De-risking Your Journey to Product Management

De-risking Your Journey to Product Management

Product managers are multiplicative, not additive. In other words, we set the direction for others to take - and if we take them in the wrong direction, then we put the company at risk. Therefore, it’s imperative for hiring managers to minimize their risk when hiring product managers.

What kinds of risks do hiring managers consider when they hire product managers? They seek to minimize skills risk and people risk.

A candidate presents skills risk if her resume and cover letter do not demonstrate that she has relevant skills or experiences in product management.

Hiring managers need to know that the candidate will be able to carry out the responsibilities of the role. Because product managers must successfully execute a wide variety of tasks, it’s nearly impossible to quickly train a non-product manager into a product manager.

A candidate presents people risk if she has not yet demonstrated that she will gel with the hiring organization, or that she has sufficient context in that organization’s particular industry.

Product managers work with people - customers, teammates, and stakeholders. If a product manager doesn’t understand the industry they’re working in, or if they can’t successfully work with that company’s culture, they present an enormous threat to the health of the organization.

Keep in mind that risk is perceived. While many candidates may have the potential to be a fantastic fit for a particular role, quite a few of them are automatically disqualified by hiring managers because they present too much perceived skills risk or people risk.

When we use this framework, we can immediately see why most PM roles are filled by PMs. That is, it’s incredibly difficult to break into product management if you have never officially held the role of “product manager” before.

Honestly, it’s unfair.

But it’s the current state of product management.

By looking for candidates who already have the title of “product manager”, hiring managers can quickly find candidates who will likely provide high value at low risk.

I predict that the hiring managers who successfully ignore job titles will eventually lead the industry, because they will find powerful talent that other hiring managers missed out on.

That’s the power of hiring diversity, after all - you find incredible talent that others ignore.

Even today, some of the most effective and well-known product managers originally came from non-product backgrounds, such as customer success, legal, marketing, or sales.

In the meantime, it's a widely-held bias, and one that we at PMHQ hope to change by empowering people from all walks of life!

Therefore, let’s discuss how to break down both kinds of risk. I’ll talk through three strategies available to you as an aspiring product manager:

  1. Career segmentation
  2. Skills positioning
  3. Informational interviews

Career Segmentation

One way to successfully shift into product management is to break up your journey into two parts.

Let’s talk through a concrete example, using my own career history.

I used to be a consultant for Applied Predictive Technologies (APT). I became a Product Manager at Movoto.

I did not make that transition in a single step, because I would present too much skills risk and people risk.

As a consultant, I presented high skills risk because I had insufficient experience working with engineers, insufficient experience in working with designers, insufficient experience in conducting customer research, and insufficient experience in working on mobile applications.

As an employee at APT, I presented high people risk because I did not have a robust understanding of the real estate industry, nor did I have any contacts at Movoto who could vouch for my personality, character, or working style.

But, by breaking down my trajectory into two distinct steps, I made the transition possible. I had two paths available:

  1. Get promoted into product management at APT, then move to Movoto
  2. Move to Movoto as an analyst, then get promoted into product management at Movoto

The first path would reduce my perceived skills risk, because I would have demonstrated to my hiring manager that I already had a strong track record in product management.

The second path would reduce my perceived people risk, because I would have demonstrated that I fit well within Movoto, and that I already have an understanding of their products and their mission.

I wound up taking the second path. To be completely honest, my journey was serendipitous and unplanned - but in hindsight, I see why I became an attractive candidate for the Product Manager role at Movoto.

When you consider your own career trajectory, it helps to consider which path you prefer.

If you prefer the first path, that demonstrates that you are more passionate about product management than you are about that specific company or industry.

If you prefer the second path, that demonstrates that you are more passionate about that specific company or industry than you are about product management.

Neither is right or wrong. Understanding your preferences enables you to build a more satisfying and rewarding career path.

Of course, in some circumstances, you cannot execute on this strategy.

For example, I could not have taken the first path. It was impossible for me to become a product manager at APT, because our entire product management team was based in Washington, D.C., whereas I was based out of San Francisco and did not wish to relocate.

For many aspiring product managers, the first path can be blocked for a variety of reasons. After all, some organizations are inherently incapable of having product managers. For example, a doctor’s office is unlikely to have a product manager role available.

In other situations, the second path is also unfeasible. Many times, organizations are unwilling to make horizontal transfers, because they strongly prefer for the aspiring product manager to continue tackling their current role.

I’ve personally witnessed colleagues who struggled to switch from product analytics into product management, or from engineering into product management, because they were perceived as more valuable in their existing role than as a product manager.

