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Getting Hired
 min read

How Do You Get Your First Product Management Role?

Product management is still evolving as a discipline. But what is also exciting about this career path is that it doesn't necessarily have one pre-defined path. After all, it doesn't require a formal education or a specific certification. The landscape of product management is shifting towards valuing experience and skills over traditional qualifications. In this blog, we explore what exactly do you need to have and which strategies you should use to get your first job as a product manager.

Becoming a successful Product Manager (PM) is an exciting journey that doesn't necessarily require a formal education or a specific certification. The landscape of product management is shifting towards valuing experience and skills over traditional qualifications. In this blog, we will explore the key elements that will help you land your first product management role and thrive in it.

What Do You Need to Become a Product Manager?

Formal Qualifications for Product Managers 🎓

The good news is that to become a PM, you do not need any formal qualifications. Some companies may prefer candidates who completed a degree in Computer Science, Engineering, Psychology, Data Science, Design/UX or related to the industry they are operating in.

“A lot of graduates think because they have done a masters of MBA, they can go to a company now and get a big job, a big management role. That doesn't happen. It's all about experience. But later in your career, when you're in a leadership role or up for a promotion to a big job, it definitely helps. Boards want to put someone who is credible with a very good background. It’s a long-term investment.”

Namrata Sarmah, CPO at INTO, Founder at Women in Product UK

Do you need a Product Management Certification? 🤔

Although a product management certification from an in-person or an online course may help build your understand and base knowledge of product management, they can be incredibly expensive.

These courses are great for personal knowledge and building a base understanding but at an early stage of your Product career, there are other options that are more cost-effective. I would advise time is better spent meeting people from the community, attending meet-ups and asking senior product managers for mentoring/advice. The best way to move into a product role is either internally or through a connection you have made.”

Glen Willis, Product Team Manager at Few&Far

What Kind of Experience Do You Need to Become a PM? 💻

Today, there is much more emphasis on experience and knowledge ****rather than formal education. Product Managers have a high level of responsibility compared to most positions, so employers usually prefer candidates to have some kind of record of commercial success or previous experience in one of the connected functions such as sales, customer support, software engineering, design or marketing.

💡 Few PMs set out to work in product from day one. Many fall into this position after doing something else such as customer support, software engineering, UX design, marketing or a sales role. See how different routes could lead you to a job in product management.

What Kind of Soft and Hard Skills Do You Need as a PM? ⚒️

Being a Product Manager means wearing many different hats. After all, you are the bridge between customers, product development and stakeholders.

“The role of product manager means that we take on whatever we can to support the overall success of the product. By wearing many hats, we are fulfilling a part of our product manager duties. We also are creating more spaces for us to learn what happens, or even what we want to happen, at different stages in the product life cycle.”

Sarah Rabbani, Associate Director of Product Management at Finecast (source)

Here are some essential skills to master on your path to becoming a successful Product Manager:

Product Knowledge 📱

Invest time to know your business and product better (than anyone else.) Identify people and resources that can help you acquire the required knowledge.”

Siddharth Arora, Group Product Manager at Yelp (source)

You’re reading this, so you are one step closer to improving your product knowledge. Here’s what else you could do:

  • Get a deep understanding of the industry you want to work in and various products. Follow latest trends and advancements in technology.
  • Look up successful product vision statements from your favourite product companies. Try it yourself by creating your own visions for real or hypothetical products and ask your mentors for feedback.

📅 Join online product communities and attend product meet-ups such as:

🌐 Follow: Mind The Product’s content.

Problem Solving 🤔

Your problem solving is like a muscle - you need to exercise it to be able to find innovative solutions and make effective decisions under pressure.

  • Always ask for feedback on your problem solving, it will be easier for you to define your areas of improvement and blind spots.
  • Start a side-project that addresses a real-world problem you identified. Maybe it's building an app, creating a website, or designing a new process.
  • Take part in hackathons, or read up on case studies to learn about different strategies.

