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How to Break into Product Management

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At many of the meetups I attend around New York City, I meet aspiring product people, people in other functions that want to break into product management. I get asked how to become a product manager all the time. Product management is an important role and many people want to transition to it.

I usually answer with a question, 'are you a curious person?' A good product manager should be curious about everything. They should be curious about the technology used to build their product. They should be curious why a developer came up with a particular solution to a problem. But even further than just their own product, a product manager needs to be curious about their competition, about their product's industry, about technology and about business in general.

Product managers need to be able to teach themselves new domains and new skills and do it quickly. - Tweet this

Here is the advice I share with people looking to break into product management:

In my experience companies hire a product manager for one of two reasons. They have domain expertise in the company's market or they are a fantastic product manager. Of course every company wants a great product manager, but that isn't always the most important factor. If you know the industry, some are willing to hire a more junior product manager and mentor them to become better product people. It is that exact split that I tell aspiring product managers to take advantage of. If you have extensive experience in a particular industry or domain, look for product manager jobs in that area. Demonstrate to hiring managers that you understand the industry and the problems facing it and that could get your foot in the door. Of course you also have to show that you have an understanding of product management best practices even if you don't have experience as a PM. To give an example, I had a conversation with someone at a meetup who has extensive experience in higher education admissions and had just finished General Assembly's product management class. I told her to look for companies in EdTech that needed her domain expertise. She took my advice and not long after she got a job as a product manager at a leading provider of admissions software to higher education institutions around the world.

This brings me to my second piece of advice. You can take advantage of your domain expertise but if you can't show that you also know product management fundamentals you most likely won't make the cut. There are amazing online resources to help you learn product management best practices and to advance your product best practices knowledge at any point of your career. Thought leaders like Steve Johnson and Rich Mironov with whom I've been lucky to have some amazing discussions regarding product. Other product management thought leaders to follow are Roman Pichler and Adrienne Tan. There are many more out there and it's up to you, the aspiring PM to find the thought leaders that will help guide you in your career.

My last piece of advice is to get involved in product management functions in your current role. If you are a developer or business analyst, get on the phone with some customers and ask to be invited to some product strategy meetings. Do some competitive research and share that knowledge with others in your company. Make sure that you highlight these tasks that are typically only done by product managers on your resume and LinkedIn profile so that hiring managers see your interest and experience in product management.

In some cases it can be easier to transition to being a product manager within an organization. You might get that chance because you already know the product and company. In other cases, a company might be too rigid in it's roles and you will need to look for PM jobs in another company. The only way to find out what kind of company you are in is by looking around and seeing how people move around. 

I made the jump to product management almost ten years ago during a long tenure with a company. I knew the products intimately, knew the customers and had been doing a lot of things that a product manager typically does in a startup. I've enjoyed being a product manager ever since.

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