How do I get into Product Management?

The Path to Product Management

By John Zilch – I recently stumbled across a thought-provoking question posted on the Boston Product Management Association group page. Justin asked: “Is an MBA a pre-requisite for Product Management?” I thought that was a fascinating question. My instinct was to reply “No, of course not!” But then again, if you look at any job description for a product role, an MBA is either a pre-requisite or preferred qualification. I thought about Justin’s question more broadly: How does one get into product management? I’ve been asked a thousand times. In fact, I struggled with this same question during my own career transition just a few years ago.

Ultimately, I think there are four baseline skills befitting of a product manager, in which a new product manager should possess at least one. (Note: These attributes are in addition to having strong leadership, communication and prioritization skills.)

  • An empathy for customers and their problems
  • A penchant for successfully solving problems
  • A foundational business education
  • Mid – deep industry knowledge.

Empathy toward a customer is extremely important and the main reason client support professionals become very good product managers. Folks with a support background can focus on the problem instead of the solution and are adept at putting themselves in the shoes of the customer.

Of course, recognizing a problem is only half the battle. How can one fix it? New product managers must lead teams in solving the problems, usually with fewer resources than desired. This is why engineers sometimes often morph into product managers. They understand how to effectively and efficiently solve problems. For myself, I came from a project management role where I was familiar with working across different groups to reach business goals.

Speaking of business, a business education can help shape those goals. A business background helps product folks prioritize problems by attaching ROI (return-on-investment) analysis onto each piece of development work the team does. The aforementioned MBA is a shortcut to gaining the business knowledge needed to start or grow a business. Ideally, a product manager would have started their own venture successfully. However, recruiters aren’t going to ask for this credential given that a successful ex-founder won’t be seeking an entry-level product role.

The last group are mavens within a particular industry. This allows for product manager sourcing from an unlikely well: customers. Serving as a core customer can lend itself to both industry and product knowledge, making for a smooth transition into the field. Of course, customers aren’t the only group with industry knowledge. Virtually anyone working within a particular field can add value to a new organization with a fresh set of eyes devoted to solving a mutually-understood problem.

For those looking to enter the product management field, it’s best to understand what will be asked of you: availability at all hours for product releases or (gasp!) support escalations, understanding the motivations and needs of different teams, constantly changing variables, undergoing a master class in building a business. It’s exciting, but amplitude of product management in terms of happiness can be quite a rollercoaster. Still interested? Then pursue experience in at least one of the four areas listed above and you’ll be ready to start the journey.

One misconception is that earning these skills will result in an immediate product management gig. Maybe, but not likely. What’s more likely is a drawn out pursuit of the right role. There’s a couple ways to do this: vie for a PM role outside of your current position or pick up product management experience on the side by helping the product team at your current place of work. There are very few – if any – product managers who aren’t over their heads in stuff to do, and a good portion of work to be done could be passed off to someone junior. To that end, volunteer to help out in exchange for some experience.

Here’s my (abridged) story: I worked as a project manager for several years, learning how to make deadlines and operationalize a successful project team. In parallel, I earned an MBA at night over the course of three or four years. Finally, while working as a project manager at Intuit, I was drawn to the product side of the house. I asked to shadow a PM and not one but two product managers took me up on it. Through their leadership, I was able to take on valuable tasks: write user stories, map out our customer experience and eventually became the product owner on a scrum team. When it was time to depart Intuit, my resume was bolstered with product management experience. Eventually I landed a fulltime gig doing product and now have a team of my own, helping others start and/or grow their careers.

The Boston Product Management Association loves to help folks find PM roles or transition to other roles in the product management field. If this is something you’re interested in, then stop by our booth at Boston TechJam or find one of us at Boston ProductCamp. We’re happy to help and pay it forward!  

zilchJohn Zilch is Director of Product Management at Dun & Bradstreet, building data management products for sales and marketing professionals. Throughout his career, John has built world-class software products for world-class companies such as Intuit, Pegasystems and now Dun & Bradstreet. Follow John on Twitter at @JohnZilch and LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/johnzilch.  Also, check out his personal blog at www.growthandgrit.com.

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