How To Get Into Product Management: Expectations, the Role, and the Application
Product management is more popular than ever. What to pay attention to when considering the position, how PM roles are different, and how to approach the application process.
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The product management profession is getting increasingly popular, and the trend doesn’t seem to slow down. A quick LinkedIn search reveals that multiple thousands of PM jobs are posted to the platform each day.
I mentor aspiring and practicing product managers, and the topic of “how to get into product management” often comes up. People are wondering what’s the best way to start, what are the best resources, or how to draft the application.
In this article, I sum up my advance on getting started on the journey and provide a few useful resources for those who are considering the path.
But first, what is product management?
In my view, good product managers are obsessed with customer problems, and they work to find solutions that solve these problems in a sustainable way. Most product managers have business acumen, high-level technical understanding (doesn’t have to be an SQL guru), very good stakeholder management, and even better adoption skills.
Product managers are informal leaders who influence decisions by bringing structured insights to the eyes of many, often without any direct reports.
Expectations and knowledge
Before getting started with anything else, it’s critical to set correct expectations for the role and seek out information on how product management is done at different companies.
When product management is done right, companies realize the importance of the function and slowly introduce it over time in their organization. And then, the role evolves organically, and supporting departments start to appear to make shipping products easier on a scale.
When the profession is introduced poorly, organizations just re-label existing positions as “product manager” without changing much of the responsibilities. On the surface, it might look like a product manager position, but in the trenches, it won’t feel like one. Be on the lookout for red flags, the role description can already tell a lot.
I found that a good measurement of product organizational maturity is to see what product roles a company has, especially on the leadership level—like Group Product Manager, Head of Product, or Chief Product Officer.
To set correct expectations for the role and the environment in which product managers operate, I often recommend Marty Cagan’s Inspired book as a start. It provides a good overview of everyday concepts, challenges, and a look into the life of modern, empowered product teams.
In addition, Delibr put together a topical guide of the best product management books, a list that often pops up on LinkedIn, and a list from which many books I can recommend.
Let’s keep in mind: product management is art, not science.
I advise aspiring PMs to speak with others in the field to get to know diverse perspectives and see the different ways product teams can work—and there are many good ways to network.
One example is to attend conferences and online meetups, from which there are a lot of free options. Even if there is no happening in your area, reach out to local professionals who you admire, and try to organize something.
Another example is to find a mentor from initiatives like ADPList or The Mentoring Club, where experienced product managers volunteer their time to guide others, and give back to the broader community.
Beyond networking, there is a wide range of product management materials available online: podcasts (Rework, Lenny’s Podcast, Product Thinking, Product School…), publications (like this one!), or courses (Coursera, Udemy, Reforge…). Just find the ones you like or that get recommended by others in your network.
The main goal of setting the right expectations is to ensure you know what product management is, and if you pursue this profession further, you won’t get major surprises about the role and its responsibilities.
And if you’re still excited about the ride, let’s look into the differences in roles and companies.
Identifying the right role
When choosing the right company, people often look at whether their potential candidate is customer- (B2C) or business-focused (B2B).
Business-to-consumer products optimize for scale, put more effort into quality assurance and user experience, regularly rely on quantitative data for decision making, and experiment a lot with smaller changes.
In contrast, business-to-business products optimize for flexibility (covering as many use cases as possible), validate new product ideas without engineering them first, and take more qualitative data into their decision-making.
Jens-Fabian Goetzmann wrote a detailed post about the B2C vs. B2B comparison here.
Both business models have their own perks. And there are also quite a few B2B2C companies like Shopify (online webshops), whose end products are used by consumers, but their direct clients are mostly small businesses.
Personally, I’d advise looking less at whether a company is B2C or B2B, and looking more at how good its product is, how satisfied the customers are, and whether it has a clear future vision and a good company culture.
If unsure, a good question to ask:
Would you use a company’s product if you wouldn’t work for the company?
—supposing that you have some kind of related need.
Another aspect of choosing a company is the size of the organization.
At early-stage companies, product manager roles are often more fluid, the person could be required to draw designs, do some coding, or even try to sell the product to potential customers in their spare time.
The opposite is enterprises. There, the product manager role is well-defined, there is usually a supporting organization (designers, researchers, product marketing…), and there are clear processes in place which were forged over years. In addition, a wrong product decision can’t quickly bankrupt the company.
The choice here is based on personal preference.
Startups are riskier but can have bigger growth potential if the company hits the jackpot. An inexperienced PM might need to come up with a lot of “how to do X” on their own, as the company figures out how to scale, diversify its business, or enter new markets. Also, be on the lookout for too hands-on founders. They should be key partners for early PMs, but shouldn’t dictate everything or micromanage too much.
Bigger companies can be a safer bet and usually, there are more seniority levels among their roles—so it’s easier to join on an associate level. Organizations operating on a scale have forged processes around their product delivery over years, which also means an aspiring candidate has a lot to learn. Although some people prefer a faster pace and might find the operation of bigger corporates too bureaucratic or slow.
When the company size is clear, the industry should be considered next.
