And How to Thrive Once You Get There
How do you become a Product Manager?
If you’re interested in trying your hand at this elusive and rewarding job, but feeling a little unclear as to how it’s obtained, you’re not alone. While the individual components of Product Management — design, engineering, and business — each possess ample formal education opportunities, few degree programs exist to show people how to effectively bring all three of these different areas together; and none so far that I’ve seen are B.S. programs.
More often, folks find their way into Product Management after having gained some professional experience in, and exposure to, each area of design, engineering, and business. “Exposure to” being the key part of that sentence. You don’t necessarily need to have cold hard experience in all three areas in order to get into Product Management. People break in from a wide range of backgrounds and combinations of experience + exposure.
UPDATE: A version of this piece was featured by the Medium editorial staff on 1/8/19 and includes an audio podcast I recorded.
The Most Unordinary Paths I’ve Seen Others Take
1. Path of an old colleague at eBay:
Customer Service → Product Manager
This person was dripping with empathy for our customers and was super organized, which took them a long way.
2. Friend and colleague, Tyler Kareeson’s path:
QA → Engineer → Product Manager
Though Tyler’s background in business and design may be lighter than other PM’s, his technical wherewithal enables him to work through issues that others are often defeated by; like the time he saved his team’s product from being scrapped by helping to reprogram a particularly bad bug. Amazing.
Even aside from these outliers, there is rarely a straight path into Product Management, and that’s usually a good thing! Product Management is a role that thrives from breadth and diversity — and actually suffers from narrowness and professional biases (more on this later).
The Most Popular Path I’ve Seen People Take
Even the most popular path to Product Management is really more of a choose-your-own-adventure set of paths to choose from, usually looking something like this:
- Get a “helpful degree”
- (software engineering, business, design)
- Get started in that area of expertise (as an engineer or marketing person)
- Prove yourself at a company and step into the PM role (easier at growing companies or startups)
While there are several ways to get into Product Management, there are some guidelines that can help you understand what type of experiences and exposure you should be actively seeking in order to best prepare you for the role.
The Paths That Make The Best Product Managers
The paths that produce the best Product Managers are the ones that build empathy and awareness of the various functional areas they work with.
If you have a deep engineering background, consider how can you gain experiences with design or business. If you’re all business and design, determine a way to gain a conceptual understanding of how engineering teams operate and perform their functions.
If formal schooling is an option for you, I would recommend getting a technical degree (B.S. in software engineering) with a minor or equivalent in a business topic (strategy, communication, marketing).
I also think it’s important to find ways to gain exposure in design. Read books, attend conferences, make a friend who’s in tune with the subject.
The “unicorn PMs” develop strengths in all three areas.
The Pitfalls of Certain Paths
Getting into Product Management is like it’s own right of passage. Chances are, if you have the resourcefulness to get yourself into a PM role, you’ve got what it takes to excel at the job. That being said, there are some pitfalls to be mindful of when transitioning into Product Management from other functional areas.
1. Transitioning from Engineering
Those who transition from Engineering may understandably bias themselves toward their own vision of the architecture of a product. Although understandable, this is a mistake. It’s important as a PM give those reigns to the engineering team who is now playing that role. This is especially difficult when the PM actually transitioned from the very same engineering team they’re now product managing.
Another variation of this mistake is to make your own assumptions of what is hard, or easy, in terms of scope, without including the engineering team in those discussions. Best case they’re right and they’ve alienated their engineering partners… worst case, they get that result and their assumption was wrong.
Another pitfall this group can fall victim to is a failing to engage with customers in order to develop a deep understanding of user needs. Because engineering roles may get less exposure to customers, they can be less aware of these PM activities, and may not even realize it’s part of the job. And this is VERY MUCH part of a PM’s job.
2. Transitioning from Design
While those who transition from Design may see the value of good design more than others, it’s important to remember to balance this function with engineering and business. Failing to head the concerns of the engineering teams, or failing to drive your business KPI’s in the right direction can jeopardize your product and all of its elegant designs. Being a former designer-PM is not a blank check to prioritize unchallenged design requests.
3. Transitioning from Other Areas (E.g. Project Mgmt, Marketing)
The biggest issue for these folks is overly relying on their teams, without really doing their job. Yes, PMs should delegate tasks to their teams, however, they must also understand and shape the product at a technical level themselves. If a PM can only function as a task-master, then the role is not really filled properly; and these duties become thrust upon the Design or Tech Lead.
My Path Into Product Management
- B.S. in Computer Engineering
- Internship at Microsoft as a “Program Manager” (blend of Project Mgr, Product Mgr, and UX designer)
- Landed job at eBay as UX designer
- Rose to manage and later direct other designers
- Became increasingly involved in product strategy decisions
- Earned MBA via weekend classes while working at eBay
- Post graduation, joined a former eBay boss as GM and Head of Product for a small company Comcast had bought (Plaxo)
And “just like that” I was a Product Manager. 😉
If I Were Starting Out Today
If I were getting into Product Management in today’s environment, I would focus on getting active in the startup and Product Management communities. Go to hack-a-thons, startup competitions, and meetups for product folks. I would read LOTS of blogs and books. I’d go to high-quality workshops and week-long classes (Marty Cagan).
Then, I would find ways to DO the job before I GOT it.
Emerging Spaces To Keep An Eye On
I’m fascinated by AI and what it means for future services. Again, if I was getting started in today’s job market, I think I’d get involved with voice interfaces (Google Home, Alexa) and how they apply the best of this space.
Is Business School Necessary?
The fact is: You can get into a PM role without business experience or credentials. So no – business school is not necessary.
Is it worth it?
To be honest – in today’s world – I’m not sure. Earning an MBA is becoming increasingly expensive.
When I went for my MBA at Berkeley 10 years ago it cost me $80K, and I was able to get eBay to pay $5K/year ($20K over 4 calendar years) and write off $20K as an unreimbursed business expense. Meaning I was out of pocket $40K.
Contrast that with today’s cost:
$136K and a more difficult environment to get companies to pay for part of the degree. At that price, you’re facing double or triple the cost today than I paid for, the same degree.
Without financial assistance, it’s not an easy decision for most people.
Having an MBA can certainly provide you an advantage: instruction, networking, personal branding.
It’s important to note though, that everything you learn in business school is theoretical. The case studies you learn from were practical for the people involved, but the lessons you take away from those case studies remain mere theory to you until you really put them into practice.
Earning an MBA was a great decision for me, and it could be for you too. It was a special time for me to carve out 20 hours a week to go deep on a topic I was super interested in with some amazing professors and classmates (with a huge thanks to my wife who helped make that time possible). But I don’t think people should view an MBA as a hard requirement and or a deterrent from breaking into Product Management.
Reports from LinkedIn and Hired.com illustrate that Product Management is showing significant job growth, and that people in the position are earning some of the most money in tech. The job itself combines the thrill of entrepreneurial experimentation, with the structure and learning opportunities of an established organization.
While I would encourage anyone interested in breaking into Product Management to find guidance from others by reaching out to people and doing some research, I would also encourage people to be creative to take some risks, and to follow their gut in finding a way that works for them, even if it’s unconventional.
Preston Smalley produced in collaboration with Mark Mizera. Preston
is the VP of Product and Engineering at Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center. Preston has led and advised startups, designed products at eBay and Microsoft, and introduces new ideas and technologies at various conferences. To learn more and keep up with Preston, visit prestonsmalley.com or sign up for his newsletter where he shares new thoughts every week on topics like Product Strategy, Design, and Leadership.