A Guide to Breaking Into Product Management "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs October 10 2020 True first product manager job, job interviews, product management career, Product Manager Job, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 3570 Product Management 14.28

A Guide to Breaking Into Product Management

BY ON

I’m a product manager with more than 10 years’ experience in digital products, but I wasn’t always in Product. As a former marketer, I wanted to write a guide for professionals aiming to make a successful jump into product management and now I have.

In it I cover:

  • Your competition
  • Where to start
  • Landing a product management interview
  • How to interview for a product manager position
  • The job offer

Your Competition

Let me begin by telling you the truth: competition is fierce. I’ve crunched numbers from 17 online businesses all over the western world with +600k employees and this is what I’ve got:

Amount of developers, product people, and total employees in leading tech companies. Analysis by Lucila Rey (2020) — Data provided by companies’ public profiles on LinkedIn and based on job titles listed by employees.

While 21% of employees are developers, only 2.7% are product people. Not only that, but the academic background required to apply for a product job is much more diverse.

So, are product managers delivered to companies by white storks? No, they’re delivered mostly by the IT department.

Educational background of product people in leading tech companies. Analysis by Lucila Rey (2020) — Data provided by companies’ public profiles on LinkedIn and based on job titles listed by employees.

Product management exists at the intersection of software engineering, design, and business. If you’re coming from one of those fields, you’re in luck because you have a deep understanding of at least one of those domains, and you’ve probably worked closely with a product manager and had a chance to get a close look at their day-to-day.

But, as you can see in the graphic, product people come from every educational background you can imagine. This is important for you to know: you may have to work harder, but it can be done.

Where to Start

To begin with, you need to assess your skills because product managers wear all kinds of hats. They need to develop empathy, creativity, leadership, and at the same level, hardcore analysis abilities, and a data-informed mindset.

The following list should give you an idea of which skills to develop. As it’s a generalist profession, we have to check at least the basics on every box that’s relevant to our field. My advice is to go over it and rate yourself from 1 to 5, then focus on improving the lowest scores.

Most companies will be looking for someone with:

Data-driven skills

General knowledge of statistics. Tools and frameworks to leverage data, such as Google Analytics, Tableau, Data Studio, and MySQL. Experience with multivariable testing. Analytical thinking and estimation solving abilities.

Communications skills

Excellent verbal and written skills. They’ll assess how your resume is presented and how you respond to questions during the interview.

User-centric approach

Quantitative and qualitative approaches to research. Feedback loop administration. Tools and frameworks to recruit and obtain information from users, such as Hotjar, Google Forms, Lookback, and CrazyEgg. Usability testing basics.

Technical abilities

Product knowledge and correct use of terminology. Delivery and Discovery tracks. User stories writing and roadmap building. Agile or other software development frameworks knowledge. Product design knowledge. Software development knowledge.

Leadership

Ability to lead a discussion, at least on a basic level. Leadership training of some kind or some experience leading cross-functional teams. Coaching. Empathy. Stakeholder management.

Strategic mindset

High-level understanding of the industry and competitive landscape. Business analysis experience. Problem-solving abilities.

Further Reading

Studying to Fill the Gaps

Once you know what you’re missing, you need to educate yourself. If you’re a complete rookie and can afford it, the best decision would be to invest in a product management or product owner course.Alternatively, if you feel you just need a little insight into specific topics, there are many free resources on the internet that can help you, like Google Analytics Academy, and Udemy.

With a background in humanistic studies, hardcore statistics were always a struggle for me. One of my favorite YouTube channels, CrashCourse, released a series on that topic that changed everything. I found the secret is to treat free e-learning as real-life learning: make a schedule to follow, put it down as a regular appointment on your calendar, and commit to it. For me, learning equals writing things down, so I usually take notes, but you can make flashcards,  or whatever helps you to lock down that knowledge. 