So if you can’t split your journey into two steps, you need to directly address both skills risk and people risk.

Let’s talk about how to address skills risk first.

Skills Positioning

Most hiring managers look for the title of product manager, because it’s a good indicator of whether you hold the needed skills for their open role.

But titles are only one of many ways for you to demonstrate your skills.

One of the best ways to reduce risk is to provide concrete evidence.

After all, most folks believe that if you’ve successfully accomplished a particular task before, you’ll likely successfully accomplish the same task in the future.

How could you provide evidence, even if you don’t have the product manager title?

Some candidates put together their own websites, in lieu of a resume. Creating a website is one way to tangibly demonstrate relevant skill sets: design, communication, organization, prioritization, execution.

Other candidates create a portfolio of their past work, such as engineering projects or design mock-ups. These portfolios demonstrate the quality of their technical skills.

Yet others launch their own small products in their spare time. For example, you might consider creating a productivity app or a mobile game. These kinds of small product launches demonstrate prioritization, market research, and execution.

Some candidates will perform analyses. For example, some might analyze the effect of rising interest rates on fintech app usage, whereas others might critically analyze the way that popular products onboard their new users.

Not sure which skills you should focus on displaying? In this article, we provide an inventory of relevant PM skills.

Here are some ideas for projects you can take on, outside of your current role:

  • Market research studies
  • User research
  • User interface design
  • Data analytics
  • Product / market fit analyses

The key thing to keep in mind, however, is that you cannot demonstrate only one single skill.

Product managers are expected to be T-shaped - that is, we need to show both breadth of skills, and mastery of a single skill.

Therefore, a design portfolio itself is insufficient to convince a hiring manager that you’ll make a good product manager, because it only demonstrates depth in design without demonstrating breadth in other product-related skills.

Another way to reduce skills risk is to demonstrate your speed of learning and your ability to take ownership of problems.

After all, if an employee can rapidly train and onboard themselves, then a skills gap is just a temporary problem. In other words, your switching cost is low, which reduces your perceived skills risk.

That’s why many PMs tend to come from roles that are poorly defined. In those “fuzzy” roles, you can’t survive if you don’t learn quickly.

The good news is that if you’re currently working at a startup, it’s highly likely that you’re currently tackling a fuzzy role.

If you can clearly demonstrate through your resume, cover letter, and interviews that you have the ability to quickly own an area that you didn’t have expertise in, you have the potential to pivot into product management.

Another thing to keep in mind - fuzzy roles have more potential that conventional roles to convert into product management roles precisely because the role is so poorly defined.

With fuzzy roles, most managers don’t have clear expectations for what the expected career trajectory should be. Therefore, someone who is actively tackling a fuzzy role can make convincing arguments for why product management is the natural next step within her current organization.

Informational Interviews

Reducing your perceived skills risk is insufficient, however. To stand out against other candidates, you need to reduce your perceived people risk.

The most effective way to do so is to talk to people at the company that you’re interested in.

Be genuine. Only reach out to people that you are actually genuinely interested in speaking to. In other words, make sure that you’re truly curious about their work and about their company.

If you are not being genuine, you’re wasting both your time and their time.

In these conversations, your goal is to learn whether you’ll be a good fit for the company, and whether the company will be a good fit for you.

Be prepared. Ramp quickly on background knowledge so that you spend your time on high-leverage topics.

Don’t ask people about what their company does, or about when it was founded, or about how large the company is, or about who their competitors are. All of that information is already public. Demonstrate that you know how to go above and beyond.

If you are a good fit, the people you talk to will naturally recommend you to their recruiting team.

After all, employees who are passionate about their company genuinely want to fill in key roles with strong talent!

Summary and Additional Resources

Hiring managers see new PMs as inherently risky. PMs are products - we come with a value proposition, and if we can’t provide more value than perceived risk, we won’t be selected.

One way to de-risk your journey is to take it slower and more deliberately, by breaking it up into two sections.

Otherwise, to decrease skills risk, be entrepreneurial and gritty. Take on initiatives that demonstrate you have the skill set, even if you don’t have the title. Or, take on roles that demonstrate your ability to thrive in ambiguous environments.

To decrease people risk, network and conduct background research. Show that you really understand the company and the people.

Wishing you the best of luck!

Here are some other resources to accelerate your journey as a product manager:

 


Interested in becoming even better at product management? Our popular One Week PM online course is a great way to supercharge your career.

Have thoughts that you'd like to contribute around breaking into product management? Chat with other product managers around the world in our PMHQ Community!

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