📖 Read: Matthew Syed: ‘The Power of Diverse Thinking’.

Storytelling 📚

As a Product Manager, your role goes beyond just managing features and development; you are also responsible for inspiring and aligning teams, stakeholders, and customers around the product's vision. If you can create a strong narrative, it will be easier to create an emotional connection and inspire the team to work towards a common vision.

  • Prepare for interviews by crafting concise and engaging stories about your experiences or projects. Practise how you will deliver them to different audiences. Make sure your examples are real world and less theoretical.
  • Find opportunities to present your ideas in meetings, workshops and presentations, while you are in your current role.

“The very well-known mantra of Netflix, “lead with context, not control”, couldn’t be more representative of the role of a Product Manager. We are not CEOs or project managers, although you hear this a lot. It is the job of the Product Manager to provide context, join the dots — especially as we sit in the intersection of different parts of a business. You have to do this through inspiring and empowering your team, not by trying to control it.”

Julia M. Godinho, Product Manager at Intercom (source)

🎧 Listen: Squiggly Careers Podcast: ‘How to use storytelling at work’.

Leadership 🌞

As a PM, you usually can’t just tell everyone what to do. After all, you don’t line manage engineering, design, sales or marketing teams. That’s why you need to have strong leadership capabilities to influence all these different teams and align them with the product strategy, also known as ‘influence without authority’.

💡 Leadership today is less about your position on the organisational chart and more about your energy and the way you bring people together (source).

Think of leadership as something that is unique about you that motivates others, gains their respect, and inspires them to preform at their highest levels (source). However, not everyone is going to be motivated by the same things, so you need to figure out how to inspire and lead different types of personalities.

  • Learn to balance being you authentically with the culture, context and types of people you’re working with. Being able to adapt is a trait of any good leader.
  • Don’t make assumptions, try to understand other people’s motives.
  • Take time to reflect on your day - what happened, what did you learn, who did you interact with? How can you bring out the best in others?
  • If you get it wrong, own up to it and learn from it.
  • Volunteer for leadership roles in cross-team projects or community initiatives.
  • Continuously expand your knowledge on leadership through books, workshops and webinars.

👓 Read: Ancona et al (HBR): ‘Nimble Leadership’ and Goffee and Jones (HBR): Why should anyone be led by you?

Growth Mindset 🧽

Fixed mindset is like being a mountain. Everything feels set in stone. Your thinking is rigid and you resist change. As a Product Manager, you need to strive to operate with a growth mindset. This means behaving like a sponge; absorbing new knowledge, being open to feedback and being adaptable.

“When you create a product strategy for the first time, you are likely to make plenty of mistakes. You may not use the right research and validation techniques; your target group may be too big and heterogenous; the value proposition may not be concise and compelling; the standout features of your product may not be terribly exciting; and the business goals may be unmeasurable. But that’s OK — as long as you can recognise that you made a mistake and you are willing to learn from it.”

Roman Pitcher, Product Consultant (source)

📽️ Watch: Carol Dweck’s TED Talk on ‘The power of believing that you can improve’.

Decision-making based on data analysis 📊

  • Familiarise yourself with tools like Excel, SQL or a data visualisation software through online courses or workshops.
  • Think about how could you use these skills in your current role or personal project to gain practical experience.

📽️ Watch: SQL for Beginners in less than 45 minutes.

Commercial sense 📈

  • Make sure you have a good understanding of business concepts - either through your degree, online courses or articles.
  • See if there’s an opportunity in your current role to shadow or work on projects with the commercial or marketing team to learn more about how decisions are made in business.
“I don't think you have to go to business school, but business acumen or commercial knowledge is very important. If you've done your undergrad degree in business management or commerce, you don't really need an MBA. Because my undergrad was in computer science, getting an MBA really helped. However, I wouldn't say that a business degree is a must have.”

