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How to break into product management now (no degree required)
There’s no clear-cut path to becoming a product manager. In this guide, we share how product managers at Hotjar broke into the field and how you can too.
Last updated24 Sep 2022
Want to be a lawyer? Get a law degree. Interested in becoming an electrician? Start as an apprentice, then apply for a journeyman’s license.
In fields like these, there are clear-cut paths to achieving each title. But for product managers, the route isn’t so clear. Instead, it’s a winding road with multiple forks to choose from.
There isn’t a silver bullet for becoming a product manager, but the good news is that there are multiple paths that can get you there.
As there’s a massive interest in product management, the key is honing the right skills. Stick around to learn about my journey and what I think it takes to become, and excel as, a product manager.
How I got started as a product manager
Some may have a clear goal of becoming a product manager. When I started, that wasn’t me.
Instead, I wandered into product management while working at two companies, which were both in the early stages of developing a product management function. I ended up being the first product manager in the entire team at both of those companies.
Why me, someone who had never worked in that role before? Because I gained relevant experience and transferable skills from my other previous positions.
This is one route into a new field that does not have a defined career path, but it’s not the only one.
Three typical paths to a product management role
There are several ways to become a product manager. Consider the following paths when contemplating your entry into this field:
Make a lateral transition within the company: working at a company in a relevant role, such as a product designer, engineer, or product marketer, could give you relevant transferable skills you can then use to transition into a product management opening
Work at a startup: getting a role at an early stage startup can give you first dibs on a product management role as soon as there’s a need for dedicated product managers
Build your own product: going through the entire product life cycle—from discovery to delivery—gives you the experience many companies desire and value in product managers
These paths are roads to opportunity. To embark on this journey, you need the right skills.
Top skills needed to become a product manager
Problem solver. Analytical thinker. Strategic mastermind. These are all excellent skills to develop for product management. To me, the most important of the bunch are prioritization and interpersonal skills.
Ability to prioritize tasks
Prioritization skills are an obvious but overlooked talent. In my experience, developing prioritization skills requires additional underlying skill sets, such as critical and analytical thinking.
This doesn’t mean merely poring over quantitative data. It includes gathering insights from multiple sources, including qualitative data such as user research, and being empathetic to customers’ unique goals and current challenges. When you understand the intersection between your users’ needs and the company’s goals, you can prioritize what to work on first.
As an example, dozens of users may be complaining about a small, annoying glitch. And another set of users are experiencing UX issues that prevent them from using your product to its full potential. Which do you prioritize first? Where do you fit each in the backlog of tasks already waiting to be worked on? It’s decisions like these that product managers make daily to ensure customer satisfaction.
These decisions present a massive challenge because they always imply risks. You’re guiding a team to ensure large initiatives, like product or feature launches, are successful. Getting it wrong could result in user dissatisfaction and even cost the company hundreds of thousands in wasted development costs or revenue loss.
You also want to make the most of your teams’ time, so they’re not squandering hours on redundant or low-impact tasks. Not only does wasting time hurt team dynamic and morale, but it also diminishes the company’s bottom line and direction. We often refer to this as opportunity cost. As our time is limited, what we say yes to working on also implies saying no to something else, which might be potentially more impactful.
Great product managers make data-informed decisions to prevent this from happening. I’ve learned to avoid focusing on what I believe, and instead rely on industry trends, customer feedback, product strategy, and data to guide what to work on next.
Excellent interpersonal skills
While product managers don’t always manage the people in their team, they define what they work on and how the team approaches their work. That makes it critical to have great interpersonal skills, as the ability to communicate effectively and articulate problems and solutions is vital to ensuring their team is high performing and delivers user and business value.
Interpersonal skills directly impact your ability to collaborate across various departments, such as with software engineers, designers, marketers, analysts, and customer support. Knowing how to work with different people from various roles and backgrounds is critical. You’re ultimately responsible for ensuring team collaboration in resolving problems and delivering solutions.
Let’s say you’re working on a new feature release. For the feature to be a success, you need interpersonal skills to communicate how it works and what the benefits are for users. This will lead to buy-in from your customer support team to prioritize educating new and existing customers about the new feature, and helps them provide users with support if the new feature introduces any bugs.
In a nutshell, product managers need interpersonal skills to enhance communication, collaboration, and stakeholder management both within their team and outside of it.
Product management isn’t a one size fits all
In product management, there are no rules. It’s an ambiguous field, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
For instance, at Hotjar, we have several product managers working on core features and owning a very specific part of our product with a well-defined scope, such as our Recordings or Heatmaps features.
Then we have product teams working on horizontally integrated features with a much broader scope. These teams don’t own a specific, well-defined feature. Instead, they own problem spaces or key metrics, such as helping improve our users’ workflows across all our product features so they can make the most of our entire product offering.
Also, not all product teams focus on paying customers. For instance, we have a business enablement team that focuses on internal users; a group made up of 250 stakeholders. The way the product manager communicates with them and rolls out features is different from the approach used when working on features for external users.
As a product manager, your role depends widely on your industry, your product, and whether you’re building for internal teams or external customers.
How do you build product management skills?
Great question! Product management is still fairly new as compared to other roles. That means there are still very few bachelor’s degree programs to enroll in, which is why you’ll find most job descriptions not requiring one. However, there are a lot of bootcamps on product management or related fields like product design and software engineering.
