Finding your first job as a product manager is just like the ever frustrating chicken and egg problem of getting your first job. Companies like to hire people with prior product management experience and it’s hard to get prior experience without first getting hired. We’ve compiled some advice on how to circumvent that Catch 22 coming from outside of the industry:
Side Projects: One of the best ways to demonstrate your interest in product management is to work on a side project that gives you the experience in shipping a product. A side project could be anything from a tangible iPhone app, wireframe, or even powerpoint case study. You could volunteer to help a non-profit or small business or you could just do some research on a company’s current product / service and show how you might improve it.
For example, when applying to a small education tech start-up for a PM role, I did a short case study where I went out to target customers (who I felt accurately represented the startup’s direct customers) and surveyed them about their problems in education space. I synthesized all the responses into a few key issues and brainstormed a few potential solutions. Given this was just a case study, I wrote about my process in prioritizing which problem I’d address first given time/cost constraints and did a quick wireframe on PPT of a product feature I would add to the startup’s current product offerings to address this issue. I also wrote about how I might quantitatively measure effects of rolling out this feature.
Another example of side projects you could do is joining a Startup Weekend in your local area. Startup Weekend is a weekend long experience where teams (technical and non-technical) get together and work on on customer development, idea validation, and build a minimum viable product which they then pitch to a panel of experts on the final day. It’s a great experience to develop product management skills and in general work with people of different backgrounds to ship a product on a deadline.
At the end of the day, good side projects should demonstrate your skills in ways an interview or resume wouldn’t be able to, whether it be design, business, creative thinking, coding, etc… Many people can b.s. their way through interviews but a tangible side project shows that you can really do the work if you were given the opportunity.
Start Thinking Like a PM: Although you should be able to work on side projects in your spare time, if you are truly swamped in your current job and are one of those people who usually laughs when someone asks you what you do for fun, then start taking steps at your current company to think and act like a product manager. Try to get onto projects where you are taking a lead role in managing a few people with different workstreams and where your team is responsible for getting a deliverable completed on a deadline. Ideally, you should try to get onto projects where you’ll be forced to work with cross-functional teams so that you can learn multiple “languages.” Good PMs know how to understand terms from different teams and convert them into the language of their current audience. For most employers, the next best thing to direct experience is demonstrating that you have relevant and transferable skills. Taking steps at your current company /situation to think like a PM will allow you to better structure your experience and increase your chance of landing a PM job.
Develop a Technical Skillset: Technical skillsets does not mean learning to code! I truly believe that all product managers in the tech industry really love technology and will eventually gravitate towards a desire to learn code but it is not absolutely necessary to get into product management. Don’t just be that generic “business guy/gal” who hopes that your passion alone will get you a job in product management. Try your best to learn something technical like design or data analysis (Excel / SQL). There are so many resources online that’d it be absolutely ridiculous to at least not have a basic understanding of one thing technical going into the product management recruiting process.
Network: Honestly, I hate it when blogs give me generic advice like networking but I’d be lying if I said I was able to get my current product manager job without networking. In my instance, I was able to reach out to former college friends working as product managers who were able to give me more insight into their roles as well as help guide me towards relevant contacts at startups I was interested in. Tech is honestly a much smaller space than it seems and taking time to attend events, hackathons, and meetups will give you access to a huge network of individuals who could refer you into companies. I subscribe to Startup Digest and Meetup to get a curated list of tech events in my area that I find relevant.
If you are new to product management and are looking to break into your first product role, we recommend taking our One Week PM course, where you will learn fundamentals of product management, launch your own product, and get on the fast track towards landing your first product job.
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