Jumping into Product Management

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This is not the first time that such an article is written online but as more and more people are asking me for advice on how to make the transition to a Product Management job and how to prepare for this jump, I figured I’d write my suggestions down.

How to prepare

I’ve found that two things have been helpful in me landing a job and keeping it. Reading many, many books and maybe doing some side jobs to make all the mistakes I couldn’t make in my daily job (not that I didn’t make any there too).

Read these books

Inspired - Marty Cagan

There’s probably no introduction needed for this one and I’m happy that more and more people looking to break into Product Management have already read this book. If there is one thing that I can keep from it is the differentiation between Product Managers and Project Managers/Product Owners. Being aware of the slight nuances in the strategic and discovery aspects of the roles will help you land the best possible first job.

User Story Mapping - Jeff Patton

Even though I keep repeating myself on the importance of discovery tasks in a PM’s skillset, you will still have to take care of execution and delivery of projects and this is my favourite book that explains how all these agile terms of user stories, epics, fit together. As a bonus Jeff teaches you a great tool for managing releases, the User Story map, which will help you so much that it will almost feel like cheating when using that.

Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights - Steven Portigal

User Research occupies a big part of a Product Manager’s activities, during the discovery phase, especially since UX researchers are a rare resource in organizations so it is important that you know how to talk to customers and users (and these two are not always the same) in order to get insights, explore problems, test ideas. There is a wealth of useful information in this book but my favourite advice is that of becoming comfortable with awkward silences - a useful skill in cases outside of work too.

Strategize - Roman Pichler

This one is more about the tactical stuff and offering (very useful) examples than learning theoretical frameworks and principles but there will be times when you will be asked to participate in a roadmap session and even just knowing the difference between a product vision and a product strategy will make this short read worth it.

Crossing the Chasm - Geoffrey A. Moore

This one is essential for anyone jumping in a B2B (SaaS possibly) job. You will probably not be able to act upon the things that you read there but if you don’t want to get lost in discussions about “early adopters” and “visionaries” during product roundtables, you will at least want to skim the basic principles from this book. It will help you better understand what your line manager or mentor will mean by “the Market”.

Designing Delivery - Jeff Sussna

Alright, this kinda slipped in this list even though it’s not a mandatory read for you to apply as a PM. But, really, there is so much concentrated and well written knowledge about the IT industry and important trends such as automation, DevOps, microservices, continuous design, design thinking that even though these will not be core to your skillset, you will gain a lot from knowing what they are, why they came to be and how you could apply them at your job.

Run a side project

If you have the available free time, then the best way to apply the above knowledge is to run a side project. That college friend of yours who had an idea about a new business, or that side gig because you’re not happy at your day job? These are good examples of trying out these things but it also doesn’t have to be something outside of your day job. 

You could also ask to participate in a PM related project within your own company or shadow an existing PM and try to alleviate them, initially, from some of the low-risk tasks. The point is to get your foot through the door and even fake that “Product Owner” title for a few months in your Linkedin profile - every little bit counts.

Study the company

If there is a company to which you want to apply, there are a lot of points you can gain by studying them, their product and their market before you talk to them. Making bullet points of:

  • What does their product do well? Why are they successful so far?

  • What could it do better in your opinion?

  • What is the current market it is currently on? Look at analyst reports (Gartner, Forrester, Thoughtworks) for what the company says on their website their market is and drill down from there.

  • Who is the biggest player in this market? What do they do better than the company you’re applying for?

  • What are some possible threats to the company from newer players?

Making the jump

One thing that I want to emphasize is that even if you haven’t read or done all of the above you could still go ahead and apply for a PM job. Why?

Well, for start there is a smaller PM talent pool out there than you think and you could actually land a positive answer without even ticking all the boxes. If that happens, then congrats, you’re half-way there and there’s no need to keep reading.

The other reason that you should apply for is that in an inception-like kind of metaphor, you are practicing one of the most important PM muscles by applying for this job without being ready: lea(r)n. If the project or “product” of yours is to land a PM job then the Minimum Viable Product for this is to engage in an interview and learn:

  • What does a PM interview feel like?

  • What is expected by an entry level PM?

  • What are the common questions that are asked?

And you could even ask for tips for your next lined up interviews. The mentality here is about being “Lean” and launching your project (by getting yourself exposed to the reality of interviewing with an actual possible employer) and learning what your next steps should be as early as possible without spending a lot of effort.

If you are treating this project by doing a lot of preparation and aiming for a “big bang” then you have already failed your PM interview before even participating in it.

Apply for Junior/Associate roles

So there are a lot of companies, with Google at the leading front, that have entry level PM jobs for which you can apply without having the relative experience. That’s what you should aim for and if you have the possibility to apply to companies worldwide then things will be much easier for you.

Some other companies might call these positions “Junior Product Managers” and some others might even call them “Product Owners” by which they mean “Project Managers”. I tend to dislike these job postings that focus only on the delivery side of things and are all about “keeping the engineers busy” but at this early stage in your PM career that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is a lot to be learned on the execution side of things, from agile methodologies to managing releases to gathering feedback from the market and there’s nothing mandating that these companies are not open to you trying your discovery skills out and getting a piece of the strategy.

Your Cover letter

There are numerous cover letter templates out there so I won’t bore you with the details. The specific parts that you need to keep in mind here are:

  • Be honest: you don’t have experience, but you want to learn. You might have some relevant experience, though, whether that is on the UX front (talking to users), on the market front (writing copy for marketing) or on the project management front and it won’t hurt to mention that there.

  • Also, make it about them: what will they gain by getting you onboard? The fact that you will learn the job is great thing for you and their karma but it will probably not add anything to their short term bottom line. Focus on either project management skills that you can already apply (this is always useful and can gain you time until you start doing everything a PM does), or any of the other bits that you mentioned in your relevant experience above.

  • Be precise: don’t be afraid of a short cover letter. In fact, with the given lack of experience, more verbosity will only weaken your message and give a bad impression. One of the most important jobs for a PM is to communicate a message to other stakeholders. Nay, more than that, it is to get buy-in from these stakeholders and this requires distilling down the message to its bare essentials and only adding colour where needed - it’s very hard work and requires a lot of practice. The good thing is that your cover letter is a small piece of text with a very clear target and no (not a lot of) time pressure, which are luxuries you will not have in your PM job - use that space and time to iterate on your message.

Your Interview

So, you’ve applied and you’re invited for an interview. Have a look at the interview questions I posted a while back to see what you would expect. I admit that they might be a bit dated and focused too much on the process but I would now also add some questions about the product such as:

  • Did you use our product?

  • What did you find useful and why do you think is the reason that we are successful/still in business?

In which you will list the results of your research you did above in the “Study the company” section and hopefully gain some points.

About the elephant in the room, the lack of experience on product processes you could play it either way:

  • Present relevant experience from your past, such as “managing a team of engineers to release a feature X in this way” when asked “now did you deliver a project” but try not to recite examples that are too disconnected.

  • After reading all these books you should probably by now have an idea of how you would want to do things in the future. This is something that you can mention in the interview, for example “I managed this project by asking for strict estimations and in the end the developers were disengaged, next time I would like to try out a User Story Map session to get their involvement and buy-in”. Sometimes eagerness to try out new things beats experience.

And as always, stay cool and don’t lose faith if you don’t succeed in your first interviews. Just like with apartment hunting, job searching doesn’t need to have a high percentage of success - you only need to apply a lot and succeed once.

If you have any questions or would like some help or clarifications about the above reach out on Twitter or LinkedIn. A lot of great people have helped me in the past with my career and I would be very happy to give something back to the next generation of PMs.