Part One: I’ve often been asked, “How did you break into product management?” because for many, the path seems mysterious.
One truth many professionals in the field, including myself, might not reveal, perhaps due to a lack of self-awareness or because it sounds arrogant — is that they have no clue how it happened.
That’s why you’ll often hear answers like “I stumbled upon it” or “I fell into product management.”
There is some truth in these answers. When discussing this with one of my product manager (PM) friends, we recognized that we didn’t know much when we started. We discovered the role along the way, embodying the “fake it till you make it” mentality. But, for aspiring product managers, this answer is not helpful.
Lately, I have been speaking with many people struggling to find their way in the product world. So I’ve compiled below, some reasons why they want to transition.
Here are a few scenarios I’ve identified, and you can probably recognize yourself in at least one of them:
- You are passionate about technology, and you desire a role requiring more soft skills, management, and direct customer interaction.
- You want to change your career path, because you find your current job repetitive or dull, and you seek something that challenges you daily.
- You are interested in pursuing a career with growth opportunities, and you want to solve problems and make an impact.
Whatever the reason — product management seems to be the way to go. The question is, where do you start?
One thing is clear. Creating a more strategic action plan to navigate this adventurous journey is possible. But you must be ready to question what you have learned until now.
“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.”
— Bruce Lee
This blog post is the first of many, and I hope the articles serve as a guide for you towards breaking into product management.
I’ve noticed some misconceptions about the job when talking to people about product management, and their reasons for pursuing this role. Many view the product manager role as a dream and effortless job. Seasoned professionals would likely laugh in despair if they heard such a statement.
It’s essential to address these misunderstandings and gain a realistic understanding of a product manager’s responsibilities. To ensure a successful transition into the field, let’s start by busting some myths.
Misconception no.1 — It’s a stress-free, glamorous job
Product management is a demanding job. I covered the topic in the following article:
The product manager (PM) role requires finding the right balance between the client and business needs. It requires high management skills and dealing with the frustrations of everyone around you. It necessitates handling many priorities, deadlines, stakeholders, and politics. While it’s a rewarding role, you’ll need resilience and adaptability to thrive.
Misconception no.2 — PMs make all the decisions
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. The PM role depends on factors such as the type of company, the industry, or even the current financial situation. It’s common to be told what to do.
I’ve encountered many instances where decisions were imposed on the product team. In the best-case scenarios, or how it should be, decisions are a team effort based on customer needs and business objectives.
Misconception no.3 — PMs work on the big picture
I wish this were true. At the beginning of my career, I believed in a dream coming out of the TV. I would be in boardrooms every day discussing tactics and strategies. Vetoing what I felt wasn’t right and deciding the product’s and the company’s fate.
This misconception was one of the hardest for me to confront. While PMs contribute to the vision and strategy, most decisions regarding the company’s direction will be made at a higher level, leaving you to focus only on the details of the product’s success.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, you can find some of my answers and thought processes in the following article:
However, I’d like to take a different approach to explain the role now.
You can compare a product manager to a film director. You oversee and guide different individuals with their beliefs, values, expertise and motivation to create a successful product. To succeed in your job as a product manager (PM), you will need to have strong foundations.
The product management position is within the field of business analysis. The business analysis could be your entry point. It’s a way to build your product expertise and delve into the area.
The core competencies are the same as those for a successful business analyst. There are several important aspects you need to develop if you want to succeed as a product manager:
- Vision — PMs are responsible for communicating the vision of their product. You communicate with all team members. Each stakeholder must understand their role in the outcome. The vision aspect requires strategic thinking, market research, and analysis.
- Collaboration — PMs work closely with cross-functional teams, sales, customer success, and marketing. They need to be able to create, nurture, and manage relationships between groups. It involves essential skills such as communication, negotiation, and empathy.
- Decision-making — PMs must make informed decisions during the development process from initial ideation to the final stage, which is the product’s release. Decision-making requires critical and analytical thinking and considering prioritization and risk.
- Leadership — Product Managers need strong leadership skills. The title is misleading and suggests “command and control” power. However, it’s about managing products, not people. You must inspire and motivate team members to perform. You have to create an engaging environment where they can flourish. PMs are like sheriffs without guns.
- Adaptability — Challenges will arise along the way. PMs must be able to pivot and adapt their approach based on the current situation within the team, the product, and the market. Requirements change along the way. In my experience, when things are too calm, something is wrong. It’s like the calm before the storm. But when it comes to “storms”, you start get used to things happening every day. As a PM, I embrace the chaos!
