How I broke into Product Management

Eight years after reading about product management I feel confident writing “as a PM”. Maybe these learnings can accelerate your product journey.

I see four paths to product:

  • Land an associate product manager (APM) role right out of college.
  • Pivot to product within your company.
  • Forge your own path with roles increasingly closer to product.
  • Jump into product management from a top tier business school.

None of these paths are easy and I’ve tried all except business school. My path is:

  1. Earned two Computer Science degrees
  2. Backend Engineer
  3. Frontend Engineer talking with customers
  4. Contract Product Manager
  5. Contract-to-Hire Product Manager

You can forge your path from other disciplines like design, economics and business. The common pattern is that you learn a skill and integrate it with the product principles (see action 14). The engineering path is my favorite because your team is mostly engineers and you increase the chance of mutual respect.

These actions stand out in my journey (~ chronological order, beginning in college):

  1. Sought mentors and did what they said. E.g., a local newspaper interviewed a Product Manager (PM) at Google. After reading the article (thanks mom for forwarding) I emailed him and arranged a phone call. He looked at my college resume and said be more entrepreneurial: get a side project.
  2. So, I Identified a problem on campus and built an iOS app. This was the beginnings of my PM muscles. Designing the screen flow was invaluable and made it easy to distinguish myself as a user-centered engineer.
  3. Focused my job interviews at big names (e.g., Google). The substantial side-project distinguished my resume.
  4. Landed a backend engineering role at Yahoo even though I first interviewed as an APM.
  5. When my team had a frontend engineering opportunity I took it. Closer to the customer :)
  6. As an engineer, I was very vocal during Design reviews and sought customer interviews. Constantly clarified the use-case.
  7. Expressed product interest to my manager, my manager's manager and other managers in the company. There was little interest.
  8. After four years as an engineer, wrote about my future. There it was: Product Manager in NYC by 2020.
  9. I tailored my resume and LinkedIn profile to highlight my product experience. I billed myself as 'Product & Engineering'.
  10. Applied religiously to pm roles. 5 submissions per day.
  11. Voraciously read pm blogs and articles. Can you explain agile succinctly?
  12. Studied any materials an upcoming interviewer published. This can lead you to a mentor.
  13. Created my own opportunity-solution tree. This helps you internalize 'outcome-driven'.
  14. Read and studied Continuous Discovery Habits 3+ times. Product principles meet practice.
  15. Peer mock interviewed everyday until the feedback was unhelpful. Took about a month.
  16. Purchased coaching for better feedback.
  17. After each interview rejection, asked for feedback. Document this in your application tracker.  
  18. Viewed contract PM roles as a step towards my goal and accepted them. "Day-to-day" reps creates competence.
  19. Landed a product manager role at a product-led company. Product-led means the PM owns the roadmap.

Being a PM is a mindset - you must cultivate this on your own. Identify the most important outcome and articulate how to get there. Do not default into details.

The path is hard. Seize every product opportunity. Repeat.

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