How to become a product manager: 3 PMs share their career journeys
Some people think of Steve Jobs and other tech luminaries as lone geniuses. That’s more myth than reality, though. Jobs stood alone onstage to introduce the first iPhone in 2007, but behind the scenes he worked with a massive team to make it.
The creation of most tech products, in fact, requires teamwork between multiple departments: IT, engineering, marketing and sales, among others. And those interdepartmental teams are led by project managers. They're sometimes referred to as “CEOs of the product,” but that title isn't quite accurate because product managers have little direct authority over their teams.
They do, however, use people skills like emotional intelligence, or EQ, to align different stakeholders around their vision of the product at hand, which could be anything from a cloud platform feature to a physical tablet.
The role has a special mystique because it requires no coding, a rarity among tech jobs. Not that coding skills hurt. Still, product management is about vision, managerial finesse, having a strong sense of why a company's products matter and always striving to improve on what’s already out there. Project managers also are tasked with getting stakeholder support and distinguishing essential ideas from duds.
We spoke with three product managers about their careers how to get started in the field.
What factors helped you get your first product manager job?
Product manager with a decade of experience managing hospitality and transportation technologies
I was reorganized into my first role as a product manager. My background was marketing brand. But having the product manager experience at one company, I was able to take it to another company. A lot of the folks that I've talked to who have been doing it for more than a decade, like I have, have similar stories. Product has just now, in the last three to five years, gotten to a point where that people really train for product roles and aspire to be product managers.
Product manager at Asana and co-author of Cracking the PM Interview
I started as a product manager right out of college. I was a computer science undergrad. You don't need to have a technical background to be a great product manager, but if you want to go directly into product management it helps. I was lucky enough to know people who suggested the role to me, and I think problem-solving skills helped me get it.
Product manager interviews differ from company to company, but generally there will be an interview that’s testing your customer focus and your ability to solve customer problems through good product design. There will also be analytical-type questions that basically involve taking a big, ambiguous problem and breaking it down into smaller sets so that you can make progress on it. I'm always looking to see, What are the problems out there that are worth solving? What are the fastest ways to solve those problems? And what are the pros and cons of each approach?
Chief product officer at Tafifi who blogs about product management at The Product Guy
I’ve been a product manager from the very beginning, but I didn’t always recognize I was doing a thing called product management. Now, this is close to 20 years ago. Everything I did professionally was about continuously releasing stuff, learning, talking to customers. But I didn't have terminology for it. Of course, back then, there wasn't a lot of generally accepted terminology. I used to think of myself as an inventor, problem solver and artist. But even when I was VP of New Products, I didn't recognize what I was doing. Around 2003 or 2004, I kind of came through and said, "Oh, it's product management."
For people looking to start a career in product management, what are crucial first steps on that path?
Dixon: A lot of people will recommend that you know how to code, and I don't necessarily endorse that. I'm not a coder myself. But you need to understand the technology enough to have a technical conversation, and translate it into layman's terms for business folks—who might be stakeholders, but not as technically adept.
You need to have empathy for customers, too, and understand what they're really saying as opposed to what's on the surface. Customers frequently ask for one thing when the problem is something else. You really have to be able to identify problems and know which ones you need to put resources behind.
Bavaro: So there's a few main ways that people get into product management. Several companies have associate product manager programs, and they'll hire people directly out of college with no experience. They're generally looking for someone with a computer science background. People who've been working for a while might also get an MBA and take a product management job after graduating.
The other popular way that I've seen is internal transfer. So people who are at a company and have one job — they’re an engineer, or maybe they're in customer support or technical documentation — and they keep doing that job really well, but they pick up side projects more like what a product manager would do. So they take over ownership of an internal tool or maybe they in addition to answering customer support questions, they start suggesting to the product team and coming up with designs for how we might avoid those questions in the first place. And after doing this for a while, they're able to internally transfer to a position with the title of product manager.
Horn: Let’s start with the resume. When I look at someone who wants to get into product management, I want to know that they are very business-minded, very metrics driven. Every line of their resume should speak to metrics. I don't want to know that you managed a team of 30 people. What was the result of your managing it? Was there any difference between your managing that team of 30 versus some other person managing that team of 30? Did they have fewer defects? It's the impacts that make me interested enough to bring you in and talk to you.
Now, when it comes to the what should you be doing in your job, it's a similar sort of thing. Find a way to talk to customers. Find a way to work those product management muscles. Talk to your manager. You might not be able to do product management today, but a lot of companies can help structure a career path into a more product management role.
Do you think a college degree or any graduate degrees are important for landing a product manager role?
