TLDR: to get the title you want, do the job unofficially so well you can’t be ignored
There are three ways to get what you want. The first way is to wait in line with everyone else. The second way is the VIP treatment, where the well-connected slip through. But there is a third way.
It’s quite simple: do the real thing. Most people are fixated on getting an official PM title, but the truth is that the job can be done unofficially (to some capacity). You don’t need permission to practice the craft.
Here’s a handy framework:
- Understand the skills required for the job
- Observe how others found their way
- Find direct ways to practice the most important skills
- Bonus: figure out what separates the top 1%, and what your unfair advantage is
The third step is often misunderstood. People gravitate towards doing a course or reading a book. While these things can give you the tools to get started, it’s up to you to put it into practice.
Product management is a hot field that attracts plenty of fake progress. Most PM roles also require prior product experience, which begs the question… how do you get started? I made it through an internal transfer at a startup, but there are several proven paths. Let's apply the above framework.
Understanding the job
The job of a PM is to solve customer problems to create (and capture) business value . Some dial up business value, others dial up customer experience. To do this, a PM works with designers and engineers to build and launch products.
Let’s read between the lines to see what’s unique about the job. First, notice the PM doesn’t necessarily code or design. Instead, the PM defines what problems to solve, why, and when through documents. There’s a lot of writing and talking involved. There’s also a lot of listening to customers. There’s generally a never-ending fountain of problems, which means diagnosing them, and identifying the most important things is crucial to staying sane.
Because the PM drives decisions that determine what other teams spend time on, (s)he needs to know how to build credibility and get buy-in. This makes the PM a force multiplier, positive or negative.
In short, PMs are risky to hire — this is why most companies don’t hire external PMs without prior experience. They can also afford to raise the bar. Once you understand the unique hurdles of the job, you can focus on overcoming them.
There are 4 known paths to breaking into product:
- APM program
- Internal transfer within a company
- Join a startup
- Start your own company
1. APM program
Designed for new grads or those a few years into their career, this is the only path focused on taking blank slates and molding them into a PM. It’s typically run by big companies that can afford to invest in upfront training and have plenty of products that are not mission-critical. These programs are very competitive.
The upside is that you learn with a cohort of people around your age under a brand name. The downside is that training regresses to the mean — it will take a few years before you work on big, meaty products.
If you’re set on this path, there are a number of direct ways to practice the skills.
The first is to build a product for yourself or a specific group of people. This is a wonderful learning opportunity that will inspire more informed responses in your interviews. Most people never do this. The second is to critique the products you use, and note patterns among the good vs. bad products.
The third (and a non-negotiable) is to do lots of interview prep. The best use of your time is to focus on the difference between great vs. good vs. bad answers. When you have no prior product experience, you can’t wing it. The best way to put in the reps is to prep.
2. Internal transfer within a company
This is the easiest and fastest path if you’re already in a company with a product team. This is the path I took. I started in analytics (a product-adjacent role), declared my interest in product, practiced being a PM by working on features inspired by my data findings, and then transitioned within a month. My timeline was extra speedy because I was at a fast-growing startup. As long as the business is growing, the product team will eventually have available openings.
To get unofficial experience, get to know the PMs at your company, ask to shadow them, take work off their plate, and offer things that will help them do their job (e.g. taking customer interview notes, synthesizing research, data analysis). Get a front-row seat to how the sausage is made to test your stomach.
Why is this an attractive path? External PM candidates are risky to hire. They need to earn credibility quickly. So if you’ve already built credibility at the company, started doing the job unofficially, and ideally have internal advocates for your transfer, this is your golden parachute.
The upside is you already know how to operate in this environment. You will be more effective faster than anywhere else. The downside is the company may not be your top choice as a PM. Unless the company is unbearable, it’s best to get the title first, and apply elsewhere.
3. Join a startup
Startups are typically the only places ok with hiring external PMs without prior product experience. They also tend to be more open to internal transfers. The best way to get a seat is to do your homework. Ask yourself: what you would do if you were the PM of the startup. What improvements would you make, and why? How would you 10X the business? This enthusiasm can capture the attention of a startup, and better prepare you for the interviews.
The upside is that you will get exposed to all types of problems in a short span of time, so it’s ideal for fast, trial-and-error-based learning. The downside is that you’re unlikely to get structured coaching from experienced managers. Your learnings will come from shipping quickly and learning from your mistakes, not the sage guidance of a manager who’s seen this movie many times before.
4. Start your own company
This is learning how to build products on steroids. There’s even more feeling in the dark. But it is the ultimate expression of doing the real thing, as long as you are also interested in practicing how to start your own company. If all goes well, you can run the product function. If it doesn’t, you’ll have built some real-life experience that will come in handy in the future, especially interviewing at other startups.
This is an intense undertaking with wild pay-off ranges. If your only end goal is to PM somewhere else, save yourself the agony and try the other options instead.
Bonus: what is your unfair advantage?
The best PMs, like in any job, spike on at least 1-2 important dimensions. Whether it’s data-informed decision-making, customer intuition, design instincts, business acumen or something else, they have a unique combination of skills hard to find in one person.
We all have unfair advantages. What’s easy for you, but hard for others? What feels like play to you that’s work for others? What are you interested in that others are bored by? When you indulge in your curiosities, you end up going deeper than anyone else, and eventually emerge as the expert.
It’s useful to have a thesis around what your talent stack will be. This helps underwrite your early confidence in pursuing a career. This also convinces others to take a bet on you before you’re a proven entity.
I’m a big believer that everyone has the potential for a valuable talent stack. Most people leave it undiscovered because it’s easier to follow what others are doing. Most people only live by the social script, but do you really want to be most people?
Any job is within grasp. Separate the title from the doing.
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