How to Get a Job As a Product Manager

Finding your first job as a product manager is just like the ever frustrating chicken and egg problem of getting your first job. Companies like to hire people with prior product management experience and it’s hard to get prior experience without first getting hired. To substitute for this, here is some advice on how to circumvent that Catch 22 without having to first be a PM in the industry:

Side Projects: One of the best ways to demonstrate your interest in product management is to work on a side project that gives you the experience in shipping a product. A side project could be anything from a tangible iPhone app, wireframe, or even PowerPoint case study. You could volunteer to help a non-profit or small business or you could just do some research on a company’s current product / service and show how you might improve it.

For example, when applying to a small education tech start-up for a PM role, I did a short case study where I went out to target customers (who I felt accurately represented the startup’s direct customers) and surveyed them about their problems in education space. I synthesized all the responses into a few key issues and brainstormed a few potential solutions. Given this was just a case study, I wrote about my process in prioritizing which problem I’d address first given time/cost constraints and did a quick wireframe on PPT of a product feature I would add to the startup’s current product offerings to address this issue. I also wrote about how I might quantitatively measure effects of rolling out this feature.

Another example of side projects you could do is joining a Startup Weekend in your local area. Startup Weekend is a weekend long experience where teams (technical and non-technical) get together and work on on customer development, idea validation, and build a minimum viable product which they then pitch to a panel of experts on the final day. It’s a great experience to develop product management skills and in general work with people of different backgrounds to ship a product on a deadline.

At the end of the day, good side projects should demonstrate your skills in ways an interview or resume wouldn’t be able to, whether it be design, business, creative thinking, coding, etc… Many people can b.s. their way through interviews but a tangible side project shows that you can really do the work if you were given the opportunity.

Start Thinking Like a PM: Although you should be able to work on side projects in your spare time, if you are truly swamped in your current job and are one of those people who usually laughs when someone asks you what you do for fun, then start taking steps at your current company to think and act like a product manager. Try to get onto projects where you are taking a lead role in managing a few people with different workstreams and where your team is responsible for getting a deliverable completed on a deadline. Ideally, you should try to get onto projects where you’ll be forced to work with cross-functional teams so that you can learn multiple “languages.” Good PMs know how to understand terms from different teams and convert them into the language of their current audience. For most employers, the next best thing to direct experience is demonstrating that you have relevant and transferable skills. Taking steps at your current company /situation to think like a PM will allow you to better structure your experience and increase your chance of landing a PM job.

Develop a Technical Skillset: Technical skillsets does not mean learning to code! I truly believe that all product managers in the tech industry really love technology and will eventually gravitate towards a desire to learn code but it is not absolutely necessary to get into product management. Don’t just be that generic “business guy/gal” who hopes that your passion alone will get you a job in product management. Try your best to learn something technical like design or data analysis (Excel / SQL). There are so many resources online that’d it be absolutely ridiculous to at least not have a basic understanding of one thing technical going into the product management recruiting process.

Network: Honestly, I hate it when blogs give me generic advice like networking but I’d be lying if I said I was able to get my current product manager job without networking. In my instance, I was able to reach out to former college friends working as product managers who were able to give me more insight into their roles as well as help guide me towards relevant contacts at startups I was interested in. Tech is honestly a much smaller space than it seems and taking time to attend events, hackathons, and meetups will give you access to a huge network of individuals who could refer you into companies. I subscribe to Startup Digest and Meetup to get a curated list of tech events in my area that I find relevant.

