Since shifting into Product Coaching, one of the most common areas of focus has been helping people make the transition to product management from another job, career, or discipline. The interest in the topic has been a bit surprising to me because I believe Gayle Laakmann McDowell and Jackie Bavaro’s Cracking the PM Interview, is a stellar work on the mechanics of the product management interview. But what I realized is that the Google interview process—is strongly divorced from the real-world roles most likely to higher new PMs to discipline.
The good news is that there are community resources such as Reddit and Twitter to help on the journey. Also, while there are several paid programs, and while I haven’t had direct experience with any, the feedback I’ve read is mixed as best.
Which brings us to our upcoming workshop, this past week, I had a conversation with Matt Wallaert, author Start at The End, on an attribute we have in common. He speaks, offers open office hours, and does a ton in the community turning down paid offerings, and similarly, Praxis Product Leadership Cohort is free for Leaders. The topic we riffed on is—why? My response was that none of my mentors charged me, so charging people, especially new to the discipline looking to make their way feels antithetical to the discipline.
Product management is an apprentice craft. We learn by doing.
The secret to getting into product management is three things:
- Developing credentials.
- Landing the job.
- Mastering the role.
If you can get a product management role without the credentials, do so. But most of us coming from outside the discipline, need to get some to land the job. The simplest way to think about it is that a hiring manager has three risks that guide how far you’re considered:
- Job risks. Risk that you can’t do the job.
- Industry risk. Risk that you can’t adjust to the industry.
- Team risk. Risk that you can’t work with the team.
Through credentials and other signals, your goal is to minimize the risks. So the easiest transition to the discipline would be at a company where the team is familiar with you—that brings the team risk to zero, and most likely, it reduces the industry risk as well (since your working at the company).
Landing the job
However, outside of transferring at your current company, you’ll most likely need to signal that you are a reduced job risk. Most people address this job risk with their prior product management experience, however, that’s a bit like saying you need ID to get ID, so we’ll skip over that. The two components of job risk are:
Know what comprises the distinct skills that go into product management: defining a product vision, defining roadmaps, managing internal stakeholder roadmap negotiations, communicating and managing product execution, business modeling, reasoning through data, market and consumer research, and product intuition.
Know-how is applying that knowledge. Think about it this way—a baseball enthusiast has significant knowledge about the dynamics at play when a batter steps into the batter’s box with a runner on second, know-what, but has zero know-how as to how to hit the pitch.
So, while you can get a lot of know-what by reading books and different courses, know-how will remain a significant risk. There are two ways of developing know-what:
- Build something. Specifically, a lot of something. I recommend always have an active personal project that is within your skill and budget to build.
- Take an existing product. Build out a high-fidelity backlog and roadmap. What might the backlog for the Facebook app look like? Build out the user stories and the roadmap. Develop a market research perspective based on the information you can find.
Of the two, I strongly recommend you build something unless skills and budget preclude you from doing so. Building is how I got into Product Management. It dramatically reduces job risk because a good PM is someone who knows how to ship—and doing so in a scrappy way highlights that you know how to motivate, rally, and align teams.
Build something. Always Be Building.
My core tenant, Always Be Building, is based on the firm belief that you are accountable for your career and not your manager and not your company. And since the most important aspect where you go in your career is your experience—don’t just leave your career experience to the luck of what you can experience you can gain on your job. It won’t always match where the industry is heading.
My core tenant: Always Be Building.
Build your pre-resume
Once you’ve reduced the job risk, you’ve got to shape your resume and experience to your market opportunity. I call this the pre-resume.
The job of the pre-resume is to analyze the market and to develop a plan for acquiring the skills or highlighting that you have the skills that specifically meet your hiring manager’s needs.
In short, analyze your job market. What are the major problems these companies are trying to solve with their job postings, what uniquely do you bring to the table to solve it? Often, you’ll find in your pre-resume that there simply aren’t a lot of product management jobs in your market. Here you need to make one of two decisions—be comfortable with the idea that this may take a long time (multi-year transitions are not uncommon) just to find the right role or change your market to a market with more product opportunities.
If you’re in a big market but don’t have the experience needed to get in the door directly as a PM, you might choose the closest non-PM role to make the transition there. I re-joined Microsoft as a Supportability PM to get the PM title—and shift to feature PM from there.
(Pre-resume example template coming the week of June 22)
Building a Pitch
Finally—what’s your pitch? What uniquely do you bring to the table that peaks the hiring manager’s interest on paper and in-person.
My pitch when I moved into product—“I help engineering teams and design teams work better together.” My supporting evidence: “I’ve lead startups, I’ve led a world-class design team, and I’ve studied masters coursework in design and business.”
My pitch was perfectly suited for the time. When I changed disciplines in the late aughts, companies were trying to learn how to adapt their development process to compete on experience.
Everyone has a pitch, this is where a lot of people lose themselves, and authentic self-confidence plays a significant role in who makes the shift and who doesn’t. If I was a Baker my pitch might sound like:
I started my career as a baker—which means I’ve learned to listen to customers with empathy, develop creative products, and manage a timeline—from the trenches. It also means my teams have the lowest attrition–because I supply the baked goods for our release parties.
Learn more about developing your pitch:
- Good in A Room, Stephanie Palmer–the trailers and teasers section is helpful
- Brag! Peggy Klaus–the brag sheet is particularly useful
- Pitch Anything, Oren Klaff–Phase 1: Introducing Yourself and the Big Idea
Before the interview.
Have the answer to these two questions prepared and rehearsed:
- Tell me about yourself—your narrative needs to be interesting, have a pitch, and resonate specifically with that company’s current needs.
- How can you uniquely help our company—do the research, use their products, what do you uniquely bring?
In the interview.
Admit what you’ll need to learn on the job and what you bring to the table. Be very comfortable with what you offer. Be unapologetic about what you need to learn. Every candidate will have some area to develop, be open and candid about yours—but also highlight your unique assets—the pitch, which will be valuable and distinct from the next person you interview.
Mastering the role.
The secret to becoming a great product manager is to learn from great product managers. So find mentors in your network and beyond. Set aside a monthly budget of time and money to invest in your education.
And if you’re ready to take it to the next level, apply for our invite-only Praxis Product Leadership program for Leaders.
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