Updated: January 9, 2023 - 10 min read
So you’ve decided that you want to be a Product Manager. That’s great! The problem is, you’ve never worked in product before, and you’ve got no idea where to start.
Perhaps you’re an engineer who wants to get more involved in the planning and decision making part of development. Or perhaps you’re in marketing and you’ve been dreaming about building the things you’re having to market. Or perhaps you’re a gardener with big plans to break into the tech industry. Either way, you need to work your way into your first ever Product Management role. And did you know that it’s possible from any industry?
The Rule of Thumb: Lateral Transitions
We’ll dive deep into how each background experience can be leveraged to transition to product. But first, a quick word of general advice.
Wherever you are in your career, there are two main ways to get a Product Management job:
Make the move to product within your own company.
Move to a role similar to yours in a company which has PMs.
The first option is great if you work for an organisation which has PMs, even if they’re not working on your absolute dream products. This is because they already know you, already have an intimate knowledge of your skill set, and if they’re hiring PMs internal transitions are usually preferable to spending resources on recruitment.
If you don’t work for a company that has PMs, the leap from non-PM at Company A to PM at Company B may be too large. For example, let’s say you’re a digital marketer at an agency. It’s recommended that you transfer to a marketing role at a company which has PMs, and then make the transition from there once they’ve gotten to know you.
Once you’re in a position to move into a PM role, there are a few steps you can take to make it happen:
Get certified as a PM: Getting certified as a PM is a great step to take, for a number of reasons. First of all, it fills in the gaps in your knowledge and exposes you to aspects of PM life that you may not have been aware of before. It also consolidates the knowledge you already have, and proves to the world that you have what it takes. If you’ve never worked in product before, it also shows how serious you are about making the move. It’s both an investment and a demonstration of your commitment.
Start a conversation: Even if you know you’re not ready to make the transition, find the decision makers within your company and make it known that that’s your goal. They’ll be able to tell you what they’d need from you in order to get on the product ladder.
Shadow the product team: Some larger companies offer rotational programs which expose teams to how other teams work. Even in smaller companies, if your bosses are aware of and supportive of your product dreams, they should have no problem with you spending time with the product team. Even if you have to keep it on the down-low, great Product Leaders are always happy to foster the love of the craft, and would be happy to show you the ropes.
FAQs About Transitioning to Product Management
What is the main Product Manager skill set?
The great thing about PM is that you don’t need any specific inherent talents to become a PM. The role is quite varied, and there’s room for people with a huge variety of strengths and weaknesses. One PM in the team can come from a design background and have a great eye for aesthetics, but be a little weak in their data analysis skills. Another PM in the team could be a fantastic data analyst, but not have any marketing experience.
The main PM skill set is actually quite simple: you need human skills. You need great communication, especially cross-collaborative communication. You need a great amount of empathy, and the ability to look outside of your echo chamber. Product Managers are curious, driven to solve their user’s problems, and thrive on leading a team.
How do I get a Product Manager job with no experience?
It’s the classic ‘chicken and egg’ problem. You need experience in product to get a job, but you need a job to get experience. What to do?!
While there are many companies (mostly FAANG) who can afford to be picky and ask that only existing PMs apply for the role, there are plenty more companies who value character over experience. If you’ve gathered the right personal skills and demonstrated the right attitude (including the eagerness to learn the skills you’re missing) you’ve got a great chance of landing a PM role.
If you’re fresh out of college, you might try getting into an APM program rather than going straight for a job. Getting a product job with no product experience isn’t impossible, but getting a product job with no professional experience whatsoever is much more difficult!
Alternatively, you could build something for yourself while you work towards getting on the PM career ladder. Working on a side project shows off your entrepreneurial spirit, gives you something to stand out from the crowd, and lets you test out your product skills. Nothing teaches you how to build a digital product like…building a digital product!
Need some help getting started? Check out our free masterclass on building digital products!
Is Product Management hard/stressful?
Stress is relative, so while you may have seen your company’s Product Managers running around like headless chickens, chances are they’re thriving on it and wouldn’t have it any other way. In general, we don’t like to use the word ‘hard’ when talking about product. Challenging, certainly. But where’s the fun in a job that doesn’t challenge you?
Product Management may seem ‘hard’ from the outside because it’s fast-paced. Product Managers are known for bouncing in and out of meetings, and they have to make a conscious effort to carve out time for their individual contributions. The buck usually stops with the product team, meaning that a PM carries whether a product will succeed or not on their shoulders.
