Advice for getting into product management
by Steve Johnson
Product management is an exciting role. It can drive product direction and ensure your team builds the right product for the market. It can also be a frustrating job because other departments have expectations of product management that rarely align with yours.
There are three types of desired skills for product management jobs: technology, market, and business.
Technology expertise is about how the product works. From their daily interactions, technology experts pick up a deep understanding of product and technical capabilities; they achieve this by playing with the product, by discussing it with customers and developers, by reading and reading and reading. For a technology expert, the product almost becomes their personal hobby. They think of themselves as product experts.
Typical titles: product manager, product owner, technical product manager, business analyst
Market expertise is a focus on geographic or vertical markets, either by country or by industry. They know how business is done in that market. They know the major players, and the jargon or colloquialisms of the market. Market experts define themselves by the market they serve: “I’m a banker” or “I support BRIC.”
Typical titles: industry manager, product marketing manager, field marketing manager
Business expertise is where your traditional business leader or MBA graduate brings strength. These experts know the mechanics of business and can apply that knowledge to your product. A business-oriented expert knows how to use research to determine product feasibility, can determine how the product generates profit with lots of financial analysis to back it up. Ideally these business skills need to be combined with one of the other skills or provided as a support role for the other areas of expertise.
Typical titles: product strategist, product leader, portfolio manager
BUILD DOMAIN SKILLS
The thing that makes the real difference between good and great is domain expertise. Domain knowledge comes from years of experience in one particular field. For example, you can learn a lot about healthcare by reading published materials but they won’t give you the deep insights that come from working in a hospital. In teaching, it’s understanding how passion for children’s growth is quickly eradicated by the reality of too many kids in a class, too many disruptive kids in a class, and too many non-teaching expectations from both parents and administrators. Domain expertise is about understanding the difference between how people should perform their jobs and how they actually perform them.
It’s this deep domain expertise—a passion—that is so hard to find. That’s the area where people who want to get into product management should leverage.
So here’s the real question: what is your passion?
Regardless of your title, people come to those who know what they’re talking about. Start sharing your domain knowledge and you will become known internally as the “go to” person on your topic.
So keep up with your specialty. Read the blogs. Attend the free webinars. And starting writing and speaking internally on your topic. Offer your expertise for your company webinars and seminars. Before you know it, sales people, marketers, developers, and execs will come to rely on you as a company resource—and the obvious choice when a product management position opens up.
BUILD YOUR NETWORK
Just as you’ve been building and sharing your domain skills, look for ways to build your product management skills. Make friends with the product managers. Get them to explain what they do. Offer to help with their projects. Become a product management resource.
And network outside the company too. There are local product management associations and free productcamps in most high-tech areas. See productcamp.org for a list of upcoming events.
I know a product manager who volunteered her way to the job. She helped out with a local conference, trained the development teams on personas and their issues, and wrote an internal blog about the topic. People thought she had the job long before she formally got the job.
I’ve always had the best results when recruiting sales engineers, usually from other companies, to join my team as product manager. They have domain skills and the ability to learn. And they’re unlikely to be promoted internally since the sales engineer role is so critical. The best hire of all is your competitor’s top sales engineer—you get a great product manager and they lose their best sales engineer.
Sadly, it usually difficult to move into product management. Hiring managers usually want people who have proven product management skills. So look for ways to prove that you have the experience even if you don’t have the title.