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Surviving Product Management product management

The best lessons learned come from actual experience. Having been a product manager for products as diverse as hosted applications to printers, these are the lessons I’ve learned and I hope they are useful to you. With a healthy dose of humility from lessons learned, here are my recommendations for surviving and excelling at product management:

Essentials of Product Management

o Passion for your products and their success matters more than organizational power. The role of a product manager is full of opportunities to find passion for the product today, its future roadmap, sales strategies, finding and growing a sales champion, and working with and supporting service. In short the best product managers I’ve worked with have a passion for their products and their success. They rarely coerce cooperation through formal power by invoking a VP or C-level executives’ name or position, but their passion and intensity earn them respect. Passion is the fuel of the best product managers; it propels them past doing “just enough” to get by to delivering exceptional work, projects and results.

o Manage expectations aggressively. In some companies product managers are considered the final authority on future product enhancements, current and future pricing, launch dates, PR and lead generation efforts, even which analyst firms are subscribed to. With this much authority, sales, channel management, operations, production – in short every affected group in a company – looks to product management to make commitments on products to respond to competitive pressure or capitalize on market opportunities. If your company has an Intranet post the product roadmap and product management plans, in detail by product, there for everyone to view. Deviating from product roadmap for special orders needs to be communicated aggressively, as do pricing moves and product direction.

o Resolve to know your competitors better than industry analysts do. Get to know your competitors and become an expert in every aspect of their business. If you haven’t already, get 10Qs and other filings from the SEC for publicly available companies, and for all competitors run a D&B report every three months to see how their business is going. Take the hardest-hitting competitive points and publish it to your direct sales force including inside sales. Take the trending data and publish it for your indirect partners and keep the best competitive analysis for your direct sales force. Publish how-to-sell-against papers on each competitor every six months to capture the current knowledge you have of them for both direct and indirect channels.

o Pricing competitive analysis deserves its own effort. When managing high-volume products like PCs, laptops or accessories, having a constant view of how your pricing measures up relative to competitors is easily accomplished by checking competitors’ and their channel partners’ websites. Tracking your competitor’s price relative to your own on a daily basis delivers the data necessary to fight for price moves and lower per unit costs from purchasing, procurement or operations. Consider hiring a couple of interns from a local university to do the daily analysis and establishing trending graphs and presentations. Hiring them for twenty hours a week, working the first half of each day of the week, works well. Pricing from competitors is typically re-vamped nightly with website refreshes, so having interns capture this data during the first hours of the day gives you visibility into pricing moves immediately.

o The first 90 days in a product management role is critical. This is the time the best product managers I’ve seen get their reputations established, start delivering on projects, show their strengths and weaknesses, develop alliances, and set expectations for the next year or two. It’s critical during this time to avoid being isolated and getting buried quickly in e-mails and distractions. The best product managers are those that get out to the departments they will need to work with in the future, building alliances, starting to earn trust, and getting to know where product management is positioned in the company and what its true role is. During interview cycles you get the org chart view, it’s time to get the real view now.

Reaching out to departments you will work with includes Sales, Marketing, Service, Engineering, Production, Operations and the customer base. Get out and see at least three to five customers if you can, coordinating this with Sales, and also spend time with the internal “customers” you will have, going as far as to publish your project list for everyone who is relying on you. Work to deliver projects before their deadline and ask frequently for feedback. The goal during this first 90 days is to become part of the fabric of the company and spend much time learning the organization and where its’ most pressing needs are before going after huge projects.

o Grow sales champions, even if it means you have to do pre-sales support. Sales and product management often have a cordial yet distant relationship in companies because on the one hand product management needs Sales to run up the most critical metrics there are, and Sales needs product management for product information and support. Pre-sales support is avoided by many product management staffs because it becomes all-consuming. But structuring pre-sales support in terms of escalation of the best opportunities coming to product management for face-time with product experts is critical to grow links with Sales and eventually grow a sales champion. Just manage your time to make sure this doesn’t become an all-consuming job.

