To say that I have followed an unconventional path to becoming a product manager is a little bit of an understatement.
Engineering → Writing → Game Design → General Management → Product Management
So one of the most frequent questions I get asked is: “how do I transition to a product management role?”. And while my career path seems to indicate that I should have a really good answer to this question, the reality is that I got incredibly lucky many times over.
However, that is not the answer most people are looking for and it isn’t very helpful. So this post is an attempt to help those who are looking to make this transition.
Do you really want to be a product manager?
My first instinct is to dissuade good developers and designers from going down this path. If you have built great credibility in your domain and have a clear growth path in front of you, then don’t fall for the PM trap. It is not a bed of roses. It takes much longer to prove your credibility and you will constantly suffer from imposter syndrome. And while most organizations claim to be product lead, they are in reality product enabled/ supported. PMs usually get all the brickbats and none of the bouquets.
So who should consider this switch?
You enjoy cross-functional roles and thrive at intersections - technology, user experience, business objectives
You enjoy problem-solving and decision making
You prefer developing breadth (multiple domains) over depth (single domain)
You enjoy the act of written articulation - vision, objectives, requirements, memos
You enjoy working with people and the act of coordination
You have a deep love of user/ consumer psychology and behaviour
It is also easiest to make this transition at your existing organization as the leadership team already knows you and trusts you. Jumping into a completely new domain at a different organization is far harder. More on this later.
What if I am not an engineer?
People with strong technical backgrounds usually make good PMs. The operative word is “usually”. Over the years I have also worked with great PMs who came from various other backgrounds - commerce, business, art and design. A strong technical background helps but what is truly required is a deeper appreciation for what engineers do on a day to day basis. A lot of the other technical chops can be acquired.
An engineer’s time is your single biggest asset as a PM. What you do with it translates into eventual success.
As a PM you will never be required to code (apart from writing an occasional query), but having an understanding of the following helps:
Algorithms and the fundamentals of computing
How scalable web architectures and distributed systems are built
The idea is to know just enough about technology that you can aid the development process and not be a blocker. It also helps to understand tech capabilities and limitations.
There are specific products where one will have to develop deeper technical expertise (search, personalization, recommendation, ads). So be prepared to learn. But a sufficiently intelligent and curious person should be able to thrive in any product role.
What about ownership?
What sets good product managers apart is ownership. They bring order to chaos and the people around them depend on them to make the right calls. They make it a point to do their homework and answer the following for their teams and everyone else in the organization:
Why are we building this?
Why would users care?
How would we go about solving this problem?
What are the specific decisions we will make to succeed?
What does success look like?
What did we learn from doing this?
What can we do better next time?
So how do I make this transition?
As mentioned earlier, it is easiest to jump into product management at your current org where you have sufficient credibility with your team and leadership. Be prepared to jump through hoops and meet the same standard as any other incoming PM. The ideal way is to convince the product team/ leader to give you a project for 3 to 6 months whose outcomes you own end to end.
Learn from credible external sources and get yourself certified. Showcasing this intent will go a long way with potential recruiters. But remember - PMing is learnt by doing. So the proof will be in the pudding.
Do an internship (minimum 6 months) at an org you admire. A successful internship is the best way for you to move into a full-time product role.
Be ready to take a step down and start from scratch. You might be a seasoned sales executive, but you should be ready to start as an APM or PM-1. Leverage your past experience - it will help you grow faster.
Find the right opportunities. Larger, well-established orgs usually look to hire established PMs. Very few places run APM programs. Give early stage and mid-stage companies a chance. They are starved for good talent and find it difficult to compete with the larger orgs. You will still have to take a step down - but can grow much faster at a younger organization.
Build things - products, services, flows - on your own time. Showcase these to others. Build a portfolio of your product understanding.
Do product deconstructs. Gather insights. Read and become well-rounded.