Finding your first job as a product manager is just like the ever frustrating chicken and egg problem of getting your first job. Companies like to hire people with prior product management experience and it’s hard to get prior experience without first getting hired.
Here is some of our best advice (compiled from years of speaking to candidates trying to break into the industry as well as from our own successful experiences) around landing a job as a product manager.
Become a Great Product Manager: Things You Should Do Immediately
One of the best ways to demonstrate your interest in product management is to work on a side project that gives you the experience in shipping a product.
A side project could be anything from a tangible iPhone app, wireframe, or even PowerPoint case study. You could volunteer to help a non-profit or small business or you could just do some research on a company’s current product / service and show how you might improve it.
For example, when applying to a small education tech start-up for a PM role, I did a short case study where I went out to target customers (who I felt accurately represented the startup’s direct customers) and surveyed them about their problems in education space.
I synthesized all the responses into a few key user needs and brainstormed a few potential solutions.
Given this was just a case study, I wrote about my process in prioritizing which user need I’d address first based on the data I had collected – this also gave me a chance to show the team that I was actively using a prioritization method.
I then created a quick wireframe on PowerPoint (you can use any tool you’d like) of a product feature I would add to the startup’s current product offerings to address this issue.
I also wrote about how I might quantitatively / qualitatively measure the ROI of rolling out product development of this feature and what would determine feature success. I e-mailed this to the hiring manager and got a lot of positive reception with their team for this work.
Another example of a “side project” you could do is join a Startup Weekend in your local area.
You don't need a computer science degree to participate because Startup Weekend is a weekend long experience where teams (technical and non-technical) get together and work on on customer development, idea validation, and build a minimum viable product which they then pitch to a panel of experts on the final day.
It’s a great experience to develop product management skills and work with people of different backgrounds to ship a product on a deadline.
At the end of the day, good side projects should demonstrate your skills in ways an interview or resume wouldn’t be able to, whether it be design, business, creative thinking, or coding.
Many people can talk their way through interviews, but a tangible side project shows that you can really do the work if you were given the opportunity.
Start Thinking Like a PM
Although you should be able to work on side projects in your spare time, if you are truly swamped in your current job and are one of those people who usually laughs when someone asks you what you do for fun, then start taking steps at your current company to think and act like a product manager.
Try to get onto new products where you are taking a lead role in managing a few people with different workstreams and where your team is responsible for getting a deliverable completed on a deadline.
Ideally, you should try to get onto projects where you’ll be forced to work with cross-functional teams so that you can learn multiple “languages.” There are many people who started out in customer support roles learning the voice of the customer before transitioning into a PM role.
Good PMs know how to understand the nuanced complexities from different teams and convert these into the language of their current audience. For most employers, the next best thing to direct experience is demonstrating that you have relevant and transferable skills.
Taking steps at your current company /situation to think like a PM will allow you to better structure your experience and increase your chance of landing a PM job.
Develop a Technical Skillset
Developing technical skillsets does not mean learning to code (Check out this post on whether product managers need a technical background for more on that)! I truly believe that all great product managers in the tech industry really love technology and will eventually gravitate towards a desire to learn code but it is not absolutely necessary to get into product management.
Don’t just be that generic “business guy/gal” who hopes that your passion alone will get you a job in product management. Try your best to learn something technical like design or data analysis (Excel / SQL). Learn about the differences between agile and scrum methodologies. Study up on user stories and jobs-to-be-done.
There are so many free resources online that’d it be absolutely ridiculous to at least not have a basic understanding of technical concepts going into the product management recruiting process.
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Finding Product Manager Jobs
Transitioning In Your Existing Company
If you are already working at a company, the first thing you should do is look within your existing company to see if there are any opportunities to shift into a product role. This tends to be a lot easier at smaller startups where you are getting direct access to the founding team/executive management.
If you have a great relationship with your company’s CEO, management team, or even your own manager (and you have a proven track record of excelling at your current role), try discussing a career development plan with someone senior where you can start transitioning to a product role in the company.
This might involve setting clear milestones and a personal roadmap with a manager in terms of what skill sets you to need to be developing / learning so as to be able to succeed in a product manager role. Oftentimes, we find that this is an easier path vs. looking for a product management job as an outsider.
