How do I become a Product Manager?

Lately I’ve been pinged by roughly 3 people a week on how to transition into PM.  Usually there are two main questions:
  1. What does a typical day look like for a Product Manager?
  2. What do interviewers look for when they hire?

Here’s what I usually say:
  1. There is no typical day for a Product Manager, and that’s why most PMs like their jobs. Your product is your baby and it’s up to you to lead your team to take care of all aspects.   You are the catch-all for any problems that arise. On a most basic level, you are talking to customers around 20% of the time, roadmapping and delivering features with your development and design team 50% of the time and doing catch-all work 30% of the time.  The catch-all can be anything from marketing and strategy discussions, handling contract issues, changing pricing, handling sales and billing issues, handling product quality issues, launching new programs, or figuring out what to do after your product factory burned down last night.  Your problem solving skills, adaptability and resourcefulness are very important in this job.  
  2. Different PMs roles and teams will value a different combination of skills.  I suggest choosing a few job descriptions that you are interested in, and chatting with PMs in those companies to get a sense of that they’re hiring for.  Typically, roles in established products will have e a higher project management and delivery aspect.  Roles in brand new products will have a higher market analysis aspect. In addition to skills, there are 5 qualities that I look for which are uniquely necessary for Product Management success.   

If you are new to Product Management, get an understanding of the role by taking some classes or reading articles online. Here are some classes that are worth checking out:
Many new PM classes have popped up of late. I have not attended any personally but here are some I’ve heard about:

What do managers look for when hiring PMs?

Throughout my PM career I’ve interviewed hundreds of PM candidates. Friends switching to a PM career have asked what managers look for in PMs.  So I thought I’d share my perspective here. Hopefully it helps you assess whether you’re a good fit for PM land and how to prepare for an interview. 

Integrity and open-mindedness are basic human qualities that are must haves for anyone I collaborate with regardless of role. Specifically for PM hiring however, here are the top 5 qualities that I hire for:
  1. Passion.  Strong candidates have an unreasonable amount of passion for solving the problem your product is trying to solve. As a result they’ve been thinking about the problem, a LOT.  They understand the ins and outs of the market, the competition, the solutions, the failed solutions, the customer’s perspective, the various customer personas, the list goes on. Really strong candidates teach me a thing or two about my product. They can break down my product into components, and talk about the strength of each of those components compared to existing and competing solutions. 
  2. Smarts. There is no typical day for a Product Manager.  Creative problem solving, resourcefulness, and ability to connect the dots are instrumental to success. I look for candidates who can think of 5 uses for any item in the room, can tell me what to use as IV fluid on an island, and talk me through their rationale for why drip-irrigation isn’t taking off in perpetually droughty California.  Strong candidates give me great examples of how they navigated tough situations in the past, and give me thoughtful, well structured answers on how to navigate hypothetical situations. I know the interview is going well if we get a great brainstorm going and I don’t want to leave.
  3. Judgement. Product Managers are hired to make decisions. So judgement will play a role every. single. day. Strong candidates can tell me which decisions they made were wrong decisions, and what they learned from it. In an assortment of options, they can walk me through the rationale for choosing one over others. 
  4. Communication. Product Managers spend 80% of their time communicating with somebody, whether with the team, with the customer, or with management. Often it’s written communication, such as specs or roadmaps, with an oral presentation component. Candidates that take 10 minutes to get to the point are red flags. Great candidates know that communication is two-way. They start at the right part of the story by first knowing their audience.  They write well and walk people through the story in a compelling way.   
  5. Empathy. Customers won’t buy products that aren’t right for them. Any product is rarely just right for everyone.  But the one product that is just right for a specific audience will win their undying loyalty. Empathy is about stepping outside one's own world and into that of the customer.  It’s about crouching down to find out that the source of cobwebs on my one year old is under the backyard table. Great candidates crouch down. Great candidates crawl around the crawlspace with a GoPro to capture a different perspective on their house. Great candidates chat up the wait staff or flight attendants to understand why the service was so bad today. No matter the approach, the underlying desire to learn the others perspective is crucial. Interestingly enough, 80% of the PMs at my currently company are introverts. Introverts are good listeners, which contribute positively to both good communication and high empathy. 

You may notice that PM experience is not on the list.  Experience is a means to an end.  Experience cultivates Smarts, good Judgement, good Communication and at times, Empathy.  Depending on the role, industry experience would be necessary. But I find that great PMs come from many walks of life. While some experience in the workplace is necessary, I’ve hired PMs with non PM titles in the past who have been successful in their role. So if you are looking to switch into product and don’t have any direct experience, you might find yourself uniquely suitable as a PM regardless.