How to Break into Product Management with No Product Management Experience
You may be a fresh graduate with big plans for a career in the tech world, a Project Manager who would like to get into a more strategic role, or perhaps even a marketer who’s interested in how the things you sell get made. Either way, you are fascinated by the idea of creating a product from scratch, but you find yourself intimidated by the task of breaking into product management. Can you become a Product Manager without product management experience?
Can You Transition into Product Management Without Experience?
Let’s get this out of the way first, as there are conflicting opinions on the matter across the board. The answer is yes, you can break into product management and become a Product Manager even if you have no product management experience.
As a Product Manager, you’ll be nearest to the action: directing the decision-making process and leading a product from conception to completion. This may seem like a tall order if you have no product management experience and haven’t been involved in the pipeline before. But it’s not impossible if you have the insight, organizational aptitude, and vision to improve on a company’s product line.
Product management is one of the hottest careers right now — in tech and other industries. This is in part due to Product Managers earning some of the highest salaries out of anyone involved in product development, and FAANG companies like Amazon constantly hiring for positions like it. Even still, there are lots of opportunities in the Product Manager career path.
Many successful Product Managers today also took the leap from different fields and disciplines. Just as there are a great variety of products out there, the variety of skill sets needed at different companies varies. As such, there is more than one way to get into product management. The best industry for you depends not only on your strengths and weaknesses but also on the opportunities provided to you.
Common paths into product management include:
- Project management
- Product esign
The above roles are some of the most commonly seen ways to transition into product management as they have some similarities. But this doesn’t mean that people who are not doing any of these cannot be successful as Product Managers. You can develop the right skill set for the job, and most importantly, have the passion for it. This leads us to our next point.
LEARN WHAT QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD PREPARE FOR
Prepping for an interview? The Product Manager interview questions in this downloadable resource will help you go into every round of interviews confident.
How to Know if Product Management Is Right for You
Product management is often portrayed as a glamorous job with a high salary, especially in recent years with startup culture booming across the world. But beyond that, it is often a challenging and nerve-wracking job.
PMs are responsible for everything from decision-making to holding a team together. They’re held more responsible for product success than their teammates. In other words, before you try to break into product management, take an honest assessment of your motivations and whether you have the strengths to be good at the job.
Skills Needed to Break Into Product Management
Here are some of the hard skills that those looking to break into product management should have:
- Basic business competencies
- Basic knowledge of Product management frameworks, processes, and methodologies
- Proficiency in collecting and analyzing data, and decision making based on the metrics derived
- Familiarity with economic principles such as trade-offs, costs vs. benefit analyses, and others
And then there are the soft skills that are often underappreciated but are very much key to success in the role:
- Problem-solving skills
- Effective communication
- Leadership skills
- Prioritization skills
- Quick decision-making
- Being organized and able to multitask
- Attention to detail
- Listening and empathy
- The ability to work well with others
While most people focus on the first set of more tangible skills, it is the soft skills that create the foundation for a Product Manager to be effective at their job, especially if you don’t have prior product management experience. You don’t need to have all of these qualities, you’re good to go if you feel like you could describe yourself using a good number of attributes on the list. As far as hard skills are concerned, most Product Managers learn what they need while on the job.
3 Product Management Experience Myths: Busted
A Product Manager’s tasks typically involve collaborating across teams to plan, build, and launch their product. They’re in charge of bringing together data, analytics, and experience, as well as making final product decisions. Because of the scope involved, people often assume that they need additional credentials, qualifications, or product management experience to hold this position.
Here are some common myths associated with being a Product Manager:
You Need an MBA to Be a Product Manager
You do not need an MBA to become a successful Product Manager. Having one can definitely help you have a framework for recognizing the effect of product decisions on the bottom line. However, getting an MBA is not the only way to acquire a business and financial framework.
Obtaining an MBA will help you generate some skills and will provide networking opportunities. While these are decisive advantages of having an MBA, they’re not all-inclusive of the duties of a Product Manager.
As a Product Manager, many of your responsibilities will extend far beyond the scope of what an MBA provides. To the interviewer, having the right skills is usually more valuable than having a certification.
You Need to Be a Tech-Wiz
Knowing how to code never hurts anyone’s career aspirations. Still, without writing a single line of code, a Product Manager can confidently bring a product from concept to market. Having the ability to direct and manage engineers and designers through the work pipeline while ensuring that the product is valued and profitable is significantly more desirable.
