Three Steps to Break Into Product Management

Three Steps to Break Into Product Management

Product Management is a hot role in the current market, partly because there are companies realizing the importance of the role, and partly because everyone seems to think that they can do the job.  Without opining on either of those driving forces, in my experience there are three key things that any candidate can do to optimize their chances of actually snatching a Product Management role: assessing your skills, positioning your experiences, and pitching yourself effectively.  If you can master these three key components, you’ll be best positioned to take your next role in Product Management — no matter where you’re coming from.

Step 1: Assess Your Skills

First, and perhaps most importantly, you need to take a moment to stop and assess your own skillset.  Fortunately, Product Management tends to be a very “jack-of-all-trades” role, so what you’re really aiming for here is not so much a strict “what are all my strengths” assessment, but more of a holistic look at what your strengths and weaknesses are, so that you can best identify the appropriate opportunities for you to pursue.  If you’re not highly technical, then you need to ensure that you cover the marketing and sales side of Product Management effectively; conversely, if you’re strongly technical, you might not need to be the best at product positioning and pricing analysis.  I tend to think that it’s best for a prospective Product Manager to rank themselves on the following 5×5 scale:

  • Market Knowledge (1-5)
  • Product Knowledge (1-5)
  • Technical Knowledge (1-5)
  • Process Knowledge (1-5)
  • Soft Skills (1-5)

Even using this rough measure of your capabilities, you’ll gain a better understanding of the kinds of roles and types of companies that you’re likely to be successful in pursuing — and more importantly, succeeding in!

Step 2: Position Your Experience

Once we get some perspective on our actual skill levels, we need to take a very close look at how we can position our past roles as evidence of our Product Management skills.  It’s surprising to me as someone who works on resume reviews with prospective Product Managers, how little thought people give into how to “spin” their prior, non-Product Management experience in a way that makes it obvious that such experience is directly applicable to the roles for which they are applying.  In most instances, it’s really not that hard. If you think about the primary roles of a Product Manager — discovering valuable problems, conceptualizing solutions to those problems, and shepherding those solution through the product development process — a lot of the things that we do in any other role can map directly to those key areas.  If you’ve worked in support, you’ve performed troubleshooting with customers to narrow the scope of the problems they’re describing, and driven those issues through to resolution.  If you’ve worked in sales support, you’ve identified key pain points that your prospects have communicated, and helped to position the product as an obvious solution to those problems.  If you’ve worked in marketing, you’ve identified gaps in the market and filled them with positioning.

Step 3: Pitch Yourself

The final step once we’ve taken some time to assess our skills and position our experience, is to know how we’re going to pitch ourselves — how we’re going to emphasize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses once we’ve secured the initial set of interviews.  And that requires a lot of practice, understanding the story that we want to tell and telling it in a way that’s convincing, compelling, and concise.  You want to ensure that you have prepared, rehearsed answers to the most common Product Management questions, including:

  • Tell me about how you have taken a problem from discovery, into design, and through delivery.
  • Tell me about a time when a project you worked on did not succeed — what happened and what did you learn from it?
  • Describe your approach to problem solving — how do you engage with other stakeholders to reach consensus?

All too often, strong paper candidates for Product Management roles fail to convert their experience into compelling stories.  It’s simply not enough to look good on paper, you need to understand how to communicate and describe the application of your prior experience to the problems of the future.  If you can manage to cover all these bases, you’ll find that you’ve optimized the likelihood of securing the positions you’re most interested in.

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