Breaking into Product Management: 3 Proven Paths

How does one break into product management? I interviewed 30 product managers to find out.

There are as many ways to get into product management as there are Trump tweets about Hillary’s emails. So what are the most common ways people break into product? I interviewed 30+ product managers to find answers, and I found 3 patterns worth highlighting. 

NOTE: All product manager names, specific locations and company names have been left anonymous, as promised to interviewees I surveyed.

penguins.jpg

1 — Technical Pivot

Perhaps unsurprisingly, about half of product managers I surveyed came from the engineering side, and either have a computer science (or similar) degree, or a few years of engineering experience under their belt... or both. 

The benefit of this path: You’ll get immediate respect from your engineers, since you’re one of them. You understand the tech stack, you have a good pulse on how long engineering tasks take, and you can easily write technical requirements when needed. All awesome benefits!

The challenge with this path: Some PMs I interviewed mentioned they still find themselves writing code, which can distract from product responsibilities.

Why do engineers pivot to product?

Many product managers who took this path mentioned they discovered a passion for solving business and customer problems.

I found what I really loved doing [was] bring business and technology together to solve a real problem — Head of PM, UK
I gradually discovered my love for working with people and help them solve complex problems. — Sr Product Manager, USA
code.png

2 — The SME Segue

If you’re a subject-matter expert in Finance and want to move into product management, you should look for positions on teams building finance products. This may be obvious, but this path is often overlooked. Do you have subject-matter expertise in a specific field or industry? If so, that knowledge may be your ticket into a product management role. 

The benefit of this path: Because you’re a subject-matter expert in the area, you already intimately know your target customer.

The challenge with this path: Subject-matter experts who have never worked on a product team may struggle at first with understanding SDLC and working with engineering teams.

Why do SMEs segue to product?

One particularly endearing PM with an HR background that I interviewed went through a brutal winter in Chicago, which prompted her to head back to California, where she grew up. Moving home, she realized a huge part of her network worked in tech, and she learned about jobs she didn’t know existed. 

Another product manager mentioned she got ‘bad grades’ as a university student because she was always playing online games. It turns out her online gaming habit landed her a PM position.

“I got a call back from a contests website, and when they found out I played games during the interview, they offered me a job in their gaming division.” — Gaming Product Manager, UK
puzzle piece.jpg

3 — Consulting Converts

Working in consulting gives you exposure to lots of different industries. As a consultant, you also get to know companies you’re consulting at pretty intimately, and you have a chance to figure out which ones you’d want to stick with long term.

The benefit of this path: A few years of consulting provides exposure to lots of different industries, which can serve as a sort of boot camp. That breadth of knowledge and experience is very valuable in product management. Consultants are also typically well-versed in collaborating with lots of different departments and personalities, which is a great skill that all product managers need.

The challenge with this path: Consultants that enjoy tackling a specific problem for a set period of time may get bored working on one singular product long-term. Some former consultants also noted that sticking it out in consulting for a few years requires stamina — working for a big consulting firm means long hours, and often frequent travel that can keep you away from home for weeks (or months) at a time.

Why do consultants convert to product?

Some product managers with a consulting background mentioned that although a couple of years of consulting gave them invaluable experience , they eventually wanted a longer-term commitment to one product that they could nurture and watch grow beyond a short-term consulting gig.

It was a very natural transition because I was already the product expert from the data science side and knew the team I’d be working with. — Product Manager, USA
It sounded really exciting to take my project management skills to the next level and have more control and responsibility for the product I was working on. — Product Manager, USA
[My first year in consulting] was the toughest year of my career, but it brought me clarity. It led me to understand that my passions lie in driving impact, not from the outside in (as consultants) but as an insider. — Director of Product Management, India

---

I’ve only highlighted three of many possible paths into product. I’ll be writing more (and talking more) about this subject on my blog (Product Popcorn), and on the Product Popcorn Podcast (subscribe for free on iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher!)

tech girl smiling.jpg