Forge Your Own Path Into A Product Management Career

Originally posted on 
All Things Product Management

I get regular inquiries, either from my students or folks within my network, on how one can transition into product management. I recently decided to see what other folks have also said on the topic as well. As expected, I found a host of great advice from a variety of folks who have been down the same path. Perhaps the best and most consolidated advice is presented in the following Quora thread:

How do I become a product manager?

What is the normal path to becoming a product manager?

If you haven’t looked here already, spend a bit of time going over the top 10 answers.

Tactics & Skills: Advice from the Internet

One of the trends struck me about the thread: the advice is overwhelmingly skills-based or tactically-oriented.

For example, the tactics:

“…work on a side project that gives you the experience in shipping a product…” — Kevin Lee

“…go to a small company — Look for a position vacuum (a product that is not managed actively that you could take on in your spare time) — start doing the work…” — Alex Kouts

And the skills:

“…Agile Software Development vs. the Waterfall Model (development)… Marketing… Software development cycle… Basic business concepts…” — Catherine Shyu

However, the general consensus is that no “normal” path exist to becoming a product manager.

This got me thinking about pathing for the range of people who want to become product managers.

The Issue with Pathing for Aspiring Product Managers

The pattern I noticed when speaking to aspiring PMs: they get stuck quickly after starting their research into the PM role. This is usually because they don’t have the necessary resources or connections to either gain the skills or complete the tactics. When the steps seem unattainable and you don’t have anyone to model after, what are you to do?

Key Steps Along the Path

Breaking down the anatomy of any generic career transition will provide some insights on how you may best forge a path. Here are the typical steps:

It’s important to understand that the first two steps are in your control, while the latter two steps depend on someone else choosing you. The latter two are gates.

Most advice will have you focus on these gates, because those are the transferrable, concrete, generically advisable skills and tactics. Getting the interview is a tactical process (get your foot in the door at your current work, network, referrals) while getting the job is primarily a game of skills (displaying knowledge or expertise during the interview). Hence the advice on Quora is primarily skills-based or tactically-oriented.

While investing in skills and tactics will always help you grow and improve, skills outside of the context of a path are continuous and unending. In order to identify a path, you will have to determine where you are now, how far your goals is, and whether you have a direct path towards your goal.

Do You have a Direct Path?

If you are “lucky,” you know someone like you who has become a PM, e.g…:

  • … you are an engineer with product interest/business acumen, or…
  • … you have an MBA, or you are a management consultant, or…
  • … you work closely with a technical product team at your current company.

If you’re really really lucky, you are an engineer who got their MBA and became a consultant at McKinsey, then joined a small startup as a business operations person working closely with the product team. You have a direct path into product management.

When Creating Your Own Indirect Path is the Only Option

But if you’re not in those buckets — you need to travel an indirect path.

To you, who may not be fortunate enough to be in or around tech, reading about how there’s no normal path — and skills, and tactics — is helpful but insufficient.

You don’t currently work closely with a product team, or know many PMs, or have the resource or opportunities to start side projects with ease. Your path is amorphous, anxiety-inducing, and filled with uncertainty.

In this scenario, you may be left with the option of applying to random PM roles, which promptly leads to getting serially rejected. After being turned away a few too many times, the reality sets in: you may not become that PM at the amazing start-up like you’ve been dreaming of — at least not right away. If you have enough conviction not to be driven away by the fear of uncertainty or pain of rejection, there’s still hope: you can forge your own path.

Forging Your Own Path

Forging a path is what pioneers do when they are told their obstacles are insurmountable. But with any worthwhile goal, the crux is always the means, not the ends. Almost by definition, your path will not be the shortest or the fastest route. However, if you are steadfast, determined, and willing to take a few more steps than others, you will eventually become a product manager. This is the long-term investment necessary.

Because every path is custom, this is not going to be a one-size-fits-all plan. Forging your own path means taking the two steps you control and making choices that are unique to your circumstance, not just waiting for someone to choose you.

Making Your Own Choices That Take Advantage of Your Assets

Your personal path depends most heavily on the point of origin: you.

The choice of what jobs to look for and what jobs to apply towards should take into account assets you probably have.

What you should be doing, then, is:

  1. Asset: identifying unique trades, knowledge, expertise, or connections
  2. Choice: focusing on finding and applying to roles either within product management or adjacent to it

You should figure out what assets you have that other PM candidates don’t, and which jobs and companies are likely to value them.

I have so far seen two effective paths for anyone looking to become a PM via an indirect path:

  1. Get a PM job in an industry in which you have expertise
  2. Get a non-PM job in a company you want to be a PM for

Apply Strategically: A Product-Market Fit Problem

Crafting your strategy means targeting the right company in addition to the right role. You can consider this as a product-market fit problem. You are the product, and you can improve the product as much as you want in the areas you think matter (skills), but you’re not going to get a breakthrough selling the right product to the wrong market (role/company). As many have written about, picking your market is as much a part of success as building your product.

There are a lot of different tips and tricks you can use. I have written up a few different tactics that can help you fulfill your strategy here.

Examples of Custom Paths

Some examples of using your assets to apply to specialized companies, even if they’re not your top industry choices, are the following:

Alternatively, you can apply to companies that aren’t as likely to consider you for a PM role, and rather focus on a fitting, fulfilling role that also helps you transition in — i.e. setting yourself up for a direct path:

  • Current IT Project Manager at large infrastructure company -> IT Project Manager at startup -> Infrastructure PM at the same startup
  • Current Investment Banker -> finance role at a consumer startup -> Data PM at the same startup
  • Current Graphic Designer at marketing agency -> Visual Designer at startup -> Consumer-facing PM at the same startup

Make sure that if you are taking these multi-step routes, the organization you’re joining is open to or has a history of internally transferring employees from other roles into product management.

Prioritize Your Target List to Hedge Your Paths

Once you begin to start to forge your paths, you may find multiple paths are plausible. Undoubtedly, while some of your shorter paths are a stretch, longer paths are more realistic and attainable.

Thoughtful and deliberate prioritization will be key to your job search and application process. Depending on your assets and preferences, you will want to rank the available job opportunities with key considerations, e.g. job title desirability, level of interest in the industry, job role fit, industry fit, etc.

Below is an example of someone who is currently an IT Project Manager looking to get into a consumer startup:

Image for post

You will notice the desirability of each role is rank-ordered, which typically has a negative correlation with the likelihood of you getting a role. The key here is to spend a deliberate, non-zero amount of time shooting for those stretch jobs.

As you apply to these jobs, you will want to feed new data back to continuously evaluate your assets against your choices to make sure your assumptions about each job opportunity is valid.

At any point, when you have determined that it is not yet the right time for you to go for the top jobs, you can begin to go down the list for roles that are more attainable.

Some additional prioritization considerations:

  • Especially with a career transition, any product title will make you a more desirable product management candidate the next time around, so be sure to give additional weight to those roles.
  • If you have connections to certain companies that can earn you a warm referral, those should become high priority immediately.
  • Depending on how much runway you have, i.e. whether you’re in need of a job right this moment or whether you have a bit of time for transition, you can break groups of jobs into tiers, e.g.: apply to jobs 1–5 over the next 30 days; if it’s no going well, move on to 5–8, etc.

I hope these points above will help you get closer to your dream job.

Good luck!


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