Namrata Sarmah, CPO at INTO, Founder at Women in Product UK

📰 Follow industry news via TechCrunch, Financial Times, Harvard Business Review, Bloomberg, McKinsey’s Insights & more.

Technological understanding ⚙️

As you will be closely working with software engineers, it’s essential that you have a good knowledge of the product development process. You need to be the bridge between the technical and non-technical by understanding the needs of your development team and working together to find solutions. Understanding coding languages will be an advantage but it is by no means essential to be a strong product Manager.

“Make sure that you spend enough time with engineers and other technical teams. Talk to them, find out how and where they learnt and whether there are any particular online resources they can recommend to bring you up to speed. All of these can help you bridge the tech language barrier.”

Carlos Gonzalez de Villaumbrosia, CEO at Product School (source)

Don’t be shy when asking questions to more technically savvy colleagues, help your team see the big picture and keep user interest at heart. However, after some time in a product management role you should be more than familiar with the following concepts and tools: object-oriented programming (JavaScript and/or Python are useful starting points), placing API calls using Postman, caching, streaming vs batch data collection, micro-service architecture, querying databases using SQL, server-client interactions, DOM and HTML.”

Clément Caillol, Head of Product at MONI (source)

How To Get Your First Product Management Job?

There are 5 different ways you can land your first product management role:

  1. Internal move
  2. New role within the industry
  3. Target large companies
  4. Joining a startup
  5. Starting your own side project or company

But before we get into it, did you know that…

💡 A lot of exciting product roles available in the market are not publicly advertised. That’s why just applying for already posted jobs is not your best strategy.

Being a proactive job seeker means that you’re scouting out opportunities before they ever grace a job board or company website. This creates more opportunities for you, less competition, and helps grow your network. But how do you do that?

“I always encourage the participants of my workshops to follow people on Twitter who look interesting, make sure you've got a bead on 5 to 10 blogs that you're checking regularly, ask people about the books that they love or that they keep with them. Buy those books, read, highlight, make notes in the margins and definitely try to find one or two meet-ups that you like going to. It's the surrounding community that's going to be most important as you are looking for your first job or as you're in your first, third, second job. It's also important when you're struggling, to call up a mate who's a product manager and say “what would you do in this circumstance?”.

Rosemary Elizabeth King, Product Coach (ex-Spotify, Mind The Product)

🤝 Networking is 'people helping people'. To build an effective network, you need to be clear about what you can give that is valuable to people and be specific about what help you need and from whom. Focus on what you can give today and in the future, rather than what you hope to gain (source).

Keep this in mind as you read about different ways you can land your first gig in product:

1. Internal move

If your company has a product management team, this is the easiest and quickest route into product management. You are more likely to make this move if your company already has a product team.

However, you will most likely need an internal supporter who will help you with the transition. This will probably be your new manager, someone who is already a part of the product team. You need to ask them questions and look for opportunities to work directly with them.

“When working in engineering, customer support, project management, sales, or design, you'll likely collaborate with a Product Manager. Unlike product management, these roles have a more defined entry path through education, internships, or online courses, and they frequently hire for junior positions. Working in such a role exposes you to product and offers the opportunity to interact with PMs. You'll be able to talk to managers to get an understanding of what they do. Just getting yourself in the same room as PMs is the best way to find out if it's something that you're really excited about.”

Cormac West, Lead Product Manager at Greyparrot (ex-Photobox, Babylon Health)

How do you pivot? If you already have some work experience or are planning your next step, find out how different roles can help you pivot into product management.

2. New role within your industry

Use job search engines and websites like LinkedIn, Otta, and to search for product manager roles within your industry. Look for keywords like "Product Manager," "Product Owner," "Associate Product Manager," etc.

💡 Make a target list of companies actively hiring for product managers within your industry. Research to understand their products, business models, and values.

