Most product managers are asked for advice on breaking into the field. It’s understandable: Product management has become a desirable job. It’s often a “chicken and egg” role, where you need experience to get the job, but you can’t gain experience until you have the job.
Companies have a low appetite for risk when hiring product managers. They prefer false negatives in the hiring process to false positives (for candidates who aren’t a definite “yes,” they’d rather say “no”). A good product management hire can be a force multiplier for their team, but a bad hire can derail a much larger group of people.
“Breaking in” is hard, and that’s okay; everything worth doing is hard. But it isn’t impossible. The majority of people in product management followed one of these paths:
- They transferred internally within a company. An internal transfer was my path; I moved from sales strategy to product management.
- They entered through a rotational program. There are many, including Google APM, Facebook RPM, LinkedIn APM, and more.
- A post-MBA intake. Amazon, for example, is known for hiring recently graduated MBAs to product management roles. As are Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe.
- Specialized knowledge in an industry. E.g., someone with deep expertise in crypto could be a great product manager candidate at Coinbase, even without prior product management experience.
- More rarely, an acquisition or acqui-hire. Many large companies convert founders to product managers during the acquisition process.
This list isn’t exhaustive. E.g., with a strong referral, you may be able to land a product role at a company without prior experience. But this is an exception, not the norm.
Of the above five, 1-3 are by far the most common, and 2-3 are mechanically similar, so I’ll group them. We end up with two main paths: “internal transfer” and “graduate intake.”
The Internal Transfer Path
I’m an advocate of this path because it worked for me. I went to an oddball college in Australia, I didn’t go to a top business school, and through a combination of luck and persistence, I landed in product management at LinkedIn.
Experienced internal transfers tend to be strong candidates because product management is a deeply collaborative role. Expertise in another function, understanding the mechanics of the business and having strong intra-company relationships are all advantages on which you should capitalize.
Those I know who have taken this path have done, at a minimum, something like this:
- They joined a company that supports internal mobility. LinkedIn is useful for research; look for companies where people transferred internally.
- They crushed their role. Every hiring manager will look at current performance as an indicator of future performance and potential.
- They got closer to the product management team: This could mean being part of a function that works closely with product management or working on a particular project to get you closer to product management.
- They built knowledge, a reputation, and relationships that made them uniquely qualified for a product management role at their company.
Doing 2-4 well will put you in a strong position for product management when the right role arises. Ultimately, without product management experience, you need someone to take a bet on you. Crushing your job, building relevant knowledge, and developing a reputation and relationships will get you there.
You’ll often take a level cut when transferring internally, and that’s fine. Companies look after good people, and you’ll make it back “up” quickly.
Reid Hoffman, a LinkedIn co-founder, has a great book on navigating your career, with intra-company mobility as a central theme. Oddly enough, it’s the book that inspired me to apply at LinkedIn years ago.
The Graduate Intake Path
There are many more, including Uber, Lyft, Twitter, Asana, Atlassian, Salesforce, Yahoo, and Yelp. Microsoft and Dropbox also hire early-career product managers, but they don’t have structured rotational programs.
While you don’t need an MBA to succeed, many large companies actively recruit from MBA programs; Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe, to name a few. The hiring process at large and recognizable companies is fiercely competitive, so it’s worth also exploring smaller companies and startups.
While I’m not going to go into the details of the interview process, keep in mind that you need to differentiate yourself. There are a few ways you can do this, none of which are unique to product management:
- Gain relevant experience, like an internship or side-project.
- Get a referral or recommendation from someone at the company.
- Have exceptional credentials: School, GPA (for undergrads), etc.
Aim for 2-3 of the above to get an interview. In my experience, once you get the interview, your resume doesn’t matter. Unless you’re going for a specialized or senior role, interview performance will be the most significant factor.
Getting The Job
Remember that companies want you to succeed at interviews. The recruiter will guide you through the process, which varies across companies. The two books that were most helpful to me were Cracking the PM Interview and Decode and Conquer, which both cover the interview process in great detail.
At a high level, every company is looking for competency in:
- Product sense: Understanding products, and the ability to critique, learn from, and design them.
- Leadership and management: Inspiring others to achieve a shared vision, leading a team, and navigating a complex organization.
- Communication: Communicating effectively, creating clarity and alignment, managing expectations, and building relationships.
- Problem-solving: Breaking down nuanced problems into their component parts, tackling each piece methodically, and solving the problem.
- Strategy & planning: Understanding leverage, 80/20, and the ability to define a multi-step strategy.
- Analytical skills: A/B testing, using metrics to measure product success, and making thoughtful data-driven decisions.
- Business acumen: Pricing, competitive analysis, sales models, and how product value drives business value.
- Technical ability: Understanding technology and technical complexity, working effectively with engineering, and a vision for how technology is changing.
How these are weighted will differ between companies. Google, for example, is known for screening more heavily on technical ability. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Amazon less-so. Often, it’s role dependent, e.g., a product manager at AWS will need to be technical.
As products and companies grow in complexity and functions become more specialized, I believe that product management will, over time, trend towards a more generalized “GM” role. For that reason, on average, I think we’ll see “on the tools” technical skills become less important, provided you have a base level of fluency, can partner effectively with engineering, and stay attuned to technology trends.
When preparing, I found it helpful to deeply study a few different products and analyze them using the CIRCLES Method. I’d recommend choosing a few products you use heavily; this will make it far more authentic (I used Spotify.)