If you speak to five product managers about how they got their jobs, you’re likely to receive five different answers. Transitioning from a functional role such as marketing or engineering to product can seem daunting, especially if your education and experience aren’t specifically tailored to product, but it can be done.
Why Is Product Management Growing in Popularity?
Product roles are becoming increasingly important in many companies, from the unicorn startups to older more established firms. A product manager’s role is a multifaceted one that supports all aspects of a product’s lifecycle, from the strategy and market analysis phase to the development phase and finally the product launch and subsequent marketing.
Historically, jobs in investment banking or management consulting have been the popular choice for MBA graduates in the US. But this trend is changing as technology embeds in the fabric of our everyday lives, and many graduates are now seeking product roles. In fact, in product management has surpassed consultant as the most popular job among US MBA graduates. This trend extends to the increased growth of jobs in product-focused roles, with a 32% increase since 2017 until now. It’s clear that the need is there, and more and more people are becoming interested in filling these roles.
Making the Transition to Product
Today, product might seem like a new field because of the growth of technology startups and the prevalence of lean and agile frameworks, but product roles have been around for a few decades. The difference is that in the past they’ve been attached to marketing or engineering and not stood alone, so there hasn’t been a clear path for moving into product.
We spoke to two product managers to find out how they moved from marketing to product.
Joni Hoadley is a product management consultant and coach with 30 years of experience. “I help tech companies better products faster by helping them optimize their product management capabilities.” She spent 10 years in publishing as a marketing manager before she moved to a product role. “I was responsible for something we used to call ‘direct marketing’ which meant producing brochures that would be mailed (via snail mail) to customers. I taught myself how to create web pages by writing raw HTML code (there were no WYSIWIG editors back then!) as well as do things like digitizing images.”
This sparked her interest in digital products, and she began to make the transition. “The company wasn’t ready to establish a dedicated web team so I took a job with my first startup, a company called FreeLoader, and I worked as a marketing manager there. It took me about two or three years of doing marketing for tech startups until I was able to move into a product role.”
Robyn Paton is as a product manager for the Government of Canada with 20 years of experience.“At the moment, I work on software products used by inspectors in Canada’s transportation sector, but I’ve also worked on products related to travel and online services for Canada’s registered charities.”
For her, the move into product was not much different. “I have a degree in communications and music, which led me to a career in marketing. I sometimes joke that I’ve been inserting myself into product teams for more than a decade, but my official jump into product management happened about five years ago.”
She says her skills and experience as a marketer helped her make the transition to product. “Though my roles were always marketing focused, I often found myself working with other teams in my organization to help prioritize what was important to users, advocating for better user experience, or identifying what features might help us reach out to new users solving different problems, in addition to stepping up to make some of the hard decisions and prioritize what was worked on.”
A Plan for the Skills you Need
So what skills do you need to move to a product role? As a product manager you will be leading a team composed of people with different functional roles. A good product manager will have some experience in data analysis, UX design, sales, and have some technical expertise as well. However, soft skills are probably more critical – these include being a good communicator, the ability to delegate and lead a team, and most importantly having a good understanding of end users and their needs.
Acquiring the necessary skills to become a product manager will vary as different companies have different needs and what worked for one person might not work for another. The key is to carve your own path and develop a plan for your move into product.
Joni’s plan was to find a startup developing products for things she was passionate about. “I eventually found a startup called TheDJ.com which introduced the very first music streaming service. I was able to negotiate a role for myself that required I do two jobs initially, one as the marketing manager and one as the product manager.
The company was willing to take a chance on me because I was passionate about their products. Working at the intersection of music and technology was a dream come true. As the company grew and could afford to hire more people, someone else was brought in to run marketing and I was able to focus exclusively on product management.”
Robyn on the other hand, didn’t have a clear-cut plan, but she knew she wanted to move into a product role.
“I was lucky enough to work for someone wonderful who really allowed me to find a spot within our team where I felt like I could add the most value. My original role was communications-related, but I was unable to stop myself from trying to help influence the evolution of the series of products we were building.
Having that kind of support really made this change in my career possible – she had my back, even when I wasn’t totally sure if I would be good at stepping up to take more of a leadership role.”
Challenges You Might Face
While the numbers of product management jobs are increasing and universities are adding more product management specializations, there is no one-size-fits-all way to move into product. Joni and Robyn recall some of the challenges they faced.
“The most significant challenge was probably myself, to be honest,” said Robyn. “My fear of failing at something new, of changing the path of my career, but it was overrun by my curiosity and a desire to pursue this thing that seemed really exciting to me. I still have moments where I seriously doubt my abilities, but maybe that’s a product manager feature — a healthy dose of imposter syndrome!”
Joni’s challenges arose from the paucity of product manager roles available at the time. “I had to focus on finding the ones that were there. I had never worked as a product manager before so I had to find someone willing to take a chance on me. As the first and only product manager, I had no one to show me how to do product management. I had to teach myself.”
Advice and Resources
So what are the key takeaways for someone looking to move into a product management role?
- Develop a product mindset. Think like a product person and treat everything like a product. Some of the functional roles adjacent to product management include marketing, business analysis, software development, and UX design. You can start to get an understanding of how your work contributes to the overall product from these jobs. Start developing the mindset of a product manager and try to get involved in the key decision-making steps to further your understanding.
- Reverse engineer the role. What is your current role? Take an inventory of the skills you already have and the requirements of the role you are looking for. Talk with other people at your own company or within your product community and get an idea for what the role entails and how you can differentiate yourself, then start working towards that. If there is a gap, start to develop the missing skills that you need now.
- Build something. Finally, the most important piece of advice is to build something. Being a product manager is all about building a product. If you’ve never built a product before then there are a number of tools that can help you get there. Don’t be afraid of failure. If your first product fails then you will have some experience that can help you to build your next one.
There are also lots of resources to help you understand product roles and how you might make the move. Here are some resources to get you started.
- Articles: These articles from the Mind the Product blog will help you gain a clear understanding of the role of a product manager: Product Management Job Titles and Hierarchy and What, exactly, is a Product Manager?
- ProductTank videos: In the ProductTank video series, product people around the world gather at various locations to educate their audience. Two great talks that provide some more insight into the role of product management are: The Product Manager’s Identity Crisis by Mitchell Gillespie and The Future of Product Management by Richard Harrison.
- Books: For any aspiring product manager, one book worth reading comes from the co-founder of Mind the Product, Martin Eriksson: Product Leadership, How Top Product Leaders Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams.
- Podcasts: Mind the Product also has a great podcast series called The Product Experience if you prefer to listen during your commute. Two excellent episodes that provide some insight into what a product manager does include: How To Say No with Gabrielle Bufrem and Moving Up the Career Ladder with Thor Mitchell.