The best thing you could do is to connect with PMs already working for those companies, expressing your interest in product management and asking for advice on how to break into the field. If they agree to a chat, always show that you came prepared and understand their industry. Be genuine and respectful of their time.

3. Target large companies

Larger companies are far more likely to hire for intern, junior or associate level PM positions. However, the competition will be extremely high and getting those roles won’t be easy.

💡 One way you are more likely to get a junior role at a big company is by getting a referral by a current employee. If this person has actually worked with you before, the hiring team will take the referral more into account when short-listing candidates. Having a referral increases chances of your application getting read by the Talent team, but doesn’t guarantee an interview.

Another way is to go through less official channels and ask for introductions of your existing connections or reach out directly to the hiring manager.

Draft some personalised, genuine and to the point messages to your potential connections. Not everyone is going to reply, but some might agree to a quick call, so come prepared. Show that you understand the industry, their product(s), the role of a PM, and that you have some skills required for the position already.

3. Joining a startup

If you decide to work at a startup, you will wear many hats and you will learn a lot about the whole digital product development process. You will mostly learn a lot by doing and taking charge of your own learning. There could also be an opportunity for you to shape a role for yourself.

“Due to startups being of smaller size, product managers have to play multiple roles. This means you may not get to work just on one area, but you do get a taste of multiple areas. This is a good thing, especially if you are just starting out in this career. It allows you to know the areas in which you want to eventually specialise.”

Ishita Mehta, Product Consultant (ex-Google) (source)

By working at a startup, you will definitely be able to have a bigger impact on the company and an opportunity to take a lead on bigger projects earlier on in your career. Having a strong growth mindset will be a key to succeed in these positions.

“I ended up doing all sorts of things, across different sectors, and I'm still working across many sectors. I think it’s super important for a product person to experience different sized companies and industries.”

Namrata Sarmah, CPO at INTO, Founder at Women in Product UK

4. Starting your own company or a side-project

This is not the easiest route into product management but, hey, it works. Founders take on the role of a PM in the early stages of their product development. We probably wouldn’t recommend prioritising starting your own company to becoming a PM, but if you have time on your hands, you could start your own passion project to show that you can do the job.

“Build your own product that solves a problem! Employers love seeing that you have taken the initiative and tried something, even if it fails. It doesn’t need to be funded by investors or anything like that. Learn about the problem you want to solve, build something scrappy, test it out, iterate and capture what you learned along the way. The most important thing is just give it a go. I built my own product which helps people move to the UK from abroad. There’s so many tools out there now that you can use to build a product because it’s so much easier than it was 8 years ago. You can string a product together using a couple of websites. Anyone can build a product if they have a problem they want to solve.”

Isaac Menso, Senior Product Manager at Patchwork Health, Co-Founder at Migrate

But don’t wait too long for the ‘perfect’ first opportunity.

“Try not to wait for the perfect opportunity because it could take you years. Don't worry much about the brand. Take the job and try to see how you can shine in that job and be the best performer. Then, use that experience in getting the next one. Sometimes you join a company and you don't like the team or your boss. My advice is to find that silver lining - find that one or two friends because those people will then refer you for the next one. Nothing is ever perfect. Perfect is what you make out of it.

Namrata Sarmah, CPO at INTO, Founder at Women in Product UK

“Don’t be deceived nor disappointed by all the success stories. The stories of extraordinary success we read daily might be motivational but can also be toxic. Not only do they represent the top 0.1% and show us the filtered, pumped up, often fake, version of the story but, most importantly, they show us just the tip of the iceberg. We rarely get to see what’s behind that peak and by that, our expectations of how success looks are radically different from reality. Success is not the absence of failure; it’s the persistence through failure (Aisha Tyler). So never get disheartened by these rejections. Keep working on your craft.”

Maria Papadopoulou, Product Manager at SkillShack (source)

Remember: success is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the surface, there's a lot of hard work, persistence, rejections, courage, passion and dedication.

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