Many people like bootcamps because they’re shorter and more affordable. But are they recognized? That varies from company to company.
Aside from bootcamps, there are other resources to build product management skills. For instance, Udacity offers Nanodegrees, including a general product manager course and more niche programs on AI and data product management.
Bootcamps and courses are typically either self-paced, or you’re being assigned to a cohort of other people that you’ll go through the program together with.
Another self-paced option to build product management skills is to read the work of thought leaders in the field. Marty Cagan, for example, wrote a book called Inspired, which helps people learn how to develop products customers will love. His follow-up book, Empowered, is a great guide on growing into your product management role if you’ve already embarked on it.
Another thought leader is Teresa Torres, author of Continuous Discovery Habits, a book aimed at helping existing and aspiring product managers and developers find product ideas customers want by creating shorter user feedback loops and adopting continuous discovery practices.
The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries, is not specific to product management but is still worth reading. It’s a great primer on how to build a minimum viable product (MVP) and how to break down complex initiatives, turning them into small deliverables that are faster to build, test, and learn from.
How do you improve your product management skills?
Maybe you’ve just landed your first product manager role (congratulations!) and want to strengthen your skills. Or perhaps you’re more experienced but want to stay ahead of the curve in this ever-changing field. I found books like the above to be an excellent resource for keeping my skills fresh, but I also find online communities, live events, and podcasts very useful.
For instance, niche communities on Slack and Discord are helpful and often free. You can lurk or join in on conversations to learn from others across the industry.
In-person conferences such as the Product Management Festival are fun and informative events for education and networking. Podcasts like This is Product Management, Masters of Scale, Rocketship FM, and Inside Intercom are really valuable to listen to.
With all these resources available, remember that nothing beats learning on the job. If you’re already employed, build transferable skills by leading an end-to-end initiative. During the ideation or discovery stage, determine if there’s potential, a defined problem you need to solve, or an opportunity to tackle. Then rally the right people required to deliver on it, and help bring that project past the finish line.
If that’s not possible, work on a personal side project. Today, there are plenty of no-code options with drag-and-drop features that make it easier than ever to build a product from scratch. Even if you don’t have an engineering background, you can use these tools to build something yourself. Building your first MVP will give you an inside look into the entire product development process.
It’s also possible to transfer skills from your current role. At Hotjar, four of our product managers came from other departments: three came from marketing and one from customer support. They took their existing skill sets, knowledge of our product and its value proposition, and existing team relationships and used them to make a lateral transition into a product manager role.
Where should you look for your first product management role?
To find a product management role, you have two common options: work for a startup, or work for an established company. For the latter, I recommend looking for companies with an associate product management (APM) program. These businesses have the structure in place to help junior folks with little or no prior experience break into product management.
These companies have everything in place to support you, and you’re not expected to contribute as a product manager right away. You’re given time to learn and grow.
Programs like these typically run between six and 24 months. You work alongside a senior product manager, receive mentorship and coaching, and see how everything operates.
As a new product manager, it’s usually easier to get into a smaller company—but there may be little to no structure or definition around your role. In this more ambiguous context, you’ll need to wear more hats and learn by doing. This isn’t all bad—you get to add more experience to your arsenal.
Remember that early-stage startups and later-stage companies both offer pros and cons, so it ultimately depends on what your background is and what better suits your goals.
What to expect when interviewing for a product manager position
You read books, took courses, and joined a few communities. You may even have some skills you learned while on the job. Now it’s time to prove you’re worth hiring as a product manager.
Every company has its own process for screening and interviewing applicants, so I’ll share what we do at Hotjar.
We have several interview rounds where we dig into the candidate’s motivation, experience, and skill sets. Candidates who pass those rounds continue to the task round, where they must complete two take-home deliverables. The task takes a few days, and applicants are paid for the time they invest in it.
How to prep for an interview for product management
Preparing for an interview doesn’t have to be stressful. Books and blogs are widely available to help you prepare for common questions specific to this role.
Additionally, I suggest thinking about past relevant experiences—for instance, having founder experience from working on a side project or a startup is definitely worth highlighting. During the job interview, bring up the skills you’ve picked up along the way.
Presenting this type of experience gives you something interesting to talk about, and it helps the interviewer understand how you approach problem solving.
It’s also critical to quantify the impact of your work (whether or not you have product management experience). Have you worked on a product marketing team and helped increase retention? Or collaborated with product teams to enhance workflows using a better tech stack? Quantify the customer satisfaction or resulting revenue from those initiatives to highlight your ability to assess the impact of your work.
To me, when a candidate I interview is unable to quantify the impact they had in their past roles, that’s a red flag. Rather than sharing a laundry list of things they did, I'm much more interested to dig deeper into the most impactful ones and understand the results they led to.
Become an in-demand product manager
Product managers are in high demand. On LinkedIn, for example, more than 250k roles come up in the US for the term ‘product manager’ in the job search field.
If you’re serious about breaking into the industry, now’s the time. Build your library of resources and skills using books, local or online courses, and in-person events. Get experience any way you can, whether it’s in a small company or by becoming a founder. Track your results, deliver outcomes, and be the in-demand product manager tech companies want to hire.
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