Coding and prototyping can be a boon to your team. Still, it won’t be nearly as helpful as prioritizing tasks and collaborating clearly between teams across multiple lines of communication. That said, you must be familiar enough with the technology to have a technical discussion and translate it into layman’s terms for business people who may be stakeholders but aren’t as technically savvy.
There’s One Path to Product Management
The creation of any tech product necessitates collaboration across multiple departments within an organization. For a product to be successfully adopted by the public, it will require cooperation between IT, engineering, marketing, and sales, just to name a few. Inter-department communication and project organization require that a Product Manager take the helm.
However, to become the person responsible for all of these moving parts isn’t prescribed to a set trajectory. As it stands, there is no one right way to becoming a Product Manager.
Many companies will look for potential candidates coming right out of college, while others will hire internally. Ultimately, the path to securing a Product Manager position relies on your ability to take charge of a product and have an aptitude for problem-solving, as opposed to being on a set path.
6 Ways to Get Started with No Product Management Experience
So how can you use the qualities above to pivot your career path into product management? As we mentioned before, there’s more than one way to become a Product Manager. With many of these processes, you’ll find that they put you in a position where you’re doing the job before you earn the title of Product Manager. This is often how many PMs find themselves in the role, whereby their daily tasks evolved into product management.
Let’s take a look at some of the routes most people in the industry use to get started:
1. Study and Research
Like with every career path, Product Managers perform best when they have a firm grasp of the duties, tools, and strategies involved. Some of these may be learned on the job, but Product Managers need to build a good foundation through learning.
It’s worth investing in quality product management training if you’re a complete fresher to the job. Alternatively, those with a little more familiarity can supplement their knowledge and improve on their weak points with specific tutorials, webinars, and other learning resources available on the web. There’s also plenty of reading to be done on product management: learn what important voices in the industry are saying and learn from them.
2. Transitioning Within a Company
People who work in big companies and those who work for startups have an upper hand in this case. Startups tend to have fluidity in terms of who does what, and this can be a great opportunity to put on your Product Manager hat for some tasks.
On the other hand, big companies have different teams working in different capacities, and they often provide opportunities for employees to transfer across departments or grow into new roles.
If your company has a transition process, you can learn and demonstrate your capability by:
- Finding a project you can own from beginning to end, making sure you’re involved in everything from market research, to prototyping, to launch. Document your process to present to management. It’s also a great thing to add to your product management portfolio.
- Volunteering to take on Product Manager-related tasks as a side-job at work. No available tasks at hand? Identify problems that no one is working on that you can solve. You can then highlight them to your manager. If you get the go-head, take a methodical approach using PM frameworks to come up with a solution.
- Build a record of project management and leading cross-functional collaboration.
It may take a while before your company lets you transition into the role, but the best thing about earning your spots within a company is that you get to build a portfolio as you go along. You could even use this to apply to other jobs. This brings us to our next point.
3. Apply for Junior Product Manager Roles
If you have some experience with product management tasks in another position — say you have worked as a Project Manager or in a product design role — your experience is valid enough to apply for a Junior Product Manager role at another company.
One of the best places to start looking for these jobs is with larger companies, as they tend to have their systems already set out so you won’t be diving into the deep end. They are also likely to have more experienced Product Managers who you can learn from.
If you can’t find a junior role that will take you, try using the internship route.
4. Start a Company
There’s no better way to learn the product development process than to be in the driver’s seat. Entrepreneurship is hardly ever undertaken with the goal to land in product management, but many CEOs find themselves taking up Product Manager positions once their companies have been acquired.
Building and selling your own product is a great way to gain product management experience, not to mention the additional skills one picks up along the way.
5. Join a Startup
Don’t have an entrepreneurship idea of your own? Partner up with someone who does. You can use your skills to start as a Product Manager or take it up as one of the many hats you will be wearing. Startups have a burning need for talent but are limited by budgets and scope of work.
If you’re passionate about being a Product Manager and can handle the uncertainty of working for a startup, the opportunity could build you a strong portfolio.
6. Go Through a Product Management Program
All of the above points may seem overwhelming to the aspiring Product Manager who doesn’t know where to start and already has a day job occupying most of their time. That’s where a product management program comes in.
