The traits I used to get a job as a product manager

I became a Product Manager almost 25 years ago when most companies didn’t even have that role. I knew I wanted to be in ‘product’ and ended up negotiating my way in, transitioning from a role in marketing. What did I do up until this time that set me up to eventually become a product manager?

  • I looked for ways to add value. I was always examining things around me at work with the idea of how to make things better. How can I get more people to buy this book? Is there another, better way to get people to install my software? By always questioning how to do things better, it unlocked lots of opportunities and people saw me as someone striving to make an impact.
  • I was curious. Curiosity is a critical trait a PM must-have. Look at things around you and think about how they’re made. Think about how you would improve them. Start to develop curiosity like a muscle because I think it’s one of the things that truly separates great product managers from the rest of the crowd.
  • I was a self-starter. I have always been one to teach myself how to do things. I love figuring things out for myself. This is connected to the idea of being curious, but being a self-starter means you’re comfortable with creating something from scratch.
  • I understood just enough about technology. Other than a summer class I took during college to learn the Basic programming language, raw HTML coding was the extent of my technical skills. Many of you may be wondering how technical you must be in order to become a product manager. The majority of PMs I know do not have a CS or engineering degree, but most of them do have a basic understanding of how coding works. So do what you can to at least have a conversation with engineers and be able to ask good questions.

Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive list of traits needed to become a product manager. I’m simply sharing insights from my own experience with the hopes that it will help you develop the skills and traits you need to break into this exciting career.

Why is it so hard to break into in the first place? Let me drop some juicy data on you.

According to a survey by Alpha software, only 11% of product managers began their career in product management. That means the VAST majority were in another role before becoming a product manager.

The data below is from a survey of 890 product management people conducted by the 280 Group and breaks down the percentage of roles by title. Look at how small the slice of the pie is for APMs, a role that many aspiring product managers are aiming for. 2.9% is a tiny number compared to the rest of the PM roles that are out there.

Here’s another interesting data point. Most companies have very few product managers. If you combine that with the fact that there are so few APM roles, is it no surprise that it’s so hard to get into product management at the start of your career?!?

Yes, it’s hard to break into product management. But it is possible. To summarize my recommendations, your chances will be highest if you do the following:

  1. If you’re looking for a job right out of college, consider a role that is adjacent to product management (marketing, business analysis, software development or UX design, etc).
  2. If you are in an existing role and trying to transition to PM, find ways to add value and help the PM department.
  3. Show curiosity for how things work, how products are made, how design decisions happen. This will show that you are thinking like a product person.
  4. Become comfortable with creating something from scratch. Get outside your comfort zone and make something. Again, this is all about getting into the mindset of a product person.
  5. Learn just enough about technology so that you can ask good questions. That will help you establish credibility as a product manager.

Ready to get started, but feel like you need more help? I offer 1:1 coaching services that are tailored to your unique skills, experience, and goals. Get in touch today to learn more.

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