One of the most common questions I'm asked by aspiring PMs is: "how do I get my first product job?". Getting your first product role can seem daunting. So, having made the transition myself and hired many PMs over the years I'd like to share the most common patterns I've observed - as well as a few tips.
You can't go and get a PhD in Product Management from the University of Cambridge (yet). Every product manager I've met and coached had a unique story about how they got there. This is completely normal despite the role having existed in technology organisations for decades.
Unfortunately, there aren't many entry-level Product Management roles out there. Sure, the big tech companies - Google, Facebook etc. - have junior/associate level entry routes, but they account for just a fraction of tech jobs and are extremely competitive. All tech companies have a need for competent PMs yet - unfortunately - that usually translates to a need for experienced, well-trained PMs.
Getting into product is a journey. And like all journeys, they're better with friends. Fortunately, Product people are by-and-large interesting, helpful and inspiring - so it helps to put yourself out there and make some connections.
As a source of inspiration, commiseration, ideas and opportunities, nothing beats the Mindtheproduct community. Product Tank is worldwide and puts on a host of exceptional talks that often cater to those earlier in their product career.
Being a PM is a really demanding job. A wide range of skills required to do the job at the level a product team requires and deserves. Given the way modern product teams are structured you will be flying solo making tough, high-impact decisions on a daily basis - sometimes in challenging circumstances.
Aspiring PMs can set themselves up for success by understanding the skills they'll need to be successful and systematically going about acquiring them.
What are these skills?
They broadly fall into 4 areas:
Check out Marty Cagan's assessment framework for an overview.
A common route into product management is to first develop technical skills. A great many product managers hold Computer Science degrees or have experience as a software engineer.
Although it's not strictly necessary to be able to write code yourself, it is certainly extremely helpful. Why?
In addition, if you have practical experience working on a product team as an engineer you'll have experienced the day-to-day practicalities of how a team works together and likely had the chance to experience how product managers work on a day-to-day basis.
Even if you feel the ship has sailed on becoming a fully-fledged engineer, it is well worth investing some time in learning some code. Check out edX's range of awesome, cheap online courses.
Another route into Product Management I've come across is User Experience professionals who've made the transition to being a PM.
Like the technical route, having experience as a Designer or User Researcher is not necessary, but it can be helpful.
As a PM you'll be spending a lot of time understanding customers and discussing design solutions - activities which lie at the heart to user experience roles. And like the engineering route, the knowledge of how product teams work will serve you will in your transition.
For those who neither have nor desire to pursue a technical or UX route, do not despair. It's common for PMs to transition into their first product role from another function within the business.
The story usually goes as follows:
I've hired many PMs who have followed this route and promoted one Data Analyst into their first Product Management role who followed this path. It's a great way to build credibility, establish networks and learn the ropes of the role.
Although routes 1-3 are the most common, it is possible to apply directly for a PM role and be successful.
Larger companies have associate product manager roles for junior applicants. And some startups are willing to take a risk on someone without prior Product experience (fortunately this is how I landed my first Product role!).
Search for "associate product manager" or "junior product manager".
Domain and Industry knowledge is extremely helpful for Product Managers. You'll likely be more credible to a prospective employer - and more useful to a product team - if you bring some to your first PM role.
I spent almost 3 years as a management consultant working primarily in healthcare, which really helped me land my first product management role at a health-tech startup. It meant I could add some value to the thinking about the product from Day 1 whilst cramming as much learning about the other aspects of the role into my brain.
Ask yourself: which industries or domains do I know a lot about, and which startups are building products in these areas?
Larger product organisations typically have more experienced product professionals to learn from and more structured career development programmes. And there's very little that beats learning from an experienced Manager of PMs who has great coaching and training skills.
But don't discount startups. I've spent the last 7 years working for startups over different phases of their growth from 15 to 200 people. Typically they are great places to learn and grow provided you are comfortable with a lot of change and structures that resemble organised chaos.
More importantly for aspiring PMs, startups tend to spend a massive proportion of their energy on fundamental product work such as getting to product market fit. As they're smaller, your Product responsibilities are likely to be far broader than at a larger, more established product organisation. So don't discount them as places to cut your teeth in product.
They also tend to struggle to promote themselves as a brand so there are fewer candidates chasing roles there.
If you're keen to go for a PM job I'd really encourage you to try. Even if you receive "no's", the feedback you get from the process will likely be extremely valuable. Don't be disheartened by rejections: we've all been rejected for jobs many, many times. If you can focus on learning from the "no's", you'll make progress.
Here are a few great places to look for roles:
Once you have your first product interview, it is worthwhile spending some time practicing. Your first and perhaps second calls will likely be 'screeners' with someone from the People/HR team or the hiring manager - and there's plenty of generic interview advice that will serve you well for these.
Beyond this you will likely need to participate in some sort of workshop or exercise. I would strongly advise you practice and prepare for them - as a hiring manager who has sat through somewhere close to 50 of these sessions, the difference between good preparation and no preparation is stark.
A jobseeker I spoke to recommended two online platforms dedicated to preparing for tech interviews:
I've also hired some great PMs who swore by 'Cracking the PM Interview: How to Land a Product Manager Job in Technology'.
So with all that said, best of luck in your Product endeavours!