Also, good old book reading! You can find some great e-books to download for free, but if books are not your thing, make sure to follow leaders who regularly publish articles on the subject.

Further Reading

Showcase Your Skills

You can work on side projects for a non-profit or review a well-known product, then publish a case study to showcase your efforts. Case studies are a good way to put together a product portfolio that focuses on process rather than solutions. Designers are familiar with the concept of a portfolio – it’s what they have been doing since college, but professionals from other backgrounds might have never heard about it. Easy ways to publish your work, once it’s ready, include LinkedIn articles, publishing on Medium or submitting a post to Mind the Product.

To get started, here are some examples of things you could tackle:

  • Work out a problem someone you know has with their business: Are they having low recurrence on their cupcakes business? Is your dog-walker friend not getting enough work?
  • Solve a problem you’ve encountered in a digital product you use every day: Isn’t it frustrating not to be able to downgrade your Netflix subscription when you want to? Don’t you hate it when you download a game solely based on an ad that’s completely bogus and you end up with a cheap copy of Bejeweled?
  • Build a business case for the company where you are working now: What’s the most frequent complaint in social media? What’s a recurring problem salespeople experience?
  • Improve an offline experience by proposing a digital approach: How often do you wish that something as simple as asking a question at the bank wouldn’t take 15 minutes of queuing?
  • Answer a riddle only with public data: How much money does Facebook spend on snacks per year? How many people are having a glass of water right now? How many different leather jackets does the Tiger King own?
  • Reverse-engineer a popular feature: Why did LinkedIn add the “Ask for a recommendation” as a separate posting option? Why did Facebook remove the “dislike button”?

Find Your Tribe

This part of the process is about meeting someone who can give you your big break. A great way to get into product management is to meet product managers. Sounds so obvious, right? This is often the most difficult thing to do if you are new to the industry, but you can start by attending meetups or volunteering on industry events like ProductTank. Companies in need of new talent often sponsor these kinds of gatherings and HR recruiters attend – this is a part of their employer branding strategy. You’ll also find senior members who will be more than happy to share some initiation stories over a cup of coffee, and who might know about current job openings. It’s a win-win situation (for you).

If you are not shy, you can also reach out through LinkedIn or common colleagues to people who’ve done a similar kind of transition and ask to “pick their brains”.

Landing a Product Management Interview

It’s much easier to make the transition to a product manager role where you currently work. Not only in my case, but it’s also what most of the posts on the topic I could find online say. When you have worked for a company for a while you acquire three very important assets – you already know the people, the product, and the culture. If you have set the bar high with your current responsibilities, the company will be more likely to take a chance on you than to hire an outsider with a more or less long learning curve.

I suggest you invest some time on building a business case for a real problem detected within your own scope, and to let your managers know you’re interested in transitioning to product management.  Even if there are no openings available at the moment, you‘ll probably be able to collaborate with the product team by being a part of specific projects and gain some valuable experience.

Rewrite Your Resume From Scratch

Think about your work experience in a different light. Look for projects you have owned end-to-end and where you managed stakeholders, or refer to moments when you have used data to make decisions and highlight them. A recruiter will be interested in reading about transferable skills, it doesn’t matter under which job title you acquired them. Tailor your resumé to the role you’re aiming for and forget about the rest.

Something I used to do when I was first looking for a full-time product manager role was to look at the LinkedIn profiles of people who had my dream job. I must have read over 60 resumes looking for descriptions that resonated with my experience. I still do this from time to time: I recently added to my resume the fact that I hired and put together an entire squad for a new product. It had never crossed my mind that this was something remarkable until I read it in someone else’s profile.

Target job Hunting ads

Before applying to product roles, you need to understand what kind of product you’d manage successfully. Look for industries and products where your current abilities and knowledge would be a differential. For example, if you have worked as a recruiter, the B2B side of a product like Landing Jobs or Moberries would be ideal for you.

