Product management sits at the intersection of defining the customer experience, and driving business performance. It’s a high profile, demanding and satisfying role at the center of digital first companies, and one of the fastest growing jobs right now. Product managers (PMs) are by definition senior positions at most companies, and disproportionately go on to become CEOs or found companies themselves. However, without a clear path into it, it should be no surprise that a common question is: “How do I break into product management?”
This is the first of a five part series about breaking into product management:
- Four routes into product management <- this article
- Soft skills to accelerate your PM career
- Hard skills to accelerate your PM career
- How to write an awesome PM resume
- Building a network to break into product management
What is product management
Product managers lead cross functional teams of developers, designers and other specialists to understand customer and business needs, and create solutions that deliver value for both. Broadly you are:
- Defining the business objectives for the team
- Understanding customer needs
- Designing solutions to those customer needs
- Developing go-to-market plans for new solutions
- Keeping everyone in the team and the wider company involved in decisions, and clear on what is happening
Routes into product management
Most people get into product management through one of four routes:
- Internal transfer
- Joining a startup
- Via an Associate Product Manager (APM) role
- Founding a business
You need to think about this as a journey however, not a one-off goal. Depending on where you start, and how lucky you get, it might take a couple of years (or more!) to work your way into a PM role. Take ownership of your career and persevere. Every product manager has been through this process ahead of you, and you can do it too.
This is the most common way for people to break into product management. Having started their career as a developer, designer, in marketing or operations, they make a lateral move at their existing company into a product management role. The big benefit here is that you’re not trying to learn how to be a PM, navigate a new company and understand its customers all at the same time.
It’s easiest to move from roles adjacent to product teams, where you’ve some understanding of how they work, and what the role of a PM involves. If this is your goal, you should be very explicit with your line manager about your aspirations, impress product hiring managers at every opportunity, and try to put together a formal transition plan.
Whilst this is often the easiest and fastest way into product management, it’s also fragile. You need a supportive line manager, a product hiring manager willing to take a risk on you, and there needs to be product management opportunities at the right level at your current company. Without all three of these things in place, you won’t be able to make the move.
Make a realistic assessment of whether this is true, or whether you’ll need to consider another route. The last thing you want to happen is that you spend a couple of years working on this route for it to fail, so be honest with yourself about the signals you are getting from the organization, and investigate other routes in parallel.
Joining a startup
Early stage startups – perhaps up to 40-50 people – are generally working out product market fit and their go-to-market strategy. They are undergoing a lot of change as they figure these things out, and often look for smart generalists that can help out on a variety of topics from automating ops processes with no-code tools, to growth hacking their first few customers, to helping out with product work.
Early stage startups also find it difficult to hire product managers with big tech experience, even if they are clear on the need. The best PMs with existing experience will aim to work for more established companies that can pay more. If you enjoy how dynamic / chaotic these environments can be, this gives you an opportunity to start doing work that you wouldn’t be qualified for elsewhere.
Getting a personal intro to a founder or key team member and appearing smart, proactive and resilient will go a long way to securing a job. One approach is to do a UX critique or user research on their product and present this back to them. This will demonstrate not only your passion for their product, but also your ownership and proactiveness.
You can find startups that are hiring on Wellfound, Otta and Hacker News, and should network like crazy to generate opportunities.
Once companies start to mature, they often start offering junior roles in their core disciplines (engineering, product, etc.) to help cover their long term staffing needs. These roles are excellent places to break into product management because you will be joining an established product organization with processes to follow, senior people to learn from and a brand to go on your CV. As a result, these roles are often incredibly competitive, and attract extremely high potential candidates. Indeed, this is another reason that companies start to offer them, is that the raw potential of their APMs will likely exceed that of their more experienced hires.
If you have a degree in computer science, an MBA, a track record of achievement from a great university (including plenty of side projects, sports, community building or the like), then you should definitely try this route. If you can, ask a mentor whether your profile is strong enough, or make a few applications and see if you even get a call back from HR. If not, you’ll want to work on the hard and soft skills later in this series to build credibility, and look at other routes in the meantime.
