starting out in product management, you won’t have built up the repertoire and trust required to lead a team. But people trust data, so let the numbers do the talking for you.
You should also have empathy for your team’s problems. Show them that you understand the challenges they face, and that you’re doing your best to support them. Listen more than you speak, and work collaboratively in a way that lets people know their opinions are valued.
Myth 3: All The Best Jobs Are In San Francisco/The USA
This is a multi-layered myth, and how we bust it depends entirely what you want from a job. So let’s look at the reasons why people think that Silicon Valley is where the product world begins and ends.
- All the big tech companies are there. This is somewhat true, practically every household name has an office or their headquarters in San Francisco. But these companies are huge with thousands of employees. They also build products for the world, meaning they have offices and people all over the world. Don’t forget that many household name tech companies aren’t even from the US. Spotify is a Swedish company headquartered in Stockholm, N26 is German and based in Berlin, and Shopify is Canadian with its headquarters in Ottawa.
- It’s well paid. Yes, San Francisco remains the product hub with the best salaries. But that’s for an extremely good reason…it’s one of the most expensive places to live on Earth! That $200,000 salary looks unreal on paper until it’s time to pay that Bay Area rent!
How to get into product if you don’t live in The USA
The product world is as vast as it is exciting, especially now with remote product management becoming more and more popular. If you’re set on becoming a product manager, you can do it from anywhere in the world.
If you need to stay right where you are, there are certainly options to work remotely as a product manager. If you want to work in an office, but live in a fairly rural part of your country, you might consider moving to your country’s main tech hub (usually the capital city). For example, the product community in Nigeria is absolutely thriving in Lagos. In Brazil, São Paulo is entering a new tech renaissance.
If you’ve got a real hunger to thrive in the US tech world, you don’t have to rush to Silicon Valley. The product scene in Atlanta, New York, and Seattle are all very exciting and innovative places to be.
All that being said, Silicon Valley is quite a magical place to live and work (we should know 😉) so check out our all-you-need-to-know guide: So You Want to Work in Silicon Valley
Myth 4: A Product Manager’s Job is Done After Launch
We’re sure many product managers would wish this were the case, but unfortunately this is not true!
It’s incredibly rare, to the point of non-existence, that a company releases their first version of a product, announces it to be ‘done!’ and calls it a day. If that were true, we’d all still be using Microsoft Windows from 1983!
After launch, the product teams start gathering feedback on the released product, whether its and MVP, an MLP, V1, V2, or even the 200th iteration! Product strategy doesn’t end just because the product is now in the hands of the customers, far from it in fact. Many would say that a product owner’s work has just begun!
What do product managers do after launch?
Successful product management relies on being able to both to gather feedback from users, and know how to act on it. This involves a balance of knowing what users want and what users need.
At this point, a product manager will sift through the feedback to see what customers are saying, and also looking at the data to see what customers are actually doing. From this, they’ll come up with insights on how to improve the product, and start planning the roadmap for the next version of the product.
It’s also a product manager’s responsibility to reflect on how well the teams worked together through the last sprint. As well as looking at the outcomes, a product manager focuses on communication and workflow, seeing where silos can be broken between teams and how bottlenecks can be avoided in the next stage in the product’s lifecycle.
Myth 5: Product Management is the Same at Every Company
Product management is far from a static, unchanging thing, far from it.
Each company, indeed each product within a company, needs something different from its product manager. Several factors can impact the function of product management within a company:
- The size of the company. In a tiny startup, you might be the one and only product manager. In a place like Facebook or Google, you’ll be one of many, with a hierarchical structure including Senior Product Managers, Group Product Managers, Directors of Product etc.
- The industry. Some industries, like CyberSecurity and FinTech, will have unique requirements which other PMs may not have experience in.
- The company culture. Some companies are more team-led and collaborative, with development teams self-organizing. Others will be more traditional, with goals and schedules set by the higher-ups.
You might also be interesting in: Decoding Job Titles: The Different Types of Product Manager
That being said, a few PM tenets remain unchanging across all variables. Product managers must always be data-driven and customer focused, no matter the size of their data sets and who their customers are.
This, rather than being a challenge, is great news! It means that if, at your core, you have all the skills and passions needed for being a product manager, there’s a job out there which is a perfect fit for you.
Maybe you’ll be a Technical Product Manager at Google working to perfect the the voice assistant. Or perhaps you’ll swoop in to a new, innovative startup working on financial solutions for emerging markets.
How will you know unless you get started?