Product is a balancing act. You need to balance your own time, and the time you dedicate to your teams. You need to balance the demands of the customer, and the demands of the business. And when there’s ten loud voices in the room, you need to be the balancing voice of reason, and find the compromise.
Therein lies the challenge of Product Management! But where there’s challenge, there’s reward.
You might also be interested in: Why Do Product Managers Quit?
Many Paths Lead to Product
You’ve heard the expression ‘all roads lead to Rome.’ Well, many paths lead to product! Products are built for everyone, so they need to be built by everyone. Having a variety of perspectives, and a variety of strengths and weaknesses actually builds up a product team.
Building digital products is an art and a science, so if half of your team are artists and the other half are scientists, you’re in good form!
We’re about to dive into how a variety of disciplines can set you up for success as a Product Manager, but they’re only a selection of the most common transition paths. If you don’t see your current discipline on the list, don’t feel stuck!
Anyone with the right attitude, curiosity, and willingness to learn can become a Product Manager.
How to Transition to Product Management From…
Product Management (PM) and Project Management (PM) are the two most commonly confused disciplines. While Product has some similarities with Project, and uses many of the same skills, the two are quite different.
That being said, Project to Product is perhaps one of the most commonly seen transitions. As a Project Manager, you already have the time management, team leadership, and project planning skills that are used in Product.
This is perhaps the ‘cleanest’ transition to make, since the parallels between Product and Project are so well known. However, if you’ve not managed projects before in the digital software development space, you might need to take steps to familiarize yourself.
Moving from consultant to Product Manager is another common move, as you’re usually transitioning from things like business and technology, which are two of the three pillars of product (the third being design).
If you’re always working with Product Managers, you’ll already know how your day to day compares to theirs. The key difference between the roles is people management, which you’ll have to do on a daily basis as a PM. If you can find opportunities to take on a position of leadership, this will boost your skill set and help you make the move to PM.
Marketing and product go hand in hand nowadays, with many PMs keeping growth in mind. If you’re a marketer, there are several things you do all the time that are incredibly important for PMs. For starters, you’re already a wiz at user stories, user journeys, and user research.
Having a deep understanding of the customer and knowing how to talk to them is a great strength for any PM. Focusing on what you’ll bring to the PM role in terms of being the voice of the customer will set you up for success. Especially in very customer-centric companies and consumer products.
Check out: What Is Product Marketing?
While having technical knowledge isn’t an absolute prerequisite for landing a job in Product Management there are a milieu of reasons why engineers make great PMs. First of all, who works better with an engineering team than a former engineer?
Secondly, you’ll be able to work very quickly when it comes to the more technical aspects of the product development process, because you’ve done more of the work.
Being an engineer opens up many doors in the product world, as there are many roles particularly in the AI/ML space which require a higher level of technical knowledge from their PMs.
Design, being one of the major pillars of product, design is a great background for PMs to have. Firstly because you have a close understanding of user experience, wireframes, and how to actually design a product that people will actually enjoy using.
If you’re a product designer, chances are that you’ve already worked alongside PMs. That means you’re in a perfect position to observe what they do. See if you can get involved in some of the decision-making process, or shadow your company’s product team. That’ll give you a clearer idea of what skills you need to work on to become the perfect PM.
Quick-fire Round: Transferable Skills
These are just the most common paths for PMs to take, as they’re the roles within tech companies that work alongside other product people. In reality, PMs come from the widest range of backgrounds there is!
If you use your imagination, there’s a link between the PM skill set, and almost any skill set there is!
Customer service: Understanding how to solve customer/user problems with empathy and understanding.
Architecture: Experience with project planning and a strong understanding of design/logic.
Interior design: Experience working with customers and giving them what they need and not just what they want. A great eye for aesthetics.
Sales: Ability to meet targets and work under pressure. Works great with the sales team.
Lifeguard: Great at keeping an eye on a million things at once. Mission driven.
Personal trainer: Full of empathy for customers. Driven to help people solve their problems/reach their goals.
Freelancer: Excellent time management skills. Strong individual contributor. Self-starter.
Teacher: Crowd control! The voice of reason in a chaotic room.
Journalist: Great storyteller. Strong investigative skills.
And that’s just a portion of the possible backgrounds that make up the product community!
Updated: January 9, 2023