I advise mentees to pick an industry that they’re comfortable with. Most people would like to avoid divisive industries like gun, tobacco, or porn. And my general guidance is to choose a company where you can genuinely get excited about the product.
Some industries are more regulated than others, like finance or insurance. So when selecting the company, consider friends’ opinions, talk to PMs from the specific field, and do some research online.
Furthermore, the company culture can greatly affect the decision. Startups.com did a brief comparison of some of the best and worst company cultures out there.
Okay, so then what’s a platform product manager?
It’s great that you’ve asked!
There are several types of product management positions but at small- or medium-sized companies, there won’t be any significant difference in titles. On the other hand, global companies with thousands (B2B) or millions of customers (B2C) often diversify their product roles.
Generalist PM: an entry role to many people, generalists often work with existing customer-facing products where some technical understanding is required.
New venture PM: people who mostly focus on launching new products/offerings, building them up from scratch, with good skills in scoping and early validation.
Platform PM: a heavily technical role that requires a deeper technical understanding, usually working with internal stakeholders as main customers.
Growth PM: focusing on increasing specific business metrics across the whole solution, often collaborating with multiple other product areas.
David Wang’s recent article provides a deeper look into these roles, although I’d challenge the broader existence of “domain knowledge PMs”—if you’re one of them, let’s get in touch!
Preparing for the application
By the time you get to this point, you should have a good understanding of the product management role, plus its nuances across different industries. And hopefully, you’ve got a diverse look at how it’s done in real life by talking with a few practicing PMs.
While there is no beaten path to product management, most people I know got a product management roles in one of the three ways:
Joining a company as an associate/junior PM, or a product analyst.
Being recruited to another position (the closer to product the better), then switching to a PM role internally, a few years after.
Entering an organization to a product manager role with relevant experience from prior positions (project management, product marketing, former founders…), but none of them called “product manager”.
And some people get into product management without the initial intention of becoming a PM. For example, it’s not rare for engineers, account managers, or other functions working with product to take an internal opportunity and try product management.
The CV and the wording of prior experience can also greatly affect success.
I advise others to carefully review their application materials before applying to product manager roles, especially if it’s a company that they badly want to join.
First, highlight what’s relevant from previous positions: focus on the responsibility, not on the title. While someone might have been an account manager before, they could have a vast experience with customer communication, executing projects on time, stakeholder management, and negotiation—and all are relevant experiences for a PM role.
Second, when drafting the CV, think about the exact, tangible contributions, not what a former job description stated. While it’s essential to create a good understanding of the role, most companies are more curious about an individual’s achievements, not the exact job description they were hired for.
And achieve that by using relevant keywords. For example, if you’ve worked for a B2B software-as-a-service company before, do not forget to add the “SaaS” part.
And a very obvious, but still important factor: do not lie. There is a clear difference between tweaking the wording vs. taking unjustified credit.
Third, think from the recruiter’s perspective. Most companies receive a ton of applications for popular roles, and you want to stand out from the crowd. Think about how to make the CV shine if recruiters only have 2-4 minutes to initially look at the application. What can they get to know about the person? I recommend having a few introductory sentences summing up key parts of the experience and the motivation.
I also get asked if listing certificates or doing courses improves the chances. In my experience, they’re more like a cherry on top. Having specific certificates won’t get you hired for product roles, but they can reaffirm the experience, and more importantly, the motivation to learn.
And if the preparation is successful, the next step is nailing the PM interview.
There is usually a multi-step recruitment process for product roles that may include some homework or trial exercise to be solved. And as with many other positions, the first round is often a pre-screening call with an HR person. The candidate will get to talk to the recruiting manager (senior PM or product director) in the second or third stage.
The interviews themselves aim to test one’s ability to solve problems, highlight specific experiences from prior roles, and see how the candidate would approach various situations. Most interviews begin with the candidate pitching themselves. Here, have a solid pitch that highlights the relevant aspects from prior roles. Keep it relevant, short (around 2 minutes), and professional!
During the interviews, there is a fair share of situational questions, and Product School’s article collected quite a few of them to practice.
If you don’t know something or haven’t faced a particular situation before, it’s better to admit it straight away than to make something up on the spot. Being transparent about the unknowns is an important PM trait.
And beyond preparing for the questions, one should also think through their own questions for the company. Good questions from the candidate show that they’ve prepared and are seriously interested in joining.
Last, remember that interviews are always two-way discussions; there is nothing to be nervous about. The company wants to find a great candidate for its role, and you want to find a great company. Both parties are investing their time in the process and want to ensure there is a good, long-term match.
Plus, getting rejected is not easy, but it’s part of the process.
Often, companies have one open role only but many good candidates. Not being selected for the position doesn’t necessarily translate to not having the skills or experience. Luck, internal backfills, budget cuts, and other organizational factors might also play a part. Even experienced PMs receive rejections.
If this happens, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback, especially if you were invited into parts of the recruitment process.
Some companies are happy to provide additional context about their considerations. And it’s a great opportunity to learn what you excelled in and what you lacked. Even if you were hired, asking for feedback is beneficial.
In any case, I hope this article was a valuable collection of thought nuggets for anyone considering getting into product management. And if you find it useful, please share it with others from your network!