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Breaking into Product Management

Written by
Fiona Elston Fiona Elston
Senior Product Manager @ Qured
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Product management puts you right in the action. You’re talking to customers, discovering their goals, and turning those insights into opportunities. You’re setting the vision for where your product is headed, carving out a strategy to bring it to life. You’re constantly learning, interacting and adapting.

Perhaps like you — and actually, like most people — I didn’t start out in product. I began my career at a Big 4 firm, then went to culinary school before my first PM role. Discovering product felt like finding the missing piece of my career puzzle, but it took me a while to figure out how to make the shift. If you’re considering a similar leap, I hope the lessons from my journey can help point you in the right direction.

Understanding the role

Product managers create value for customers while also helping the business achieve its goals. You’ll need to rally many stakeholders to do this — engineers and product designers, but also data scientists, marketers, sales teams, customer support teams and so on. Good people skills are essential, but they’re not enough. To be successful as a PM you’ll also need to:

  • Be excited about solving problems: spot the right opportunities and work with your team to solve them

  • Navigate ambiguity: connect the dots and provide context for your team

  • Communicate well: regularly update stakeholders with the story of your product’s journey

  • Think strategically: in the words of Gibson Biddle, answer how your product can delight customers, in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways

  • Focus on what matters: prioritise ruthlessly and continuously

  • Make decisions: be confident using data to guide you while embracing the inevitable uncertainty

  • Lead and motivate a team: steer the resources in your organisation without the authority of line management

  • Care about building great things: understand what will make your product successful and loved throughout its lifecycle

  • Execute: be willing to roll up your sleeves to get stuff done

You don’t need to be great at everything, but you need to be competent across the board

Fiona Elston, Senior Product Manager @ Qured

You don’t need to be great at everything, but you need to be competent across the board. Critically assess where you already have strengths and identify any gaps you need to fill. For example, I realised I needed to show that I could build something from scratch that customers would love, and be decisive in the face of lots of uncertainty.

Familiarise yourself with the day-to-day work, not just the idealised blog post version. Chat to PMs in your organisation, join a community on LinkedIn, and attend meetups. Talking to PMs is one of the most useful things you can do; speaking with like-minded people ultimately was what convinced me of my career change. These conversations will also help underscore it’s not a one-size-fits-all role: a PM’s job can vary considerably from one organisation to the next.

Paving your path to transition

There’s no single starting point for a journey into product, but there are certainly some familiar paths worth exploring:

  1. Transfer internally

  2. Join a start-up

  3. Apply for an entry-level role

Transfer internally

If your current organisation has a product team, this is probably your easiest route. It’s also how I recruited the first new PM in my squad, who came to product from a customer operations role.

My tips if you’re taking this path: get friendly with the product team and ask them how you can get involved in their work by offering to help with a specific product launch, research project etc. Then, make yourself as useful as possible. The team will always have more work than they can reasonably get done, so extra support will be appreciated. Take some of the pain away from the existing PMs, show them you are ready to learn, and you may just win a champion to support your transition.

Join a start-up

Start-up culture is all about the hustle. If you thrive amongst uncertainty, you can position yourself well for a product role by demonstrating you’re the person to get s**t done. When I first moved into product, this is the route I took, and it was a steep (but fun) learning curve.

A key strength in a specific product skill or industry domain can be useful here. For example, being a superstar in customer support can showcase your customer empathy; a background as a teacher could bring extra domain knowledge to an Edtech start-up.

Apply for an entry-level role

Entry-level roles – for example at Associate and Junior PM level – are becoming more common in the UK. We hired several people to our product team through open APM positions, and it was great for finding smart, hungry people who wanted to learn the ropes. Just to note: these roles are rarely for complete newbies. Given the nature of product work, it’s likely you’ll still need prior work experience and sometimes a relevant degree.

Regardless of your starting point, be receptive to the idea that this is a learning opportunity. Don’t chase the perfect role. If you do the first job well and can demonstrate results, the rest will follow.

To course or not to course?

Many programmes and courses promise to teach you to become a product manager in a matter of weeks. The best of these will offer networking, foundational knowledge, some practical experience and support getting your first role. All of this can be valuable.

But, courses are not a necessity. You can get the same outcomes with a little creativity, and I always rate the person who figures it out for themselves. Focus on talking to other PMs, and finding a way to showcase your product thinking. You’ll find you don’t have to shell out thousands to get there.

Getting your first interview

The PM interview process is a blog post in itself (indeed, there are books written about it), but getting noticed is the first step. Here are some things I look for to screen potential candidates from the sea of CVs:

  • Enough relevant experience

Many job descriptions ask for previous product experience. The key is to trust some positions will have flexibility in their requirements, and to leverage the experience you do have.

Be aware that your experience may be relevant, but won’t be equivalent; I’m looking for candidates who position themselves accordingly. Three years working in marketing probably won’t land you a mid-weight PM role, but might well open you up to jobs that require at least one year of product experience.

  • Evidence of impact and transferable skills

Demonstrate your impact, concisely, on your CV by explaining the opportunity, the action you took to address it and what impact you had — and quantify this, where possible.

Frame your transferable skills clearly by focusing on relevant verbs (executing a project launch, communicating to different stakeholders, leading teams, developing strategy etc.) when telling your story. Many people find they’ve been doing the work of a PM with a different title: reflect on where this may be the case for you.

  • A tailored application

There are two elements to this. First, sift through the job description and make sure you’re highlighting applicable skills and experience in your CV. Second, be explicit about why you’re keen to be a PM for that product and at that company.

Remember, as a PM you’ll be leading and inspiring others. You need to be a storyteller, and an advocate for the product throughout the organisation. Start showcasing this with your job application. It will help you stand apart from the many who don’t bother.

A few closing thoughts

The journey to PM looks different for everyone. There are plenty of people out there with valuable experience and great wisdom to learn from. Go find those people, and get chatting, reading, and listening. And good luck.

A few ideas for resources to get you started:

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Fiona Elston

Fiona Elston
Senior Product Manager @ Qured

Fiona is drawn to products that form the cornerstones of a meaningful life, with her experience spanning health-tech and fintech. She believes in the power of well-crafted user experiences to better guide people to their long-term goals, and is constantly curious about what motivates and drives human behaviour.

Currently, Fiona leads product development on the mobile platform at Qured, a health-tech start-up with ambitions to bring a better kind of employee healthcare benefit to the world — one that helps people live longer, healthier lives, and gets used by everyone.


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