A product management program is a great way to acquire the realistic skills, techniques, and training needed to transition into a career in product management. A product management program like Product Gym’s also provides career coaching that includes goal setting and job hunting strategies. It’s a great all-in-one solution for people who want to make the career change.
5 Common Roles that Transition into Product Management
Seeing as how there isn’t a single path to becoming a successful Product Manager, there is a multitude of skills that can help you transition into the new role.
Some professional backgrounds have directly relatable skills. Here are just some examples:
Coming for a UX design background can be an easy transition to make when taking up the responsibilities of a Product Manager. As a UX designer, you are tasked with maintaining tight schedules for deliverables and understanding how design impacts the user experience. Changing over to a Product Manager position will require an understanding of how product design impacts user experience, albeit at a strategic level.
Sales & Marketing
Product Managers coming from sales or marketing can benefit greatly from their skills in those roles. Knowing how to convey a product’s value to a broad audience and creating marketing tools to target new clients can assist in formulating a cohesive product roadmap.
Having data analytical skills is a core requirement for being successful as a Product Manager. With a background in data analysis, you can quickly sift through and evaluate data derived from product use, customer-centric design, competitors, price points, market share, and industry trends.
As a Product Manager, understanding and compiling vast amounts of data is necessary when formulating an effective roadmap.
For those becoming a Product Manager with a technical background, you will have the advantage of being able to liaison between engineers and stakeholders who may not understand all the technical jargon the former uses.
However, transitioning from engineering to product management necessitates a shift in attitude and a new way of looking at a product. As an engineer, you would have been tasked with conceptualizing new features and relaying these ideas to team members. However, as a Product Manager, you can use your acquired knowledge to communicate with engineers, focusing on prioritization.
‘Aha!’ CEO Brian de Haaff said that to be a good Product Manager, you have to be a great project manager. While the two different job titles may confuse those unaware there’s a difference, coming into a Product Manager position from a project manager has a host of benefits.
As a project manager, you most likely worked alongside a Product Manager, giving you insight into what is expected from a particular part of a product’s roadmap. By understanding your previous role to complete a project on schedule and budget, you can better plan for the future project managers underneath you.
How to Communicate Your Value Without Product Management Experience
At the end of the day, how do you show a recruiter that you’re a good bet, despite your lack of experience in a Product Manager role? Here are some tried and tested tips:
- Build on your strengths. Having a strong skill set away from product management can help you stand out among your competition. In the role, these skills will compensate for what you are lacking and ease the learning curve.
- Polish up your interviewing skills. A good impression is vital, especially where you need to win over the interviewer.
- Polish up your portfolio. Tailor your portfolio to show that you have successfully navigated Product Manager-like roles in your previous jobs, even if you haven’t held the title of Product Manager per se.
- Find out why a company is hiring. When you understand the pain points of the organization you are applying to, you can position your strengths to suit the position.
- Pose your outsider knowledge as an asset. Product Managers know all too well how fresh perspectives can improve a product, so make sure to highlight how your unique experience can enhance their team.
- Do your homework. A recruiter will want to know what you are doing to get familiar with the role. Showing them that you are abreast with industry and company news and connected to people in the industry shows that you are passionate and willing to put in the work.
For more tips on how to position your past experience and pitch yourself, check out this video:
By transitioning into the role of a Product Manager from a different vertical or a different department, you also need to contend with the questions about the career change. This is where you can easily communicate your cross-department skills and how you can apply them to the new position. This illustrates the skillset you’re bringing with you and informs the interviewer that you know what will be expected of you.
Bridge the Product Management Experience Gap
There are countless skills, methodologies, and Product Manager roles coming in every day, it can be overwhelming to know what to focus on, what to ignore, and how to position yourself for the best career transition.
How do you identify which skills you can use to market yourself? Better still, do you know which type of Product Manager role you want to pursue, and in which industry? We hope this guide provided you with a roadmap to getting started, but we know breaking into product management with no previous product management experience can still feel like a daunting task.
That’s why we’re offering free career coaching to walk you through it and get you the answers you need to your most pressing PM questions. Our coaches are veteran Product Managers and former technical recruiters that specialized in recruiting for Product Manager positions. Reach out to us for your free coaching session: we’d love to hear from you.