The other important thing to know is what kind of team would benefit from having you as a product manager. There are five main kinds of product teams and each has its own set of challenges. The most common in small companies is the generalist team that manages every aspect of the product, no matter who the end user is.

Generalist product managers are great for this role, and overall, the holy grail of a recruiter in any company. People who know at least a little about design, metrics, marketing, and technology will be a perfect fit. Most generalist teams eventually evolve to split into a B2C user-facing team and/or a B2B user-facing team, depending on the business model.

In more specialized companies, you’ll find back-office teams that develop internal tools for employees. Most technical product managers start here, it’s a natural transition because you rely heavily on technical knowledge to be good at it, and still gives you enough room to learn about business needs and design skills. These kinds of teams are used in some companies as training wheels to nurse talent that can eventually manage more showcased products.

The last kind of product team is the data science one. They manage products like IA, suggestions algorithms, personalization, chatbots, etc, and an ideal product manager should have at least some data mining experience and coding skills.

Once you have identified what’s your differential value and best fit as a product person, use that knowledge to target your applications.

Further Reading

The HR Screening Call

This is the less product management-y interview of the process. Recruiters mostly care about answering three questions:

  1. Is this candidate a good fit for our company’s unique culture?
  2. Is this candidate able to communicate effectively?
  3. Do I think this candidate reaches the minimum seniority level for the position  they’re applying for?

If you manage to present yourself as empathetic, with wit and enthusiasm, you’re halfway there. And, since you’re applying to a role that’s completely different from the one that you have, it’s likely that they’ll also want to know more about your motivations. They therefore might ask:

  1. Why are you changing to another field? Why now?
  2. Why did you apply to this company? Why did you apply for this position in particular?
  3. What can you bring to this company that’s unique and would make us choose you over an experienced product manager?
  4. Have you worked with tool X? Have you worked in scrum? Can you query a database? Do you code? Note: unless they are having a very specific need, these are usually not deal-breaker questions but can actually put you forward over other candidates or vice-versa.

There’s no right or wrong way to answer these questions, but by being aware that they’ll be asked, you’ll have the chance to gather your thoughts in advance.

How to Interview for a Product Manager Position

There are non-technical skills that differentiate a reasonable product manager from a great one: a product manager partners with technology and design to deliver an experience that users love and brings value to the business, but most importantly, makes the final call on what a successful product is.

(Image: Shutterstock)

These characteristics are the ones that, not HR, but other product managers look for in an interview.

  • Great product managers have a dynamic, always-on vision of progress that helps them to stay on track when day-to-day distractions surface.
  • Great product managers are excellent at asking questions. They don’t stay on the surface, they strive to find the hidden and the unknown.
  • Great product managers are driven by problems rather than solutions. They’re able to think outside the box, to come up with alternatives for the same problem, and assess results so they know which direction to take.
  • Product managers often say yes more than they want to, but great product managers say no every time they feel it’s the right thing to do, even if it’s to the CEO.
  • Great product managers are amazing storytellers. They’re natural communicators and have the ability to talk to people with different backgrounds in their own language and build a common vision for the product they manage.

Further Reading

Do Your Homework

Start by researching the company you’ll be interviewing for, covering: the current state of the industry and their main competition, the product and its maturity. You have to be confident talking about the business model and target audience. The top question I was asked in interviews is “what do you know about our company?”, be ready to answer.

When you are asked to recap your work history, talk about achievements in a measurable way. It’s a great way of saying “I’m a data-informed, result-oriented professional” without actually saying it. Keep it high-level, short, and sweet. If something catches the eye of your interviewer, they’ll ask you to go back to that and go deeper. Since you’re coming from a different background, there’s no point in going over technical responsibilities that are not the right fit for this role, so it’s better to focus on the wins.

Something that will most certainly come up is what drives you to shift your career. This is a tricky question, you might think that is because they want to know about your motivations, but almost certainly, it’s only 30% about that and 70% about if you know what you’re getting into. Be ready to draw a line between your current responsibilities, your first contact with product management, your research for the role, and how you can be a great acquisition to their team.

