Learn what capabilities and skills are needed to break into product
This starter pack is to give you a practical action plan on how to break into product management. Product is one of the most in-demand tech jobs today, but it's notoriously hard to get into. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already scoured the internet for advice. Most of it will include some combination of picking up some new skills, networking, and getting out there to do some side projects. All true, but not very actionable for the beginner who reads diligently and thinks “yes, but how?” This starter pack is for you.
Setting the Stage
A few truths before we begin:
- Product management is a general function done in a specific way per company. Not all PMs (no matter how experienced) are good fits for all products. Finding a competitive niche for yourself is important. There is no one size fits all.
- Product management is mostly experiential. Reading the right things and learning the right methods are table stakes. After you read about them, you need to apply, apply, apply to get the actual product capabilities and skills.
- Product managers are hired for both their product capabilities and generalist skills. It is better to clear the minimum bar in generalist skills and double down in a certain product capability than the other way around. Overly focusing on a particular skill (like design, coding, or analytics) beyond the minimum bar will not improve your product role chances. This is because on a day-to-day basis a product manager does not code, design, or analyze data extensively. Instead a product manager works with his/her partners to do this. Being able to roll up your sleeves when you don’t have a partner around certainly helps, but that’s just insurance.
- Product management is a diverse craft; people come to it from a multitude of different paths. There are some common patterns within a path, but there is quite a bit of variance across paths. This means following the path of someone who isn’t like you is unlikely to get you results and that the understanding of your path may differ depending on the person you talk to. In some cases, it will be to your benefit; in other cases, it may not be.
Because of all of the above, getting into a product role will require a team of both product people and partners to take a chance on you.
The strategy follows a simple set of principles, in order:
- Clear the minimum level for generalist skills
- Get well-rounded in all product capabilities
- Find at least one product capability that you can be excellent in and double down
This strategy is first about bringing weaknesses up to par, and then about focusing on your strengths. This is because recruiting is first a process of elimination, followed by a process of selection. You can't audition if you don't make it to the stage.
Because product is experiential and company-specific, you’re going to learn the most on the job. The real hurdle is to make yourself someone worth taking a chance on by the hiring team, which includes the product hiring manager, other product managers, and your direct partner teams in design, engineering, and business.
One of the hard things about being a PM is the cross-functional nature of the role. This is unlike most other jobs where you just need to clear the bar with a few focused individuals doing the same craft. To break into product, you will need to get buy-in from a group of people who are doing different things and see the product function differently based on their own role. This is why it’s crucial to clear the minimum bar for generalist skills and get well-rounded in product capabilities. Let’s cover what these are.
Generalist skills are what are required for you to be able to communicate with your partners at an operational level. It is painful for a designer to communicate with you if you do not understand the design process or what a prototype is. It is painful for an engineer to communicate with you if you do not know the basics of how a product is made. As a PM, your job is to clearly articulate what a product is - if you cannot communicate this to those who actually build it, then it’s not going to work.
The bare minimum level of competency is somewhere around “relative hobbyist”. This means relative to your partners, who are professionals, you are a hobbyist. Relative is key - in some areas, you will need to have deep knowledge which might make you an expert compared to any other PM on the block. But, compared to the professionals you work with, you’re something of a hobbyist. You can talk shop, but you don’t operate at a professional level. We don’t discourage anyone from improving in their technical skills if they enjoy them, but we want to make it clear that you shouldn’t expect any meaningful improvement in your product opportunities if you over-invest.
- Technology: understanding of how the technology works and is built
- Analytics: understanding of how to analyze data and quantify impact
- UX Design: understanding of how to design for user-focused experiences
- Operations: understanding of how to implement processes and organize resources
- Strategy: understanding of how to structure decisions to achieve a goal
We'll cover what you will need to know in each of these areas in order to clear the minimum level that's relevant for a PM in the rest of this guide.
Product capabilities are the main abilities you need to have in order to perform the primary product function: defining a value-added product and getting it delivered. These are different from generalist skills, which are more like tools or knowledge you use in order to understand a problem or articulate a solution. Product capabilities are the actual "product skills" that PMs need to demonstrate on a daily basis. These are:
- Product Thinking: the ability to discover and solve for a problem that delivers value
- Communication: the ability to clearly articulate reasoning, definition, and progress
- Indirect Leadership: the ability to lead through influence to deliver results
- Judgment: the ability to make sound decisions in challenging environments
- Execution: the ability to get results and generally make things happen
We'll cover these in more detail later in this guide. For now, the important thing to remember is that you want to focus first on bringing any weaknesses up to par and secondly on getting better at your strengths.
The Action Plan
We've run this action plan with a lot of beginners, and it works. But this isn't a quick hack. It takes persistence, a lot of iteration, and getting the right exposure to get your foot in the door. However, if you follow these steps you can craft a competitive position for yourself to increase your chances of landing the right opportunity.
- Understand the role
- Get the generalist skills you’re missing
- Eliminate weaknesses
- Double down on a key strength
- Create proof
- Get feedback
- Get on the market
This guide will walk you through the details on how to start putting this plan into action.
|✅ Know what generalist skills are needed|
|✅ Know what product capabilities are assessed|
|✅ Know the strategy and the action plan|