Break Down the Walls – Five Tips to Become a Product Manager

Break Down the Walls – Five Tips to Become a Product Manager

By far, one of the most common questions that I run across online and in discussions at events is how to transition into a Product Management role from outside.  This can often be a challenge, since in most companies there are relatively fewer Product Management roles than there are roles of other kinds — even development management jobs are more frequent and often more than Product Management, simply as a function of the number of teams your average Product Manager works with.  Here are a few tips on how to assess your readiness for such a transition, as well as how to achieve that transition if it’s really something you want.

1. Really Understand What You’re Getting Into

First, and foremost, someone who wants to be a Product Manager needs to really understand what that role is, and what it means — both in the abstract as well as in the specific organization in which you’re vying for the title.  A lot of people have an overgrown view of what Product Management is, what Product Managers do, and how we do it — everything from the belief on the part of some developers that we “do nothing” all the way to the belief that we “run the product.”  Both of those assessments could not possibly be further from the truth.

The blunt, honest truth is that Product Managers have no power or authority to directly get things done, yet carry the responsibility of ensuring that the product that they oversee grows, expands, and meets the expectations of every stakeholder in the organization.  It is a role that requires leadership through influence, soft skills and negotiation abilities, and overall an approach that is far more collaborative than it is directive.  Even in a company where the “PM is the CEO of the product,” that’s really a misnomer — the CEO is the CEO of the product, and of everything else.  The only thing that a rogue, dictatorial Product manager will wind up finding is a pink slip on their desk.

The “CEO of the product” is a misnomer – the CEO is the CEO of the product, and everything else.

Product Management is neither as useless as some people think, nor as glamorous as other people think.  Just like any other job, it has its ups and its downs — but if you’re looking for a job where you can be directive, or a job where you get all the credit for successes, Product Management is probably not a good one for you.

2. Understand What You Need to Succeed

While the specific job descriptions and duties of a Product Manager vary somewhat wildly between organizations, there are some predictable and general things that all Product Managers need to know in order to be successful:

Tech Knowledge

Even if you’re not a hugely tech-savvy person, you will have to have a basic, fundamental understanding of the technology that underlies the product that you’re using.  You’re going to need to effectively communicate to the developers what you need, and you’re going to need to translate what the developers tell you back to the business.  This doesn’t mean that you need to have in-depth technical experience, or a CS degree, or that you’ve built your own apps or websites (though, all of that can help…and it can hinder as well).  You need to be conversant enough that you can trust your developers and so that your developers can trust you.  The good thing is that this is something that you can learn through working with your development team — and, in fact, letting them “teach” you about the tech can be a strong team-building experience.

Product Knowledge

If understanding the tech was all you needed, then moving from a developer to a Product Manager wouldn’t be tough at all — unfortunately, tech skills are just one part of the total package that companies look for in Product Managers.  Another very important component is understanding the actual product itself, what problems it’s supposed to solve, how it’s used to solve those problems, what other components support the users in addition to the underlying technology stack.  All too often, developers and testers are focused on one sub-component of the overall product, so they don’t have the holistic view of the product necessary to make the transition into Product Management.  It’s the product manager’s job to see the forest for the trees, and to focus on the overall capabilities and functions of the product — as well to assess the service, integration, implementation, marketing, sales, and financial aspects of the product.  Knowing the “product” is much, much more than just knowing the tech.

Market Knowledge

Taking product knowledge one step further, a good Product Manager has their pulse on what the market as a whole is doing, where it’s going, and when something is just trendy versus when it’s an indicator of the future.  Product Managers spend a lot of time actively and passively ingesting market information — from trade shows to online communities to newsletters to physical publications — so that they can make informed decisions and provide data for their discussions and strategic goals.  Unfortunately, many Product Managers are also hamstrung in doing this — they are stymied by sales or account managers from learning from prospects and active customers, they’re held within the office by expectations of “availability” to the development and support teams, yet they’re still expected to be experts on the market.  Having a well-rounded and thorough understanding of the market is a great starting point — but a great Product Manager will also have to work to maintain it, and fight through objections and blockades to ensure that they get outside the four walls of their office on a regular basis.

