How to become a product manager

And the art of «falling» into the role

Hi, my name is Andre. Welcome to my Newsletter, a (sometimes) weekly column on product management to get products from zero-to-one. If you’re a builder looking for harmony among (product) chaos, subscribe to get the latest Articles and PodDrops. 


Originally posted at albuquerque.io on Dec 31, 2017

Tech product management is one of the sexiest roles around. But I have bad news if you want to become a PM: you can’t (generally) be hired into a product management position if you haven’t “done product before”.

What? So how do you even start?

You «fall» into product management. Literally. Well not literally, just kind of… literally.

How I got in

Joining Uniplaces early on gave me the freedom to understand the existing problems and gaps, roll my sleeves and wear any hat that was needed. The pressure to be “available” made me knowledgeable about the business and market. Being early also gave me a special kind of access to leadership, investors and board, essential to understand the big picture.

After helping build the marketing team and hiring awesome people, I took over the growth team. We basically dealt with acquisition and retention channels, product analytics, brand and community engagement. It personally allowed me to play with numbers, own narratives, deal with feedback, test hypothesis, iterate and experiment to reach our goals. It was also the first real time I realized the importance of product: the success of our work was tightly tied to the roadmap and it’s priorities.

Unknowingly, when the situation presented itself, these became the ingredients for my “fall”: the team needed help, someone to complement them. There was a PM with expertise in operations and finance, and a PM with an engineering background. They were now looking for help around marketing, brand and analytics. They were also looking for someone who stood out throughout the company, showing passion and a general understanding of “where we’re going”. Finally they were looking for empathy with the role, understanding what means to be in the middle of engineers, designers and business people, empathy with the power of words and weight of decisions. Apparently, I fitted.

Why internal hires are preferred and external hires need PM experience

PMs need to be fluent in 3 areas to build product: a) understand the product discipline, b) understand the product and c) understand the company. Each is complex and takes time to fully master though all are possible to learn. Nonetheless, when growing a team, the less a product leader needs to “teach”, the better and faster a new PM can start adding value. So when hiring someone to a product team, there are 3 options:

  1. Someone from outside who has no product experience

  2. Someone from outside who has product experience

  3. Someone from inside who has no product experience.

Both 1) and 2) will need to learn about the product and the company, but option 2) doesn’t need as much (or no) guidance on the product discipline, which is a massive advantage. Not only she will be producing faster than 1)but can also share new ways of doing product, creating value from day 1. And then we have option 3):someone internally, that even though has no product experience, knows about the product and the company. They “only” need guidance understanding the discipline and the development process. There are also a few advantages for “pulling” someone internally: first they’re already inside, which means it’s much faster than hiring externally. Second, they already passed the cultural fit test, one of the main issues breaking product teams. Third, teaching the product discipline is easier as you learn by doing, aka shipping product.

So when confronted with the challenge of growing a team, product leaders tend to lean for internal hires or externally with product experience (especially if looking to fill senior positions), as both options already bring something to the table.

But I want to be a PM, so what can I do?

First, you need to understand that your best option (to not say only option) is to “fall” into the role, in other words, be pulled internally. So what you can do is optimise your day-to-day for this to happen when the opportunity presents itself. Here are my best recommendations, based on my own path:

1. Focus on your role, be knowledgeable and kick ass

As I mentioned before, product teams look for people that fill the gaps. If you’re really good at your role, not only you’ll be seen as a someone who delivers, but you can bring new insights into the product decision process. PM teams are super competitive and get a kick from high performers, so be consistent at delivering results and show passion for what you do.

2. Learn as much as possible about the company and industry

Product touches everything in the company, internally and externally. Understanding how each part moves and works, as well as where the industry and market is going helps PMs make the most informed decisions. Even if your role is just a small part of a specific team, there are no barriers to learn about everything that moves the company forward. The stronger your mental models, the more capable you’ll be to debate on the decisions being made.

3. Learn about the product discipline

So much has been written out there about product and the whole process that being ignorant to what PMs do is harder than the opposite. Though internal hires are not expected to know about the discipline, go outside the box and read, study and discuss about product management and agile methodologies, product frameworks, design thinking, data analysis and (the most underrated part) psychology and sociology. Join slack and whatsapp groups, subscribe to popular email lists, bookmark the best medium authors, buy the best product books, anything that gives you an edge to understand the discipline before start building.

Bonus - Be curious

From every internal hiring process I was part of, all candidates showed deep curiosity, constantly asked questions and interacted with the PMs, engineers and designers. They always wanted to understand why and how product decisions were made. And most importantly, there was no agenda, it was pure thirst for knowledge.

Focus on getting all of these right, and you will likely “fall” into the product life. Good luck after this, it’s a whole new world.

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