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How to Become a Product Manager in 2021

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Did you know that Glassdoor currently ranks product manager as the 3rd best job in America for 2021?

With the rising popularity in product management and increasing clarity into what this rewarding career path entails an increasing number of people are interested in this career path.

In the 4+ years that I have taught product management this is one of the most frequent questions that I get asked. “How do I become a product manager?”

One of the factors that makes becoming a product manager a difficult task is that there is no standard linear path to obtain a role. Becoming a product manager does not have as clear of a path as the path to become a doctor, accountant, or even a plumber.

A quick online search or a discussion with someone in one of these professions will shed light on the defined steps to take to reach the goal. And if you speak to a number of people in these professions their advised steps would be similar.

Every product manager role is different

These steps would likely involve post-secondary school, additional courses thereafter, completing some exams (or obtaining a licence), some on the job training, and then success! 

If you speak to 5 product managers at least 4 out of the 5 will have their own unique journey of how they obtained their first product role.

One product manager may have entered the role after completing their MBA. Another may have become a product manager after selling their successful startup to another company. 

One of my past students landed their first product management role after years in the consulting industry, and another after being an experienced project manager in a tech company. 

What are the skills you need to become a product manager?

It goes without saying that for someone who wants to become a product manager there are key skills and experience that they should have under their belt. At the very least they should know the fundamentals of product management.

These fundamentals can be learned by taking courses (we will speak about this soon) and/or practical experience. 

Here are 3 things that are needed for anyone who is interested in landing their first product role.

1. Strong conviction that this is the right role for you

As glamorous as product management may seem this role is not for everyone. Like any job this role has its ups and downs. 

Some of the benefits of being a product manager are:

Product managers are not siloed into doing one specific task on a daily basis

As mentioned earlier no two days may always look the same for a product manager. This is one of the things that makes the job so rewarding for those who like variety.

While developers may spend their work hours writing code and the sales team speaking with prospective customers to reach their sales quota, fulfilling the responsibilities of a product manager allows product managers to meet and interact with multiple stakeholders and take part in every step of the design and development process.

It is a very rewarding experience defining a problem, working with the design and development team to bring it to life, and at the end viewing the delight on customer’s faces as it makes their lives measurably easier.

Product managers hone and leverage multiple skills

Being a jack of many trades product managers leverage multiple skills to perform their job.

These skills include communication, stakeholder management, technical, problem solving, strategy, design, and more.

The benefit of this is that product managers are constantly learning and growing. And for those who like to continue to learn new things and sharpen their skills even further then there is always more to learn.

Experienced product managers can continue to learn further by diving deeper into the skills and disciplines of those who they work closely with.

Product managers are trained leaders

One of the reasons why there are many startup founders who transition into product management, and vice-versa, is due to the overlapping skills between product managers and entrepreneurs.

The work that product managers perform to find a need in a market, understand a problem, define a solution, rally their team around a mission, prioritize, and acquire resources that are needed to support the product trains product managers to be leaders.

These are comparable to the demands of startup founders and CEOs. 

The strong interpersonal skills that product managers have equips them to become great leaders, especially should they ever decide to start their own company in the future. 

With that being said it is important to understand the downsides of the role as well. 

While product managers are valued in their organizations and heavily relied upon the job can also be very demanding and stressful.

The most stressful period for product managers generally falls around the launch of a critical product or release. 

Another major downside of being a product manager is that product managers have no authority.

This is crucial to understand because the entire company is involved in making a product successful.

While a product manager may define a great solution that is visually appealing, has a great user experience, and is technically sound, if the marketing team does not effectively communicate it’s value and the sales team does not adequately sell the product, then the product has a higher chance of failing.

If the customer success team does not care about their customers enough to support them with the product and the customer support team does not speedily address customer issues, then the product has a higher chance of failing.

So how does a product manager get the stakeholders that they work with to roll up their sleeves and perform their responsibilities to the best of their abilities even though they have no authority over these stakeholders? Product managers accomplish this by influencing their stakeholders.

However this is easier said than done. And this is why good product managers have great interpersonal skills.

Speak with other product managers to understand the pros and cons of the role to determine if this is the right role for you.

2. Unrelenting resolve to achieve the goal

This is the definition of the word “grit”.

Because the path to become a product manager isn’t solely linear, meaning that if you perform a specific set of actions you are 100% guaranteed to obtain a product role, aspiring product managers need to take the necessary steps to obtain their first role.

They also need to be open to feedback and change their plans when needed.

Some of the actions that aspiring product managers should perform include:

  • Attending meetups to learn and expand their professional network

  • Directly reaching out to recruiters (or hiring managers) when applying for roles

  • Sharing their resume with experienced product managers for critique

  • Exploring job opportunities at startups and incubators

  • Establishing an online presence to be competitive in the job market and to brand oneself effectively

The key challenge that many people face is landing their first product role. 

Once they obtain their first role and gain some solid experience under their belt then they can continue to grow their professional career.

3. Build something

Anyone who wants to become a product manager should gain experience building something real.

One of the reasons why it is easier for project managers, product designers, consultants, and startup founders to transition into product management is because they have experience with strategy and/or delivery.

Building a product gives you experience with: 

  • Performing market and customer research

  • Making prioritization decisions

  • Learn various frameworks and tools to reach stated goals

  • Working effectively with a team

  • Gaining project management skills

  • Teamwork and leadership

  • … and more

All of which are valuable skills that product managers leverage on a daily basis, and are questioned about in interviews.

You do not need to build the next Coinbase or Clubhouse. 

Building something can range from building a new chrome extension that serves a market need, to defining a problem, validating it, designing it, and following the steps of the product development process to have a design prototype.

Even so much as having a defined deck on the problem that you are solving, the hypothesis to validate, goals to reach, target customers, key learnings from customer interviews, a design prototype, and a defined roadmap with OKRs is sufficient.

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