Breaking into product management: 3 key tips

Kenton Kivestu, ex-Google, ex-BCG, Founder at RocketBlocks
Published: November 4, 2018 | Last updated: May 8, 2020

Breaking into product management is extremely tough.

While the role itself offers an incredible diversity of tasks, people hiring product managers often cling to an unnecessarily strict set of hiring heuristics. At one point, an early Google PM once told me: "If you didn't go to Harvard or Stanford and don't have a CS degree, they just won't interview you..."

The good news is: things are changing. These biases will still linger on (it takes awhile for an industry to evolve away from practices leaders like Google and Facebook once codified) but there are proven, albeit difficult, paths to overcome them.

In this post, we'll dive into a high level framework for how to approach breaking into PM. We recommend doing three key things:

  1. Learn about the PM role
  2. Practice the craft
  3. Deliver value first

1. Learn about the PM role

If you're serious about breaking into product management, invest the time to really learn about the craft itself.

A helpful thought experiment to kick start this process is this: imagine you need to give a 1 hour presentation tomorrow about the role of product management. A million questions should immediately start popping to mind! Write them down, sort through them and rank the most important ones and just like that, you've got a research list:

  • What role do PMs play in companies?
  • What skills does someone need to succeed as a PM?
  • What's the day in the life of a PM look like?
  • Who are some great PMs?

Read about the craft of PM'ing

Now, start hoovering up information on those topics. For most questions, a simple Google query will yield a handful of great results.

Next, it's worth checking out a few of the canonical pieces because they've become so ingrained as shared knowledge in the PM community. For example, Ken Norton's (ex-Google PM) blog post on how to hire PMs. Or Ben Horowitz's (founder of Andreesen Horowitz) post Good PM / Bad PM (here's a more detailed list we assembled).

Since the craft of PM'ing is still a young discipline, it's also worth following the real time product chatter to see how leading practitioners think about product. The ability to follow, engage with and jump into the fray on platforms like Twitter and Product Hunt, where many PMs hang out is too good to pass up. Folks like Hunter Walk (ex-Google, YouTube), Ellen Chisa (Kickstarter, Lola) and Noah Weiss (Slack, ex-Google) are all active. For more, there is a great Quora thread about PMs to follow on Twitter.

As you're reading about the craft and following the conversation, keep a running list of all the questions about the role, etc. that you'd love to go deeper on.

Ask PMs about their experience

Once you've got the context down, use any connections you have with PMs to start plugging holes in your knowledge.

If you've done your homework on the craft already, these can be productive conversations because you can go beyond the basics. The advantage is two-fold: 1) you'll get deeper insights and 2) the PMs you're chatting with won't feel like you "wasted" their time by asking a bunch of questions you could have easily found answers to online.

This is where your running question list comes in handy. For example, say you read Andrew Chen's post The next feature fallacy and wanted to understand more about the "engagement wall," that's a great conversation topic to engage a PM in.

Ask the "product stack" how they think about PMs they've worked with

Don't just ask PMs about what it's like - go deep by talking to their cross-functional counterparts.

PMs spend all day interacting with people from all functions: engineering, design, marketing, support, ops, execs, legal, communications, etc. As a result, those people will have great insight into what PM work is like from a unique perspective. This multi-faceted window into the role will likely turn up some hidden truths about the role.

2. Practice the craft of product management

You don't need permission from anyone. Regardless of where you are in the world, what company you work for and what you do, you can start doing PM style tasks for any product you love.

Also, if you chose to do some PM work for a company you want to work at, you'll get the added benefit of producing a work asset that will pay dividends in the recruiting process (more on that in #3 below).

For example, say you love Slack and your dream job is to be a Slack PM. Many of the day-to-day tasks a Slack PM might do are accessible to you:

  • User research: talk to existing users of the product and learn what their pain points are
  • Define a new feature: you could write a full spec for a feature you think Slack should launch
  • Estimate feature impact: do some lightweight math and analysis on what impact feature X could have
  • Competitive product "tear down": do a thorough analysis of new a competitive product in the market

Each of the aforementioned tasks can be done in isolation. However, you could also do a little of each by coming up with a feature idea and writing a specification for it.

Write a PRD or feature spec

Writing a PRD (project requirement document) or spec (short for specifications) for a feature is a great way to learn by doing.

It forces you to think about why a feature should exist, what use cases it solves, how it could be built and how you can measure its success. Furthermore, it will give you a chance to make wireframes, share estimated impacts and go through all the motions that a PM might do internally.

While it won't give you a window into the hectic world of a PM, nor will you have access to the proprietary data, it will provide a window into one of the most compelling aspects of the PM role: advancing the product.

A technical side project

Another great way to get hands on product management experience is to launch a side project.

This is great because it will provide a window into the end-to-end flow of product management from idea conception to launch and it will either force you to become more technical (e.g., learn some basic coding) or to attract technical talent to your idea (whether it's a friend helping out or hired contractors).

For detailed advice on picking a good project and executing against it, see our tactical advice here.

3. Deliver value first

The best way to start off a PM job search is to deliver value to the hiring party.

You could help by offering connections, engaging with the company and its leaders on social media in a productive way and, most importantly, sharing any PM style work you may have done "pro-bono" per the above advice.

Share your work

There is no one-size-fits-all rule about how this happens. But the good news is this: once you've put in the elbow grease to do some work on behalf of a product you love that is an asset you can leverage.

For example, if you did some interesting market research or wrote up a PRD, you could do any the following (or all three):

  • Share your work in a blog post
  • Walk through it over a coffee chat
  • Reference it in an intro email

This can be particularly helpful if the work you choose, is in a "hot button" area the PM or company really cares about. For example, if you do research on a critical, new feature they just launched that they're trying to perfect or put together an insightful analysis on a key competitor they're trying to get smart on.

The foot in the door strategy

For those already working in close contact with a PM (e.g., if you're a marketer who interacts with the PM occasionally or an engineer working with a PM on features), you can effectively put recommendation number #2 (do PM work) in action at your day job.

If done right, this can be an extremely effective way to break into product. The key is to 1) build a relationship with the PM you work with and 2) let him/her know about your interest in that career path and that you'd be happy to help out on various PM tasks. Once you've planted the seed, you can proactively propose little projects here and there but you're also more likely to pop to mind when that PM needs a hand.

Below, John Gronberg, a Director of Product at Okta, discusses how people interested in breaking into product management can gain practical, real life experience on the job via this strategy.

Summary

If you've read to this point, one thing will be clear: breaking into PM is a lot of work. And, unfortunately, it isn't as clear cut as simply dropping a resume for a PM job and showing up to the interview (at least in most cases!).

However, there is a silver lining: the aforementioned tasks will help you build your PM skill set. Any PM will tell you that one of the hardest parts of the job is navigating ambiguity and driving the product forward when there are no clear answers. If it sounds familiar, that's likely because the process of landing a PM job is similar.

While the process can be daunting, our final piece of advice is to just jump in. Everything is easier once you just get going.

Next steps: preparing for interviews

P.S. Are you preparing for PM interviews?

Real interview questions. Sample answers from PM leaders at Google, Amazon and Facebook. Plus study sheets on key concepts.