Stop Applying to Be a Product Manager
April 27, 2021

Stop Applying to Be a Product Manager

by Brian de Haaff

What is an entry-level job in a technology company today? I know that it can be challenging for recent college graduates to find meaningful opportunities. Many organizations require years of on-the-job experience for relatively junior roles. And many more do not have any such roles open. So you end up with people applying for what they consider to be a compelling open role even when they do not meet the basic requirements.

Product management is almost never considered entry-level — companies recognize that the success of the product or technology equals the success of the business.

I see this a lot with folks who are interested in becoming product managers right out of school. Product management is presented as a high-impact job that pays well. And there is no doubt that it is both. I also see this with people who are mid-career and want to switch to product management in order to solve problems for people at scale. But applying for a product manager role without having been a product manager is akin to playing the lottery. It is costly and is nearly impossible to win.

I know the title of this blog post is harsh — but I feel compelled to offer this point of view after talking with people who have been applying for product manager roles for over 18 months with no success. I want you to know that applying to be a product manager without any experience will not get you far. You should instead focus on getting a different job that will put you on a pathway to managing products later.

That is the oddity of product management — you typically need to have been a product manager to get a job as one.

There are only a handful of educational tracks that prepare you for the work. It is exciting to see that there are new educational opportunities and entire paths dedicated to product management within MBA programs at major universities. But I can tell you that studying is quite different than doing.

That is why nearly all product managers in technology today move into the role from a related position within the same company. Let me give you an example. If you are a sales engineer or product consultant who sees meaningful ways that your product could better solve customer problems, you can feasibly move into a product marketing or a product management role within the same organization. However, even with that background, it would be much more difficult to make that leap from one company to another.

I followed a similar journey. I transitioned from product marketing to product management. And guess what? I did it at the same company. I learned so much in the process and eventually led product at several different organizations. (And yes, I even grew to found a few companies myself along the way.)

So if you have applied for open product management roles and been repeatedly rejected, I think it is important to repeat this — it is likely not you. The lack of interest has more to do with the criticality of the role and what it takes to be a great product manager — plus the fact that organizations want people who have already proven they can do the work.

You may very well be an exceptional product leader. It will just take a few years to get there. Here is what you can do to prepare:

Focus on today's strengths

You might not have all of the skills to be a product manager today. But I bet you have a few. So pick a starting point and grow from there. Strategic thinking, collaboration, data smarts — these are important skills that can carry over into product management. Research shows that the better you match your current skills to your work, the happier and more productive you will be. Lean on your strengths.

Join a technology company

You want to jump in when the moment strikes. Large and slower-moving enterprises are not typically places where rapid career growth happens. So pursue open roles in high-growth software companies — where product teams release often and emphasize the customer experience. In a highly responsive environment, you will get more exposure to what it takes to build and deliver products.

Establish a reputation of excellence

Think beyond titles. Understand how your efforts contribute to company goals and focus on the work that is most meaningful. Speak up if you see a better way to get things done. Offer to review work from peers or act as a mentor to new hires. These are all signals that you are ambitious and reliable — capable of taking on a role as critical as product manager.

Know the product and customer

Be curious. Review available documentation, such as customer personas, technical specifications, and the product roadmap. Ask to shadow your colleagues or listen in on customer calls. And use the product yourself if you can. Deeply understanding the product and customer is the core job of product managers — so start now.

Make it known

Share your aspirations with your manager or a mentor. Explain why you are interested in moving into product management and ask for guidance on what the progression could look like. Some companies will allow you to take on product responsibilities or a side project before you officially transfer to a new role or team. You will never know if you do not ask.

Seize your moment

Be confident that you will get there and continue to add value in your current role. You have a long-term goal that you are moving towards but you do not want to wait forever. If you see real potential for growth in your organization, act now. Volunteer to take on product or project tasks that are languishing. Continually find the next challenge to tackle. It will take hard work — but when you are successful, you will be noticed for it.

Stepping into a product role and leading the product team is immensely challenging. It can also be incredibly rewarding for the right person.

Product managers have a major impact on the success of the business. You get the privilege of working across the entire organization — with leaders from engineering, marketing, sales, and support. Each contributes to the success of the product and you are at the center of it all. It is a tremendous opportunity and responsibility.

So if you feel called to this work, dig into the challenge and do not give up. A deliberate path will lead you to a product manager role where you can make the type of impact you aspire for.

Current product managers, what other advice would you add to this list?

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Brian de Haaff

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

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