by Melanie Lei

So you want to be a product manager? This is how I got started.

One of the most common questions I get asked is, “How do you get a Product Manager job if you haven’t been a product manager before?”

The chicken and the egg problem

A while ago, I had the same question. It’s the quintessential chicken-and-egg problem — you can’t join the club unless you’re already a member of the club.

As an account manager at an Edtech startup, I became really interested in working on the product. I hoped to transfer internally to a product role at my company. I felt like my deep understanding of our content creators’ and our learners’ needs gave me an advantage. But I was told, “Sorry, we just really need someone with product management experience.”

Over the last few years, after a lot of work and research, I was able to successfully transition into product management. Periodically, I’ll get random inquiries or introductions to acquaintances who all have the exact same question: “If I want to be a product manager, but I’ve never been one, how do I do it?”

This is my shot at sharing my own journey a bit more efficiently and widely. I can’t guarantee any results after using this formula — I just know after a lot of trial and error, this is how I got there. I wish you good luck on your own journey!

Step 0: Work on product (or at least get as close to it as possible)

Wait, what? Isn’t the whole point that I’m trying to get a job where I start working on a product?

Yep, but here’s the thing. You can’t really crack the chicken-and-egg cycle without getting a little taste of what it’s actually like to be a chicken. It can often feel like you aren’t really doing “product” things if your title says something different, but there are all kinds of things that qualify:

  • Collecting feedback from users, prioritizing it based on business impact and consumer impact, and sharing the information with relevant decision makers who can make changes happen
  • Coming up with a new idea for a feature and detailing out all the things it would do, then figuring out whether it can be built
  • Analyzing data from your website / app to determine common user paths or whether certain business events had a major impact
  • Managing revenue or profit and loss lines for a specific product or service and making changes that increase that revenue
  • Leading a project from start to finish that involves people from different teams coming together to build something

Before I had an official product manager title, I collected experiences that were centered around product. As an account manager, a lot of my success came from a deep understanding of all of our product’s intricacies and being a fierce advocate for new features my partners needed. As a lead of a vertical that made $100K+ a month, I prioritized marketing, writing, and product resources to help my business grow.

Step 1: Read

Here are the things I read while prepping for job interviews and considering whether I really wanted to switch over:

  • Cracking the PM Interview - pretty basic, but gives a good sense of what common questions and exercises might be. If you haven’t done case interviews, this is good practice.
  • Stratechery - Daily newsletter covering in-depth analysis on tech, including breaking down companies’ strategic moves, mergers, why certain products fail and others don’t, and so on. I actually didn’t start reading this until I started my current job, but it is totally worth the $10/mo subscription fee if you want to beef up on macro-level strategic thinking about the tech landscape.
  • Ken Norton’s Bringing the Donuts Newsletter - Advice on how to actually do the product manager job well. Also includes job postings and recommended books.
  • Julie Zhuo’s blog and newsletter - Honest, personal stories from her career as the VP of Product Design at Facebook and lessons learned. She’s great at addressing the personal quandaries that come with being a product lead (dealing with insecurity, breaking into the industry, handling conflict, responding to rejection).

Step 2: Ask questions

I asked my friends to set me up with any product manager they knew, even acquaintances of acquaintances. Then I prioritized the contact info of the product managers I met into the following categories:

  1. I’m not at all interested in working at their company
  2. I’d love to work at their company

I set up 5 - 10 calls with the product managers in group 1 to ask all of my PM career questions:

  • What do you look for when you interview PMs?
  • Here’s my honest experience, what parts do you think I should highlight?
  • How did you get to where you are?

Because I wasn’t actually interviewing with them, I felt comfortable sharing my vulnerabilities openly and asking for candid advice — things you can’t always do in an actual interview.

From these calls, I was able to develop my own understanding of the “ideal” PM: analytical, technically savvy, consumer-driven, critical thinker, strategic, and able to work with many different types of people and motivate them.

I thought about what my own strengths and weaknesses were. I was weak at deeper quantitative data analysis and programming knowledge, but stronger at working with many different types of people and prioritizing for the good of a business.

I shaped my PM search towards roles that played to my strengths and had a strong support network to bolster my weaknesses (For example, data scientists and analysts to help grow my quantitative analysis skills, strong tech lead engineers who could help me direct and prioritize the development work).

Step 3: Prepare your own story and put yourself out there

After all the informational calls, I was able to develop a more ideal pitch of why a company should hire me as a PM, even though I didn’t have the official title on my resume. I focused on all of the PM-like activities I had done:

  • Working with PMs and engineers to build new features
  • Assessing user needs, and balancing complicated stakeholder groups
  • Analyzing data to make business decisions

Given how difficult it is to transition into product management, the PM title felt like a secret society that only superhumans could break into. But all of the informational calls I had were very helpful in demystifying the role and giving me courage that I had the skills I needed to do the job.

To give myself confidence and assess my own market value, I put up my profile on Hired.com, a marketplace where employers reach out to you and offer you salary bids. I got a good sense of where I stood in the market and what salary range I could ask for. Updating my LinkedIn profile and setting it to “open to new opportunities” also helped with some inbound recruiting requests.

Step 4: Info interviews that were likely to convert to real interviews

Back to group #2 - PMs (and other people) at companies I’d actually be excited to work at. I didn’t have people introduce me to these contacts until I felt like I’d done enough research and crafted my narrative of my experience.

When I talked to them, I did it with the mindset of it being an actual interview, and spent most of my informational questions asking specifically about the company, how it was doing financially, and future strategic plans. In almost every case, the person ended up referring me to their head of HR to begin the initial phone screen process.

Step 5: Interview, interview, interview

Once I made it past the HR phone screen, the real work began. The general process would be: informal phone chat with someone who works at the company -> HR phone screen -> hiring manager phone screen -> take home exercise -> onsite, usually involving a presentation of my work, situational exercises, or both.

The topic of how to get through a PM interview is a meaty one that I may tackle in a future post :)

As I mentioned before, this is very specific to my own experiences, and I don’t think there is one universal path to becoming a PM. The PMs I’ve met and worked with have come from a wide range of backgrounds, from poetry major (me), to former programmers, to people who graduated and went straight into product.

I hope this brief overview is helpful for those of you who are hoping to transition into product management, and I wish you the best of luck!

Looking forward to hearing your own experiences and advice in the comments.