Becoming a product manager when you aren’t one already

Being one of the top Google hits for “product manager resume” has its responsibilities as well as its perks. I occasionally, as I was today, get contacted by people trying to figure out things about the product management career path, and sometimes they ask really good questions. Today my correspondent asked, essentially, how to become a product manager. It’s trickier than it sounds, since you can’t really go to school to become one, and there’s not (yet) an independent certification that you can study for at night to build the skills, as there is for project management. So how do you build the credibility to become a product manager when it seems you have to be one to become one?

There are two ways that I’m aware of to become a product manager:

  1. Start as an entry level product manager at a firm, generally as an outside hire.
  2. Get promoted internally to the position.

Option #2 is hard, particularly if you’re coming from a technical discipline (I’ll explain why in a minute). Most firms that I’ve worked at have a hard time figuring out how to take someone out of what they have always done and put them into a role where they could contribute, but which would be a completely different classification.

#1 is also hard, because you have to convince the new company to hire you without the experience. This is where the MBA helps; it’s a signal to a prospective employer that, despite a lack of experience, you have the basics of what it takes. This is actually why I took the MBA–I knew I wanted to learn some business fundamentals about finance and marketing that I wasn’t getting as an engagement manager and architect in my job at a consulting firm.

Are there ways to do #1 without having an MBA or a product management job beforehand? This is probably harder than option #2. Basically, you have to come up with some other way to prove that you are product management material. The good news is that you can do this by looking at what a product manager does and figuring out how do to some of the things inside the scope of your current employment. Maybe you can get some opportunities to work directly with customers and taking their feedback. Maybe you can build a track record of being really, really good at documenting what customers want and building user requirements. Maybe you can take some opportunities to build internal business cases for taking on a new project.

So why is it so hard to become a product manager from a technical background? Why do some people find it easier to move from a marketing position than from a development position into product management? The reason is easy: the skill set required for marketing and product management overlap, to an extent. Marketing folks need to look at the market, figure out what companies’ problems are, and identify what it takes to get them to consider your product (oversimplifying grossly). Product managers look at the market, identify what business’s and users’ problems are, and identify how to build a product (or modify an existing product) to solve those problems and meet those needs. The first two skill sets are common; the last skill set is where there are specific disciplines that come into play.

I’m sure I’ve insulted just about every marketer or product manager out there with what I’ve just written. Anyone want to take a crack at removing the noxious generalizations?

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