Tactics to get hired as a product manager without an MBA or CS background
It was the best feeling.
After pitching my company’s VP of Product, I walked out of that room with my first product job. After over a year of planning, learning, and yes, scheming — I was a Product Manager.
As 2018 winds to a close, many people are talking about the past — their lessons learned and battles won in life, business, and relationships. It’s also a natural time to make moves and dream about the future.
So let’s dream about the future.
I’m writing this essay to help people who are eager to break into product management. Is that you? Here’s how this essay breaks down:
- PM your PM job search
- Approach opportunities with humility
- Read the best, think like the best
1. PM your PM Job Search
Three years ago I was in your exact position. After spending years in education, marketing, and leading non-profits, I was able to break into product management without a technical background or even a typical college degree.
My move into product was an internal move within my company. While many of you are looking to switch companies, the principles and practical tips I share below can be used by anyone.
Now, on to some techniques for landing your PM job in 2019.
First, let’s talk about what a PM actually does.
A PM identifies a customer’s problems. A PM collaborates with designers and engineers to build products that solve their problems. A PM helps an org meet its business goals.
Product managers create clarity.
Maybe you have a vague desire to move into product, but have you thought about what that means specifically?
James Clear, in his new book, Atomic Habits, shares the story of a 2001 research project in Great Britain which focused on helping people build better exercise habits. They were divided into three groups:
- One control group was simply told to write down when they exercised.
- Another group was given a motivational speech on the benefits of working out.
- A third group received the same motivational speech but were asked to write down a specific plan for when and where they would exercise that week.
Can you guess which group had the best outcome?
Here’s Clear on the results:
In the first and second groups, 35 to 38 percent of people exercised at least once per week. (Interestingly, the motivational presentation given to the second group had no meaningful impact on behavior.) But 91% of the third group exercised at least once per week — more than double the normal rate. (Page 69, Atomic Habits)
The third group demonstrated what researchers call an “implementation intention”. They articulated where and how they’d work out. The better the specificity, the greater the outcome.
What’s your implementation intention?
In the same way that a PM identifies specific user problems, you’ll need to get clarity on what type of product job that want. In other words: have you figured out what problem you’re trying to solve? Treat your job search like you would treat a product problem.
In your journey towards product, you need to know your ideal destination. Write down your answers to these questions to start getting some clarity on what you want:
- What kind of product do you want to work on?
- Consumer or enterprise?
- What kind of technologies do you want to play in?
- What size company? (PM roles vary across org sizes)
- What vertical do you want to work in?
- Remote or onsite?
- Private or public?
- If private, what stage?
- Do you want a more technical role — or one that focuses on growth and strategy?
Identify Your Potential Roadblocks
- What are my knowledge gaps? (Brandon Chu has an incredible post on the types of knowledge you need to kill it as a PM)
- If you want to make an internal move, who will do your current job?
- Do you have relationships in the vertical you’d like to work in? How about in the companies you’d like to work for? If not, make a list of people you’d like to connect with and learn from. Participate in Twitter threads, attend meetups, send an interesting article to someone you look up to. The people you meet will be the people who help you land your next job.
- Does the language in your resume accurately reflect the value you’d bring to the table as a PM? Are you pitching your previous experience in a way that inspires confidence and intrigues the hiring manager?
Write a Spec
If you’ve made it this far — you’ve done a lot of work. You’ve identified the specific role you’d like to work towards. You’ve identified specific roadblocks that could hold you back. Now you need to put it all together.
Write a product spec for your job search. Your spec should identify the role you’re working towards, it should articulate your primary challenges, and it should explain how you’ll overcome those challenges.
Have knowledge gaps? Create a personal learning plan for how you’ll take your knowledge to the next level in specific areas.
Don’t know anybody at that company you want to hire you? Make a list of events to attend and people to reach out to.
Interested in a vertical but you don’t have relevant knowledge? Make a reading list and identify the industry conferences you’ll attend.
Already know where you want to apply? Create a pipeline with links to job postings and recruiter contact info. Bonus points if you set application deadlines.
The principle here is to be as specific as possible. This spec will function as your roadmap for how you’ll make it happen. The discipline of writing it all down will clarify your thinking and give you the tools you’ll need to follow through and execute.
2. Approach Opportunities with Humility
The roads to product management are many. PMs come from across the org chart — I know people who’ve slid into product from marketing, engineering, sales, CS, and design.
Every role requires a slightly different mix of skills and competencies. Many companies don’t have a specific career path for PMs. That creates opportunity.
In product, there’s a spectrum of trust. If you can demonstrate that you can execute well on the small stuff, you’ll be given more opportunities to add value.
If you’re in a product-adjacent role and want to be a PM, take a PM you look up to out for coffee or lunch.
What to ask them
What do you hate doing right now and how can I help you?
Those words, how can I help you?, are like magic. Time is a PM’s most valuable asset. Chances are, there’s a problem they’ve been putting off. A pain point that nags them every day. A research project they have to shelve again and again.
Ask them if you can write up a simple project plan or spec so that they’ll know you mean business. Tell them exactly how and when you’ll deliver.
Offer to do this on your own time if you can’t get your boss to buy in. I guarantee you they’ll have something in mind.
Next, make a plan and solve their problem. It doesn’t matter what it is. Approach it with a posture of humility. This is what PMs do. We identify and solve the most important problems.
Humility in practice
- Think of yourself as a learner. There’s always something new to learn. Every project provides an opportunity to acquire new knowledge or apply existing knowledge in new ways.
- Always ask ‘why’. Behind every project is a “why”. There’s business rationale. Or there’s a customer problem. Or there’s a strategy that you’ve adopted. As someone who’s breaking into product, the why is not always apparent. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know why. Ask, get some clarity, and you’ll have the context you need to add real value
- Don’t complain. You might get asked to do something that you think is beneath you. You feel like you can handle more — but you’re asked to take on the most basic problem or task. You might feel slighted. You’ll want to complain. Challenge yourself to approach the project like the opportunity is is — a chance to demonstrate how you think and how you get stuff done.
3. Read the Best, Think Like the Best
There’s an incredible amount of helpful content out there on product management. Engaging with with best thinkers and writers in the product space will help you build a mental framework for your product strategy, as well as more practical advice on leading a product team and day to day life in this space.
You’ll learn principles that can be applied across different problem spaces and contexts. If you want to improve your thinking, you need to improve your reading. Read more and read better.
If you’re unsure of where to start, here’s a curated list of my some favorite product content:
- High Output Management by Andy Grove
- High Growth Handbook
- The Lean Product Playbook
- The Business Model Handbook
- Crossing the Chasm
- Extreme Ownership
- Deep Work
- The Checklist Manifesto
Blogs and Publications
- PM Insider
- Product Manager HQ
- Mind the Product
- Farnum Street
- Bo Ren
- User Onboard
- Paul Graham
- Brandon Chu
- John Cutler
- Hacker Noon
Where do you go from here?
Much of product management is thinking ahead to the medium and long-term time horizons. You play 3D chess with your user’s needs, resource constraints, and market shifts.
Some of the best product managers I know are world-class at answering the question, “What’s my very next step?”
Of all the actions you could take, what should you do next? You have to decide. You have to be ruthless. You have to prioritize.
If you want to land your first product job in 2019 — what should you do, today, that will help you get there?
Write it down, make a plan, and get started.