4 ways to prepare for a role in product management

Gabrielle on the Aha! engineering team, brainstorming at a recent company "onsite." | Photo by Jodi B Photography

July 24, 2023

4 ways to prepare for a role in product management

by Brian de Haaff

Product managers have more mojo today. More than a decade ago, it was a fledgling role — figuring things out as you go, patching with proverbial duct tape. Today it requires far less improv. We have purpose-built tools to support product management work. And a wealth of resources to help you hone your skills. But the deepest knowledge still comes from first-hand experience.

You can read all there is about product management. But you gain real competency through on-the-job experience and repetition.

Product management is more popular than ever. Last year it reached the top 10 of Glassdoor's Best Jobs list in the US. The value to the business side has been clear for some time. But now more folks are catching onto the career potential — good salary, security, and opportunities to make an impact. It is exciting to see. I have always believed that product management is the best job in the world for the right people.

As a result, educational material has surged. Product management guides, courses, and programs abound. In fact, LinkedIn Learning recently asked us to work together to launch a new Product Management Professional Certificate. It is designed to help learners expand foundational knowledge of the role. This type of study is helpful for starting out — product development is a complex discipline.

Many early-career professionals are eager to earn these badges of competence. To be sure, certificates are solid resume points. But completing a learning path may not get you hired. You need to build experiences that are uniquely yours.

Product management is not a textbook role. It is learned on the job and with some (but a limited amount) of mentoring.

The most crucial skills for the job — like empathy, curiosity, and boldness — are some of the hardest to develop. If you want to be a product manager, the best thing you can do is practice as best you can what it is actually like and get a real sense of the responsibilities. Below you will find practical tips to think and act like a product manager, wherever you are at in your career. Even if you have not had a product role yet, there are ways to gain meaningful experience in adjacent roles — marketing, business analysis, and engineering.

Here is where you should focus if you are in a tech company in a related product role and really want to make the leap:

Empathize with customers

Product managers lead meetings and learn from customers. Consolidating input from colleagues and customers is how you drive ongoing alignment and clarity on what needs to be accomplished. If you do not have an opportunity in your current role to facilitate many meetings, find product meetings to join as an observer. For instance, you can ask to sit in on a cross-functional product team meeting or join a customer call. This helps you to see the role in action. And most importantly, it will get you closer to the product development process and how those decisions are made.

Understand business building

Many good articles about product strategy (including our own) discuss product goals, initiatives, and building a roadmap that serves the product vision. These are essential things for every product manager to understand. But you also need to expand your perspective. Knowledge of how the business operates matters, too. So ask around — what is leadership focused on this quarter? How are goals set across the organization? See what threads emerge that tie each department together as part of the whole.

Be a product expert

Gathering and evaluating ideas is core to product management. If you can, be a super user of your company's product. Volunteer to test new functionality and explore it as if you were a customer. Submit ideas for improvement. As those ideas move through the vetting process, pay attention to what happens (and why). This will give you insight into how product folks prioritize value.

Create your roadmap

Take note of what you are learning and how you are applying the knowledge in your own role. Go a step further and design your own career roadmap. Maybe it seems silly — but setting goals, milestones, and the concrete steps you will take to get there requires thinking like a product manager. There is value in communicating your intentions and following through. Plus, plenty of excellent templates exist to help you get started.

Practice applying what you have learned about product management — so you can get noticed for the role you want and step into it with confidence.

Becoming a product manager takes ambition and deep customer understanding. Even if you do not have formal product teams at your organization, you will find opportunities if you look. Keep your courage and desire to deliver great value once you land the role, too. That is when the true learning starts.

Product success awaits those brave enough to pursue it. We have your back — try Aha! today.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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