How to break into product management from your current role
Consultants, project managers, software engineers… this is for you.
June 8, 2020 5 min read
I receive random requests from people who want to chat about breaking into product management. The number of these requests grew exponentially when I started recruiting product managers. Little do people know that four years ago, I was one of those people making the same request. Can I please set up 30-minutes with you to learn more about your role? Thanks and appreciate it!
Since then, breaking into product has become increasingly popular and competitive. When I was hiring a junior product manager, I was flooded with applications and requests to talk from people who didn’t even meet my minimum requirement of 1 year of experience. The most popular job titles I saw from these people were:
- Project Manager
- Software Engineer
In the earlier days, I entertained many of these calls and found myself spending hours giving the same advice, adjusting mostly for the person’s current title.
Breaking into product
Product management is a lot of things, but it can be simplified as the intersection of HBT:
- Human: Is the product usable?
- Business: Is the product viable?
- Technology: Is the product feasible?
If you’re not familiar with the HBT framework, there are countless resources you can Google. If you accept that Product Management = HBT, then breaking into product becomes an exercise of figuring out which HBT you are suited to capitalize on and which you lack experience in and need to beef up.
Breaking into product as a consultant
There are many flavors of consulting, but consultants are generally business-savvy and less experienced with execution. In fact, many consultants are attracted to product management because it would allow them to take a project from start to finish, instead of from start to partway, when they hand the project back to their clients.
My advice to consultants looking to break into product:
- Invest in the human and/or tech vectors of HBT. Do you know how to conduct user research? Can you tell me why a UX is poor and what would make it better? Would you feel comfortable describing the backend of a product you’re trying to build? If your answer is “no” to any of these questions, get Googling and learning. Find ways to apply your knowledge and get real-life experiences, whether it’s working on a side project, volunteering your knowledge for a not-for profit, or something else.
- Prove that you can execute from end to end. The problem with a typical consulting experience is that your project took 3 months. It’s rare, especially in a big company, for a product to launch, or even pilot, in 3 months; that’s the time it takes to get research and socialization going. You will be a stronger candidate if you know what it’s like to work on a 3+ month project, overcoming technical and political roadblocks, stressing over the operational details, and monitoring user reactions as you deliver an imperfect product. Not everyone gets this opportunity at work, so seek it elsewhere; see advice #1.
- Capitalize on your industry knowledge. Talk or show how your industry experience is relevant to the hiring team’s suite of products. Let your lack of product experience be your biggest caveat; don’t let your knowledge of the industry be it.
Breaking into product as a project manager
A lot of non-industry people confuse product and project, but everyone who’s in the know understands that they’re vastly different roles (I know because I started as a project manager). As a project manager, your HBT skills are not inherently obvious and hiring managers may dismiss you as someone who just knows how to coordinate and facilitate (which are also important product management skills).
My advice to project managers looking to break into product:
- Shadow or partner with a product manager. A lot of people want to be a product manager, but I sometimes find that they don’t truly understand what the job entails. By shadowing or partnering with a product manager, you’ll get a better understanding of your skill gaps and how your existing skill sets align with theirs.
- Figure out your HBT selling point. As a project manager, your HBT knowledge is not inherently obvious so capitalize on your strongest HBT and assume that the other two will be learning curves for you. Maybe you’re a project manager with a light coding background (capitalize on T) or a psychology/HCI background (capitalize on H), or maybe you ran a small passion project as a side gig (capitalize on B). Think of ways you can beef up your HBTs, whether it’s working on a side project, volunteering your knowledge for a not-for profit, or something else.
Breaking into product as a software engineer
Most software engineers are happy doing what they were trained to do, but once in a while, you find an engineer thinking, “I like tech, but I don’t want to code.” A good chunk of these engineers turn to product management since they often worked with product people and liked what they saw.
My advice to software engineers looking to break into product:
- Invest in the business and/or human vectors of HBT. Do you know your business’s revenue and cost drivers? Can you tell me why a company would want to strategically invest in a product? Do you know how to conduct user research? Can you tell me why a UX is poor and what would make it better? If your answer is “no” to any of these questions, get Googling and learning. Find ways to apply your knowledge and get real-life experiences, whether it’s working on a side project, volunteering your knowledge for a not-for profit, or something else.
- Don’t get bogged down by the technical details. One of the traps you might fall into is being “too technical” (you never thought this was going to be a bad thing, did you?). As a product manager, you need to think a level higher and not get too enamoured by the technical solution. Just as you may have strong opinions on the technical architecture, you also need to be able to fairly consider the business factors and customers needs. Sell your technical know-how, but don’t let that be the reason why they pass on you.
Following my advice won’t guarantee that you will land your dream product role, but I’m confident you will better your chances by identifying which HBTs you are suited to capitalize on and beefing up the HBTs that you lack, however you want to approach that.