Get Involved with the Product Community
The next thing you should do is begin building relationships within a local product community. Depending on your location, you may be able to find local product events like:
- Product Meetups: Check Meetup.com and attend product-focused meetups to start meeting and learning from other product managers. If there aren’t any meetups in your area, take the initiative to host your own (use Meetup.com!) and become known as a lead organizer so you can develop your own network.
- Product Breakfasts: One type of event we’ve found to be incredibly successful in our own Product Manager HQ community is a product breakfast. Product managers are sometimes too busy/tired to get together after work so a more effective strategy is to get together a group of PMs to grab breakfast together and discuss several product topics. Our New York community kicked off AM:PM Product Breakfasts where attendees meet at a breakfast location, write down product topics on post-it notes, stick them onto a wall Kanban style, and then discuss topics one at a time. If there aren’t any of these types of product breakfast events in your local area, try organizing your own!
- Product Conferences: There are tons of product conferences all around the world – make an investment in a ticket and spend the day learning from product leaders/meeting other product folks!
Set Up Informational Interviews
In order to effectively start building relationships with product teams at companies you want to work at, you can start by setting up “informational interviews.”
Informational interviews are just a fancy way of grabbing coffee with someone and asking them well-prepared questions to get to know someone, learn about their roles/companies, and build a relationship so that the person can either put in a good word for you or help surface your resume to the top of the pile.
Don’t make this meeting/interaction feel transactional – product managers are smart folks and they can see right through any fake bullsh*t if you are just trying to use them to get the job.
In fact, never ever say "Can I pick your brain?"
Why would a product manager who has a thousand things to do waste 30 minutes to an hour of their time letting someone pester them endlessly with questions in what appears to be a one-way transaction?
Below is a really effective cold email I received from a former engineer who wanted to chat about product management (see larger image here):
In the above email, this candidate offers to exchange information about marketing and engineering in return for learning about the product management role.
Since there was clear value being offered on both sides, I more than happily replied, met up with him for a long coffee, and gave him tons of valuable advice about breaking into a product role (I can’t take full credit for this at all, but happily, he’s now landed his dream role as a PM at Snapchat).
Prep for these Informational Interviews
If someone accepts your request for an informational interview/coffee, make sure you come prepared as if you were entering the final round of an interview process.
Your goal is to really stand out so that you leave a lasting impression on the person you’re speaking to. Remember, these PMs are probably getting spammed for informational interviews every single week.
Everyone is going to be asking the same generic questions, like “what’s your day-to-day like” or “what do you hate most about this job?” These are boring & stale questions that don’t make a PM have to think at all.
You want to do research on this person’s background and their company – every question should make them go “wow, I didn’t even think about that!”
An example could be a question like, “I did some research on X competitor and noticed they are coming out with Y feature sets which are pretty innovative in the industry. How has your immediate roadmap been affected because of this?”
Most importantly, try to ask these PMs what problems they are currently thinking about. Try to find out their top needs as a product manager.
Why is this important? Learning about what’s keeping these PMs up at night helps you continue to provide value to them well beyond the initial informational interview.
If you know what problems a PM is currently thinking about, you can do multiple things:
- You can create a mini case study where you go do the hard work/research into the problem that PM is facing and then send across the case study to them. Don’t be cocky about it. Just say something like, “Hey, I really appreciate you taking the time the other day to help me understand what you’re currently working on at your company. I know you mentioned that you’re currently thinking about X problem for your product. I don’t have the full context/information but I wanted to send across this case study where I did a deep-dive into the problem you’re facing and synthesized my thoughts into this short presentation with some key insights.”
- If you don’t want to go above and beyond like above, you can just send across short e-mails/tidbits of thoughts around the problem they are facing over the next few months. Maybe you come across an article that’s extremely relevant to what you guys were talking about and you shoot that over to the PM with a quick note about why it’s relevant.
Your goal with all of this is to leave a lasting impression in that PM’s mind as well as make it incredibly easy for them to want to refer you once a PM position opens up or once you apply for a role.
You don't need a straightforward career path to break into a product manager role. It's about developing the right skill sets and putting yourself in the right position to take advantage of an opportunity. Good luck!
If you are new to product management and are looking to break into your first product role, we recommend taking our One Week PM course, where you will learn the fundamentals of product management, launch your own product, and get on the fast track towards landing your first product job.