Product Managers are increasingly important to the product development process and have been called the “unsung heroes of the tech world,” the “glue that binds user experience with technical and business requirements,” and the new dream job for MBA students. In fact, a Product Manager was most likely involved in the creation of your favorite product.
To find out how to land a job in this fast-rising field, we spoke to a number of Senior Product Managers.
Product Managers Need to Commit to Continuous Learning
Some jobs require a specific, tailored education path (read: you’re not becoming a brain surgeon without going to medical school).
Product management is the opposite. Across North America, Product Managers come from a variety of backgrounds, including degrees in communications, marketing, and engineering, among others.
“There’s no undergrad degree you take, and then you become a Product Manager,” notes Nahla Salem, a Senior Product Manager at Loopio, an RFP response software. “You need to be strategic and plan out your career in a way that leads to it.” Increasingly, this strategic plan involves continuing education. According to a survey of 2,500 Product Managers, 71 percent of respondents held at least one professional product management certification in addition to an undergrad degree, and 76 percent considered continuing education very or somewhat important to their career.
There are good reasons for this focus on continuous learning: the best Product Managers often have to know more about their industry than anybody else in the company. On top of that, they’ll need to be able to speak the language of Developers, Engineers, Designers, Marketers, and more.
“They wear many hats, using a broad knowledge base to make trade-off decisions, and bring together cross-functional teams, ensuring alignment between diverse functions,” management consulting firm McKinsey once wrote, adding that “product management is emerging as the new training ground for future tech CEOs.”
Know Your Industry and Develop a Diverse Skill Set
Most PMs agree on one thing: It’s not an entry-level job. Many of the skills a good PM requires — management abilities, problem-solving, cross-functional teamwork, and decision-making — come from experience in the workplace. Fittingly, according to the 2019 BrainStation Digital Skills Survey, over 80 percent of product respondents are working in an intermediate or higher position level. What’s more, 88 percent of product management professionals started their careers in a different field.
“You’ll hear a lot of PMs say they were doing the job of a PM long before they had the job title,” notes Phillip Gornicki, a Senior Technical Product Manager at Rubikloud. “That’s because leadership and interpersonal skills play such a vital role in product management.”
Brian Yee, Head of Product at Rangle, a Digital Transformation Consultancy, says landing a role in product management involves gaining a sense of several main areas: Business, technology, and customers. “A Product Manager is trying to understand where those three intersect… to build a really great product,” he says.
This is good news for those looking to make a career change; the role requires a number of transferable skills, with being able to work cross-functionally among the most important.
“You need to be able to understand how to work with technical people, how to work with internal stakeholders, to really be able to move a product along,” says Kim Phelan, VP of Product at ChefHero, an app that allows businesses to easily order wholesale restaurant supplies.
It’s also helpful to have a solid sense of industry trends and customer needs, Phelan adds — along with the problem-solving savvy to develop something people will want to buy, use, and support.
But just like education, the skill set needed for PM roles vary widely company by company, says Gornicki. “It’s important to be very deliberate about your search and the types of companies you’re applying for,” he says.
Network Your Way to the Top
Sure, you’ll find Product Manager roles all over online job boards — they’re a dime a dozen on LinkedIn, Indeed, Glassdoor, and even a quick Google search.
But PMs say networking inside or outside of your own company, be it inviting a colleague you admire out for coffee or attending a mentorship event, can be a better bet than applying cold to a job posting.
“Networking is, to me, the number one thing to do … if you don’t go to the meetups, if you don’t actively find the right mentor and get critical advice on where your resume or job experience is weak, you’ll find it hard,” says Jack Sadler, Director of Product Management at Rangle.
Phelan agrees, saying there are lots of solid meetups for budding PMs — like the Toronto Product Management Association meetup or Product Management New York. “Generally, when I’ve hired before, it’s been internally or people with experience,” she adds.
The bottom line is that while making industry connections and diversifying your skill set will help set you apart, there’s no singular route to landing a job.
“You don’t need a cookie-cutter path to product management to be a successful Product Manager,” says Gornicki.
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