Dixon: No. I wouldn't have said that probably five years ago, but Google has dropped their college degree requirement for engineer, which means the same will be applied for product management. A lot of tech companies source their product people out of former engineering background, as opposed to getting someone straight off the street or someone with a business background. To those companies, it's essential that PMs can prove their technical abilities.
Bavaro: The job is a very popular one right now, and different companies will have different requirements. So, for example, Amazon has to hire mostly MBA candidates, Google has to hire mostly people who have a computer science degree. And so if your aim is to get a job at a specific company, it's helpful to look and see what kinds of degrees they require.
From my point of view, if you are having trouble landing a product management job with your current credentials, then going for a graduate degree can be a great way to transfer into the role, because of the network that you'll build. If you already have a product manager job, I wouldn't generally be recommended to stop and go back to school. You can learn a lot on the job. It's more about getting your very first job, and then your work speaks for itself.
Horn: I'd say it kind of goes two ways. In general, I think you probably need a bachelor's to get into product management. Usually when you have at least a bachelors, there's more of a common language, but that's not the biggest deal. Having an MBA, though, I usually find those candidates are less than the greatest. They've had too much schooling and not enough real-world experience. It's real-world experience that really matters. Everyone can put together a product strategy, but can you get it done? Can you work with people? Can you manage the politics of it? That, at the end of the day, [is what] you have to do to be a successful product manager.
In your current product manager role, what are your core responsibilities?
Dixon: I’m a senior product manager at an international hospitality chain, and I focus on the digital channel supporting our credit card. This is an American Express-issued card card that lets our members earn points and other benefits. Part of my responsibility is making sure that anyone who has the card is able to redeem their benefits and is aware of what those benefits are. Another part is allowing new people to sign up for the card. I’m responsible for ad servers, targeting and personalization to account holds and prospects.
Bavaro: I’m a product manager lead, so I lead a team of product managers looking to build functionality that expands on what Asana calls the “pyramid of clarity.” So that's the idea that users should be able to connect the tasks that they’re doing each day to larger projects, team goals, company goals, all the way ladder up to the very top of the pyramid, which is their company's mission.
A lot of my job is direct people management, so having one-on-ones with people, talking about their career growth plans, their goals, the areas that they're working on. Another aspect is supporting projects. So we have a workshop twice a week; that's when teams bring in things they're working on and, no matter what stage of the process they're in —-whether it's in the discovery phase or if it's got designs and they're getting closer to design review — we workshop the challenges they're going through.
Horn: I’m chief product officer slash chief executive officer at Tafifi, which is a tool to help product managers manage ideas, manage their roadmap and communicate to stakeholders and management exactly what's happening in real time. My role is a lot of customer development, a lot of basically talking to customers, identifying features, overseeing roadmaps, product strategy, really everything that is in and around product management.
What’s the most challenging aspect of the PM role?
Dixon: Product management in general is a thankless role. When the team does really well and delivers, the developers and designers get the credit. When something goes wrong, leadership points the finger at the product manager and says, "What'd you do?" You very rarely, as product manager, get pats on the back — unless you give them to yourself or get support from other product managers.
Bavaro: I think one of the parts that's pretty common for people to find tricky is that you've got lots of stakeholders, lots of different people who have different ideas, beliefs, and goals. How do you avoid getting stuck in decision paralysis? How do you help them see that they’re on the same team, and help them align and agree to go forward with a certain approach?
Horn: I'd say that when you think about just product management in general, it's making sure that you've not just identified the most valuable problem to solve, but that you're also solving it correctly. That's the hardest part. You’ve got to talk to a lot of people, and just do your best to not be emotionally attached to any feature or strategy so that you can be nimble and adjust as you learn.
What's most rewarding about the PM role?
Dixon: For me, I get a lot of satisfaction from actually going through the process, going from a concept to having something built and having people use it. For some people, I think the satisfaction they get is really just the learning, because for them it's a stepping stone to more of an executive role. Other people just really like the creativity.
Bavaro: Product managers help decide what problems the team should solve and help define what success looks like. I think it's very rewarding to help a team of people focus on important problems, especially because the vast majority of the time, those problems are really customer-based. It can be really rewarding to talk to customers who are impacted by changes you've made.
What resources do you recommend for people who want to learn more about product management?
Bavaro: Lots of people blog about product management. I really recommend Julie Zhuo, who writes The Year of the Looking Glass on Medium; some posts are all about product managers. Intercom also has a really great product blog. I also find it helpful to look at general purpose management books, like High Output Management or The Manager's Path, that aren't specifically about product management. But a lot of general management's principles are ones that product managers will find helpful.
Horn: On our YouTube channel, The Product Way, we have hundreds of videos from mentors and product management masters. They’re giving advice, walking people through lessons. Some of my favorites are Alisa Warshawski’s tips on getting into product management, and Brian Croft's on figuring out if you’re cut out for the role.