Want to be a Product Manager? Just get out There and Make Products

BY Shaun Russell ON FEBRUARY 4, 2019

Are you trying to break into Product Management?

I’ll start with the bad news. There are a huge number of motivated, intelligent people who are looking for a first step on the ladder, and very few entry-level roles to go around.

These budding product managers have many things in common. Most of them are familiar with Agile theory and terminology. They have probably read one or more of “The Lean Startup”,”Inspired”, and “Thinking Fast and Slow”. They can tell you about the products they love, and why. They attend product meetups regularly, perhaps they have even taken a course or certification.

And almost none of them have ever made their own product.

Stand out From the Crowd

Theory, curiosity, and commitment to learning are all good signs in a future product manager, but they are a baseline expectation, not a distinguishing feature. Such candidates may even be high risk for employers; the most impressive amateur theorists are likely to be all talk, no action, which is a recipe for product management disaster.

So how can you stand out and make yourself appealing to employers? My advice is simple: make your own products!

You don’t need anyone’s permission to make products. Product managers don’t have diplomas or doctorates – after all we can barely agree on a single standard of what a product manager should do.

Nonetheless, among the wide-ranging definitions of the role, there is at least one simple consensus. A good product manager will use the hand they’ve been dealt to bring a product to life. They don’t need to be protected, kept carefully at room temperature, or given unlimited resource. Faced with challenging constraints, they find a way.

You’ve never made a product before. It’s unlikely you have engineers, designers or researchers at your disposal. You probably have no budget to spend. You can hear a terrible voice in the back of your head saying:“I have no idea what I’m doing.”

So what are you waiting for? Let’s begin.

You can Code Your own Way

Whether a product manager should be able to code is a contentious debate. Nonetheless, if you’re making your own products, it’s a huge advantage to have. There is an ever-expanding universe of ways to learn for free.

But learning to code is far from the only option.

Case in point: I made my first product with an engineer I met online. As idle teenagers, we discussed something we thought should exist: an online marketplace for independent musicians. Within months, we built the real thing, launched and iterated… before we’d even met in person!

Such meetings are part serendipity, part make-your-own-luck. You can find potential working partners at meetups, hackathons, in online communities, or among your own friends. There are plenty of hazards along the way, particularly colliding egos and wavering commitment. But then that’s what you signed up for as a product manager; these are troubles worth learning from.

And a lot can be done without any code at all. With one of the many prototyping tools out there you can easily test ideas first, and save yourself the trouble of building the wrong thing later on. Then there are many tools that can take you beyond a visual prototype. To name but a few examples, you can use Zapier to trigger domino effects across different apps, gather customer data with Typeform, or build your own database with Google Sheets. (If you can write an Excel formula, congratulations, you’re an engineer after all!)

Your initial goal is to make something and get someone to use it. That’s the essence of a product! For the user, it doesn’t matter whether it was cobbled together from other services, coded from scratch, or required a gloriously messy manual process that kept you up until 3am to run. The objective remains the same. Create value for someone, and learn from there.

And what if your product doesn’t work out? Well, I have one last secret to share.

Failure is Compulsory

It is a fact of life that product managers fail often. The very best are no different, but they do know how to play failure to their advantage; they embrace risk over time, to develop a deeper understanding of their product. Faced with uncertainty, they dive deeper, rather than shy away.

It’s okay if your product fails.

We look for product managers who can fail and OWN their failures. Candidates that cannot tell us about past failure are either unable to take risks (bad product manager), liars (worse product manager), or are some kind of nature defying superhero (probably not within our hiring budget).

If you want to be a product manager, you need to get comfortable taking risks.

So there is no excuse: go out there and make products!

Shaun Russell

About

Shaun Russell

Shaun Russell is a freelance product coach based in Berlin, with a focus on topics such as product strategy, communication, and conflict. He held product management roles at Outfittery, Lyst and Adthena, and is co-organiser of ProductTank Berlin. To find out more see shaunrussell.me.

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