- Problem-Solving — PMs must own this vital skill. If you don’t enjoy solving problems, don’t become a PM. The issues I’ve encountered are not just those coming from clients. Those are easy. All the challenges that arise along the way could hinder the project’s progress. It’s more than a skill. PMs must be in love with problem-solving.
These six aspects are essential foundations for any product manager. They are common to the different types of product managers out there.
You don’t need to have a work history or direct work experience in product based businesses to develop these skills. It can come from personal interests, to hobbies, or other experiences. Nevertheless, it matters at times to take a pause and do a retrospective in regard to your experiences, studies, and life in general.
You have to reflect on your accomplishments. As you review and assess your experiences, strive to identify the elements and characteristics that are compatible with being a product manager.
In this article, I want to highlight that finding the proper role for you is the most challenging step. It is also the most critical one in the path of every product manager. The challenge comes from the lack of a standard definition of the product manager role between businesses.
I have my definition of what a product manager is and what they do daily. However, if you ask another product manager, they will tell you similar or different definitions. On top of that — companies recruit product managers based on their needs, pains and realities.
It will make you question who is right. The answer is no one and everyone at the same time. It is the free market — offer and demand. It is valid if a company or someone asks for a specific type of product manager and there is an answer from the market.
There is no right or wrong approach in this field, unfortunately. Depending on several factors, you may have other responsibilities or job titles. I wrote the following article “You Are Too Emotional About Titles!” as a reminder of what truly matters:
What you deliver in the role is what matters. The tasks you complete, the value you generate in the results, the responsibilities you take on, and the outcomes you bring into reality.
Being a product manager is not just about the job title. A product manager’s role can be defined in accordance to what the company needs, or it can be driven by what the Chief Product Officer needs, or what the Head of Product needs. It means that a product manager can take on the role of a business analyst in one company, and can be a product owner in another company, or a product analyst in another. You have to find the company and the role that match your skills and capabilities.
The product manager title is some ways, a status symbol, or part of a person’s brand. Observing people talking in a group setting highlights the importance of the title:
“What do you do? Where do you work? What do you do for a living? Does that pay the bills?”
Here are some roles you have to be familiar with:
- The Product Manager (PM): The core role and the most generic one. It’s also the role you will find in smaller companies which include some of the other roles on this list. The role focuses on delivering value based on customer needs and pains, and they oversee the product lifecycle from end-to-end. The product manager works with all the other departments: research, design, sales and support.
- The Product Designer: This role focuses on the user experience (UX) in which the objective is to ensure use of the product is delightful and successful for customers. Some companies replace the Product Manager with a Product Designer. They can have the same foundation skills as a Product Manager and better UX and UI design skills.
- The Technical Product Manager (TPM): The TPM generally works for internal customers. They work on the architecture, infrastructure or APIs. This role requires a technical background, and they can help the organization grow internally.
- The Growth Product Manager (GPM): Growth product management focuses on monitoring user behaviour and making data-driven suggestions towards increasing user adoption. The aim is to also improve product performance in order to meet core business initiatives and goals. Go to my Growth Product Management article to find out more about this role.
- The Digital Innovation Product Manager: They focus on identifying new opportunities and developing new products or expanding existing ones. It’s a research role requiring even more adaptability, ambiguity and an entrepreneurship mindset.
- The Data Product Manager: The DPM is a new role. As more organizations transform digitally, the need for this role will increase. This role focuses on data value, and they manage the data lifecycle in the organization. They also serve internal and external customers. This role requires a data and technical background, for these capabilities will help them navigate the complexity brought by emerging technologies.
Which role suits you best? Which one do you feel you can have fun with every day? You need to be in love with what you do, so I recommend looking at each role and its particularities.
Becoming a product manager requires dedication and hard work. It also requires a reality check. Yet, it’s essential to build the proper foundations to maximize the chances of success.
Product Management has gained popularity in the last few years. The competition is fierce, and nobody is waiting for you. Yet, with commitment and adequate preparation, you can join me in this adventure.
Equip yourself with the right skills and gain experience. Build a strong network while staying grounded in the competitive job market. Remember, persistence and adaptability are vital in carving out your path.
In part two, we will cover more steps on the product management journey. If you have any questions or want to know more, contact me here. Also, reach out in the comments in regard to which topic you would like to see tackled next.
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