User Knowledge

And, assuming that they are able to get outside those walls, the single most important group of people that Product Managers need to talk to are the users of their product.  It’s not sufficient to listen to your marketing team talk about their funnels and the success of their positioning; it’s not sufficient to review post-sales win/loss reports and prospecting lists — those people, they ones making buying decisions, are rarely the ones actually using your product.  More often than not, they’re several layers removed from the day-to-day needs of the users, and are making their own abstracted claims and demands, which may or may not reflect the reality on the ground.  As a Product Manager, you need to be able to work through those layers and get to the people actually using the product — you need to engage with them on their level, to drive toward a deep understanding of their problems, their use patterns, their needs, and ultimately determine what they’re not saying, but what’s actually most important to them.

A good Product Manager must have some combination of these areas of knowledge in order to be successful.  Just having one or two isn’t enough — though it could be a place to start.

3. Assess Your Own Strengths, Weaknesses, and Goals

Now that we’ve covered what you’re getting yourself into and what you need in order to be successful, it’s time for some introspection.  It’s highly likely that you don’t have everything that it takes to be the best of the best in Product Management — that portfolio of knowledge and skills is something that’s developed over time, after all.  So, you need to be willing and able to take a long, hard look in the mirror and assess yourself – what are your strengths?  What are your weaknesses? What can you do now and in the future to expand your horizons and skills so that you can be a better Product Manager?  Knowing what areas you need to work on allows you to focus on a plan to improve those areas, and provides you with answers to some of the harder Product Management interview questions.  It also lets you know where you’re likely to fall on a list of potential candidates — if all you have is user knowledge, or market knowledge, or tech knowledge, you’re going to have a hard row to hoe in order to float to the top of anyone’s candidate list.

4. Make the Existing Team Aware of Your Interest

By far the easiest way to move into Product Management is within whatever organization you’re currently working for.  Chances are good that, by your mere presence in the environment, you’ve gained some amount of tech, product, market, and user knowledge.  Plus, there’s already a group of people doing the job, whom you can talk with and engage with, and most importantly express your interest in joining.  Most Product Managers love it when someone expresses interest in their job, and many of them are more than happy to include others in tasks and projects, so that some of the drudgery can be delegated while we go back to our preferred strategic thinking.  If the team knows that you’re interested, then they can provide direct feedback on how they see you and your skills, as well as a potential roadmap for including you in the team’s work and eventually bringing you onboard as a Product Manager.  Keep in mind, this is not an overnight event (in most cases), it’s something that you can use to develop those soft-skill leadership through influence abilities that will be key to your success in the future.

5. Position Your Experience for the Role

Lastly, and perhaps the most directly actionable part of this article, you need to be able to position your experience for the role that you want.  I’ve seen far too many people attempt to break into Product Management with a resume and cover letter that simply reflect whatever role they’ve had before, without any indication of the peculiarities and capabilities that are specific to Product Management.  For some people, this can take a lot of work — for others, it might just be a few minutes’ polish on their resume.  But, if you want to ensure that you are maximizing your chances of breaking into Product Management, you need to make sure that your resume shows that you have taken time to understand the role, and that you can properly position your past experience in terms of tech, product, market, and user knowledge.  If you’re a developer, talk about how you solved problems and how you prioritized things that were important to users.  If you’re a tester, talk about how you approached your testing from the viewpoint of an end user, and how you determined what you believed their goals to be.  If you’re a support tech, talk about your engagement with the customer and what you learned from them when solving their problems.  Sure, there’s likely to be a little “spin” involved — but remember that 90% of your future job as a Product Manager is going to be influencing people.  If you can’t do that to some degree out of the gate, then you might be looking at the wrong career path.

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