Making Cross-Functional Teams Work

o Credibility is the capital you trade with, start with humility. Passion and credibility go hand-in-hand. Building credibility has to start with a focus on earning respect from engineering, product marketing, sales and other departments you regularly interact with. Building credibility starts by building trust. Trust comes from being transparent. Building credibility takes time, and so often product managers feel they must be the “instant” expert for their products, when building credibility is much better accomplished by admitting what you don’t know and asking for help. Humility and honesty gain respect, as does asking for help and being reciprocal about sharing thanks for getting it. Be sure to serve up plenty of recognition to those that help you too, copying their managers on thank you e-mails when members of other departments go out of their way to help you get to your goals. Start laying the foundation for positive relationships where you get the reputation for sharing credit and thank you early and often.

o Replace the frequency of cross-functional meetings with an Intranet site. Respect the time of cross-functional team members by distributing marketing, sales and business plans, specifications, and documents via an Intranet site. Distribute links and ask for feedback, and only have cross-functional meetings when there is enough to discuss and it warrants everyone’s time. You can also use an Intranet site for managing the approval cycles for documents as well, and if you have an organization that is comprised of team members across a wide geographic region use meetings and conference calls for exceptions and have the workflows on the Intranet site handle the routine tasks.

o Create a buzz around new product introductions by creating Champion Awards. In one PC company that had to rely on engineering resources from another project to get its product line built, tested and ready for launch, product management created Champion Awards signed by the Directors of Engineering, Marketing, General Manager for the Division and CEO. These were personalized by product managers and framed, then presented the same week a member of engineering completed a task above and beyond their primary job in support of the product launch. These were presented at cross-functional meetings by Directors of Engineering and Marketing.

o Under-commit on launch dates and over-deliver on them. Product introductions are when companies signal to the outside world how coordinated they are internally or not. There’s major pressure to move launch dates up from Sales, Channel Management, Marketing, and at times from Operations and Production as well. As much pressure there is to move up a launch date, keep schedules full of at least 20% extra time because the inevitable delays occur.

Lessons Learned From Working with Engineering

o Share product ownership with your products’ engineers. Partner and team with engineering, and specifically spend much time understanding engineering’s’ perspective on your products. Share ownership for the product and its future, and work to create a cooperative environment with engineering.

o Relentlessly pursue product expertise. Becoming a product expert starts by realizing that there is no such thing as an “instant expert” and that by working with engineering to appreciate which decisions they have made on your product and why goes a long way towards giving you a solid foundation to manage your products as effectively as possible.

o Be a de facto leader of development via customer and competitive intelligence. This takes much effort, and it is worth it for any product manager to establish their role as delivering in-depth customer and competitive intelligence. Often when the next generation of a product is being developed, engineering needs input on what customers are looking for. By committing to be the leader in terms of customer and competitive intelligence, you can that much more effectively guide product development.

Lessons Learned From Working with Product Marketing

o Get on top of lead generation performance for your products. Marketing may not have this data, but go after getting it for all product managers so you can start building out what the sales funnel looks like for your products and how many leads are needed at the wide end of the funnel to result in closed sales.

o Work with Marketing to understand the sales funnel for your products. See if you can create the sales funnel for your products using Marketing data, and see why some leads drop out of the pipeline.

o Get going on a Google AdWords strategy for your products. This is very economical as a lead generation strategy, and push to get AdWords going for your products. Define the specific keywords to include competitors and their products as well. The cost per click can be well under $1.00 and the leads finely tuned.

o Have a constant stream of white papers and knowledge going to prospects. This is doubly true in emerging markets where prospects are looking for guidance and insight into what new technologies are working reliably. Prospects want to understand what new technologies mean to them, they don’t want messages slammed at them. Educate and be the trusted advisor in new markets, and you’ll sell more.

o Use industry analysts often. In certain software segments, industry analysts are relied on by IT buyers for their guidance, and as a result they have insights into what is being purchased and why. Get industry analysts to visit your company and present competitive updates once every three to six months. Also get their insights into your product roadmap and direction, making sure an NDA is in place as part of your company’s overall relationship with them.

Summary & Wrap-Up

The bottom line is that product managers have great potential to make a lasting impact on companies and entire industries through their efforts. Exceptional product managers are marked by a passion to make their products, engineering staffs, and sales persons the stars of their companies, content to be the enablers of accomplishment, the “backstops” of products so to speak. A great product manager is like a great coach; they orchestrate people, resources, and strategies to make their teams successful first and always.

Surviving Product Management