With the recent and much needed focus on diversity in the technology industry I’m frequently asked – most often by women – how they get their first product manager (PM) job. The path to product management can seem mysterious as there isn’t an obvious path beginning with ‘get a computer science degree’ or ‘go to code school’ as for other technical jobs. For people in groups under-represented in tech, that mystery can be even harder to solve, since they may not have access to the personal networks that help them take that first critical step.
Through my conversations, and my own experience managing and mentoring product managers, I’ve landed on six main areas that are part of being a good a product manager. This list has been helpful as a tool for people to look at what skills they already bring, how they can evolve in their current role to showcase these skills, and where they can grow to be a strong candidate when a product management opportunity comes up.
We all start with strengths in some areas and learn some of it on the job. I’ve worked with successful PMs who started with different combinations of these skills – you don’t need mastery of all these capabilities to begin with. That’s one of the fun things about a career as a PM, you’re always getting to learn new things as new types of challenges come up.
Domain knowledge is your knowledge of the area your product serves. Is it a healthcare app and you’re a nurse? You’ve got domain knowledge. Domain knowledge helps you understand your customers, gives you insights that help you make decisions and identify market opportunites. Like all these skills, often PMs gain domain experience on the job. My first product management job was in education technology and my only education background was finishing college. By the time I left the company, a district superintendent thought I’d been a teacher.
Obviously, a product manager needs to understand the product they’re building. Some people have strong product knowledge because they were a customer themselves. Some worked in technical support or technical sales and so know every in and out of the product their company sells. Strong product knowledge can often be a foot in the door, whether you want move into a PM role at your current company or are looking to make a move to a company that makes a product you love.
3. Technical knowledge
Software product managers are more effective if they understand how software is built. Sure, many product managers in tech have written code for a living at some point. But lots of them have learned enough about how software is built to hold a good conversations and navigate a team through technical tradeoffs without ever having written a line of code. Some of the most effective and inspiring PMs I know have never written code.
Product managers typically don’t directly manage the people building, marketing or selling their product. Product managers achieve their goals by being leaders. Just a few examples of ways product managers lead are by building and selling a compelling vision, by being willing to make the hard decisions, and by listening to their teams and building trust that those decisions are good ones.
Delivery is the art and science of getting stuff done. Product managers aren’t project managers per se, but they often have to herd the cats to get their product built and out the door. I remember one PM who ended up having to learn everything about how CDs were printed, boxed and shipped to get his release done. So he did. Often a PM has to coordinate between the many teams involved in a release; teams that may not be used to working together. A good PM has a track record of finding a way past all obstacles to achieve their goals.
6. Product management
And finally, we come to the actual discipline of product management. Skills like positioning, understanding customer needs, pricing, requirements writing, and the whole gamut of work product managers do. And, there is the PM mindset: do you naturally think about the business implications of a decision, like the cost and benefits? Do you bring a customer-centric point of view to your work, regardless of what it currently is? That mind set is also one of the most valuable things a product manager brings to their team.
Land that job!
How do you get the PM specific skills if you’ve never been a PM? Well, sometimes you’ve worked in a PM-adjacent job where you’ve picked up at least some of them. Some PMs were business analysts, marketing managers, or consultants. There are courses you can take, but frankly most people take them after they’re working as product manager, not before. The two programs I hear about most for tech product managers are offered by Pragmatic Marketing and The 280 Group.
If you’re looking for that first product manager job, think about how your skills and experience line up on these different tracks. As you’re talking to potential hiring managers, ask them what they consider essential and what they’re willing to have you learn on the job. Remember, every product manager had a different path there and you can find a unique path taking advantage of your personal strengths and experiences.