Rock the Interview

Besides the classic intro questions, some interviews require you to brainstorm a solution to a problem on the fly. Let’s be real, even for the most experienced of us, this is something scary to do under pressure. Remember not to get too hung up on the solution, this exercise it’s about the process:

  • How do you do your best thinking? Graphically? On a spreadsheet? Do it in a way that’s comfortable for you, and share your screen with the interviewer
  • Take your time, but listen to feedback. If you’re going on about something and your interviewer says that’s good enough, there’s no point on keep going. If they tell you to focus (or don’t focus) on a determining aspect, do so
  • Practise! Find some of the funniest and most baffling problem-solving riddles for product managers at productmanagementexercises.com

You might also be asked about improvements to their current product. Don’t hold back or give standard book answers, you want to be set apart from other candidates with a million-dollar idea. Naturally, these don’t just grow on trees, so be prepared.

If you are given the opportunity to ask a few things after the interview, don’t waste it by asking something that you can learn by doing a Google search. Ask relevant questions that spark excitement, things that actually matter to you as a professional. In my case, a career path is one of the most important things to help me decide if a company is a good fit for me, that’s why I generally ask what a product manager’s career might look like there. Some other things that are relevant to me are how they feel about the CEO-centric approach to product development and if they have an education budget or policy for collaborators. Everything you ask will reveal an aspect of your professional profile, use it wisely.

Ace the Homework Assignment

Most recruitment processes include some kind of exercise to showcase your skills either in real-time or by preparing a presentation, with a discussion about the decisions you made afterwards. No matter which scenario you encounter, you can use this guide to solve it. Remember that nobody’s expecting you to know the exact answers:

  1. Ask clarification questions: voice what you understood about the business problem. This will ensure that you’re on the right track from the beginning. State, if possible, how this new product or feature relates to the company’s mission
  2. Think about the target user: some products have personas in order to simplify this process, but you’re still on the outside and have no access to them. You should outline at least, a principal persona and a secondary one
  3. Describe the user pain that will be addressed: make sure to build consensus around this, otherwise, the solutions proposed won’t be good enough to keep the story going
  4. Brainstorm solutions: here’s your opportunity to show your knowledge about the category you’re interviewing for and your ability to think outside the box. Have between 5 and 10 options on the table and use your favorite tool to evaluate trade-offs and show your prioritization process
  5. Think about how you’d prove the idea: once you have decided on a direction, strip down the project to its very minimum expression, and voice what you’d expect to learn in order to decide if it’s an initiative worth pursuing. Define a principal metric to achieve and some control metrics
  6. Think about potential risks: It’s just that, think about potential risks you might face, and how you’d mitigate them

The job Offer

If you managed to get here, congratulations! If you didn’t, don’t be discouraged. There are two aspects you can address, conversion rate and volume. To start, think of it from a conversion rate optimization perspective: understand the funnel and spend time minimizing drop between steps. If the conversion rate is low (and trust me, it always is), focus on the upper funnel. Volume is key, so you will most certainly need a marketing push as well. Persevere and keep on looking, if you can get enough interviews, you’ll get there eventually.

Be bold and follow your instincts. You’ll most likely feel that you’ll never be completely prepared, but take that leap of faith anyway. Start that side hustle you’ve been thinking about. Write that email to the recruiter of your dream company. Don’t take that promotion in your current career if it doesn’t take you closer to where you want to be.

Seven years ago, as a part of an online marketing team, I was handling user retention and product marketing, and doing a great job (sorry, not sorry). My then boss, right after a one-on-one meeting, asked me if I was interested in SEO. I knew that meant he was looking for someone who could take that team to the next level, and expressing interest in the position was choosing to grow as a marketing person. I only had the nerve to politely decline this real opportunity because I was sure of what I wanted to do.