Note that this approach is more appropriate for people closer to the start of their careers. If you’ve already got significant work experience and seniority, then you might be able to preserve some of your level in lateral move (e.g. Director of Insights -> Head of Product).
Start your own business
Becoming a product manager isn’t usually the impetus for starting your own business… but it’s surprising how many people have ended up becoming one via this route! Being a founder is *hard* work, requiring a level of intensity and commitment that other jobs (even PMs!) don’t need. It’s financially risky, emotionally draining, and overhyped in the media. The likely outcome is that you pour your heart and soul into something for several years, only for it not to work out.
However, if you’ve already committed to being a founder, have realized it’s not working out and are starting to wonder what’s next, then product could be a great next step. Founders are fundamentally builders, and being a founder requires all the skills that a good PM does. You need to understand your customers, your business, work with others to make things happen and take complete ownership for the product or service that gets delivered to your users.
Look for companies in the same industry as your startup, where the industry knowledge you’ve accumulated over your founder journey will be valued. Write your CV to highlight the product-oriented activities you’ve been doing (e.g. working with engineers, designers) and the outcomes you have created.
There are four main routes that people use to break into product management:
- Internal transfer
- Joining a startup
- Via an APM role
- Founding a business
Breaking into product management can take a year or two, even for highly capable people with great CVs. If you are sure this is the right path for you, commit to the journey and you’ll make it eventually.
Next in this series: Soft skills to accelerate your PM career
- List of APM programs by Exponent
- The Associate Product Manager Playbook by Will Lawrence
- How To Get Into Product Management (And Thrive) by Lenny Rachitsky
- How to Become a Product Manager Without Experience by Clement Kao
- When is Product Management NOT the right job for you by Aatir Abdul Rauf
- How to become a Product Manager (Complete Guide!) by Diego Granados
- Transitioning to Product Management by Shyvee Shi
- Breaking Into Product Management Out of College: Practical Guidelines by Shehab Beram
How can I be a product manager with no experience?
The simple answer is to build the experience you need, and then reflect that on your resume. If you’re already employed at a technology company then join or lead a cross functional project which gets you exposure to product and engineering. If you’re not at a company where that is possible, then think about what projects you can do in your spare time to build your experience. Perhaps you can build your own website, run some analysis of another product, or do a UX teardown of a favorite product you use.
How can I break into product management from engineering?
Moving from engineering into product is one of the easier ways to break into product management. Speak to the product manager on your team and see if you can get more involved in the tasks that they are handling, like speaking to customers, analyzing user behavior and communicating the strategy and progress of what you’re doing. At the same time, be explicit with your line manager and product leadership that this is what you’d like to do, and discuss how to make the move.
How can I get a job in product management?
There are four main ways to break into product management. The easiest is if you can make a lateral move at your current company. Usually you’ll need experience working closely with a cross functional product team. You could also join a startup as their first product manager, as they are often looking for smart generalists that are flexible in what they can do. Another route is to find an Associate Product Manager (APM) role at an established company. Finally, a lot of people who have founded their own companies develop the skills and experience they need to break into product, by acting as the PM in their own startup.
How can I get an entry level product management job?
To get an entry level product management job, you’ll want to demonstrate a track record of achievement in your academic and personal life, as well as the hard and soft skills that PMs use. The soft skills that are important for PMs are: leadership, communication, decision making, execution and strategic thinking. The hard skills that are important for PMs are commercial acumen, quantitative thinking, qualitative thinking, product sense and product development. Once you can demonstrate these skills you can apply to APM roles at established tech companies.
How can I build a career in product management?
To build a career in product management you’ll want to get a PM role at a company where you can learn on the job and from those around you. The skills that you need to break into product management are the same ones that you will need to develop your career. Build your professional network of people working in product so you can learn from others, and consider going on some formal courses to further develop your skills.
How do new graduates break into product management
New graduates can sometimes break into product by getting an Associate Product Manager (APM) role at an established tech company. However, in many companies, product management roles are fairly senior by default, as you’ll be leading a cross-functional team of engineers, designers and other specialists. Try to get some experience working in an adjacent field and work on developing the other skills you need to break into product management over time.