5 Steps to Become a Product Manager While Working Full-Time
Let’s face it. The path to becoming a product manager can seem daunting.
Get this certification, take that course, build your skills, network with the right people, impress them enough to land an interview—then actually live up to all the expectations.
It’s one thing to become a product manager, but it’s an entirely different challenge to actually excel at it. That’s where educating yourself and gaining real-world experience while keeping your current day job comes into play.
Taking this route will give you enough time to learn all the skills, and gain important experience without leaving your current job.
And the best part of all?
You have that job security while testing your way into learning whether or not becoming a product manager is the right career move for you.
So, how do you become a successful product manager while working a full-time job?
Well, we’re going to teach you exactly that by leaning on our own experience and that of our more than 7,000+ product managers in the Product School Slack Community.
Here’s our complete guide to becoming a successful product manager.
Step #1: Learn to think like a product manager
Ask anyone who’s worked in product, and they’ll tell you the same thing: product managers are one of the most essential roles in a tech-driven company.
That’s because there are many steps involved in managing a product, from initial idea or feature request to shaping the product, testing and releasing.
So, the very first step that you need to take is to think like a product manager.
To think like a product manager, get into the product mindset. Choose a product or company you admire, and instead of asking “How is the product built?” ask “Why was the product built?” Keep probing and determine the underlying problem it’s attempting to solve—and for whom.
This mindset shift can be difficult at first. However, you can prime yourself by reading books or taking a course.
Here are some great books to help you do just that:
- Start with The Product Book: Become a Great Product Manager, by Product School founder Carlos González de Villaumbrosia and Josh Anon. It explains in-depth, the role product managers play in all types of companies from tech startups to established giants. It features interviews with Product School instructors and student alumni who work at companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and more.
- Next, dive into Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, by Nir Eyal. This book is a great at deconstructing famous products, such as the iPhone, Snapchat, and Facebook, to analyze what gets people so hooked on them. Learn how to start small with The Lean Product Playbook, by Dan Olsen. If you want to learn how to build a product of your own from scratch, this book should be sitting on your bedside table.
- Finally, read Cracking the PM Interview, by Gayle Laakmann McDowell to learn how to ace your product manager interview. It’s not just a job book; it’ll also help you understand the difference between product manager roles in a startup versus those within a Fortune 500 company.
Step #2: Start networking
Remember the kid who always sat in the front row of the classroom and raised his or her hand whenever the teacher asked a question?
No matter how you felt about that classmate, they were really good at networking. And because of that, he or she would often get preferential treatment from the teacher.
Similarly, with the career shift to becoming a product manager, you’ll have to start networking and building meaningful relationships with decision-makers in your new universe. That’s because it will not only help accelerate your learning, but it’ll also open unpredictably exciting opportunities for you that’d otherwise be non-existent.
To start networking with the right people, join and add value within these communities where product managers spend their time online:
- The Product School Slack Community
- Hacker News
- Mind the Product
- Product Hunt
- Startup Study Group
- The Startup Chat
- The 7-Day Startup
Next, identify key influencers in the product management world and start building relationships with them. Here are some tips to networking with PM’s:
- Who do you want to connect with? Figure out who matters most to you and learn where they hang out the most.
- Start engaging with these people on social media or on their blogs. You can leave helpful comments or even start a conversation about something of theirs you enjoyed on Twitter.
- Start providing value. Do this by promoting their blog posts, projects, or finding ways to connect them with other resources or people that could be helpful for them to meet.
- Express gratitude. Send an email and share how they’ve inspired you or helped tweak your way of thinking.
- Offer your help. Most of the time, even the most skilled product managers will appreciate a fresh pair of eyes offering up insightful feedback or sharing about their product experiences.
Then, when it feels right and if they’re located nearby, take this new relationship to the next level.
Ask if they’re be up for grabbing a coffee or having a quick chat over Skype to talk more in-depth about what it’s like being a product manager.
If you’ve put in enough time building the relationship before asking to meet in-person and have been providing the value, chances are high that they’ll accept your invitation.
Step #3: Build and ship a side project
Building a side project is your secret weapon for getting a job as a product manager.
Here’s why: A side project represents much more than just a willingness to pursue your hobbies in your free time, it shows a real-world demonstration of your skills and abilities when it comes to building an actual product.
It’s the ultimate way to put your money where your mouth is, and gives you a portfolio example to reference throughout your interview process. A side project allows you to speak from a position of existing experience during an interview, rather than trying to sell yourself solely on the recent product management course credentials you have.
How do you build your own side project?
Well the first step is, of course ideation.
Think about a handful of problems you personally care about solving, or examine existing solutions in the market that could be better executed. Generate ideas for ways you could potentially build a solution to those challenges using your skillset.
Next, prioritize the one that you’re most interested in pursuing.
If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas or deciding which opportunity to pursue, get some outside feedback from friends and co-workers. I also recommend checking out the Idea Scoring Tool by Jason Sheh.
Once you’ve landed on the right idea, it’s time to build your side project.
And remember, don’t spend months working on it. It should not take longer than a few weeks, as it’s just a side project—and done is always better than perfect, especially before you have any real users testing the product.
As you’re building your side project, keep your network involved and work to incorporate their feedback to make sure the product is solving a real need. That connection with your audience is incredibly important for making sure you build the right features. ,
Take inspiration from how Product Hunt (which started as a side project) founder Ryan Hoover took advantage of his network to create something great for them. It was because of his network that he was able to add 2,000 users within just 2 weeks of launching the MVP of Product Hunt.
After launching your side project and getting your first users is when you’ll really learn a lot about product management.
Step #4: Learn how to be influential
Perhaps the most important skill you need to develop (or strengthen) as you’re becoming a product manager, is being assertive about championing positive change within your organization.
Mastering the technical skills you’ll need as a product manager is one thing, but if you can’t develop influence within your company, all of those skills won’t be put to much use—and the product you’re working on will ultimately suffer for it.
Being a product manager means working with engineers, marketers, designers, executives and interfacing with someone from just about every other team in the company. Because of that, you need to learn how to effectively communicate to each different facet of your organization, so that you’re actively connecting the work you’re doing—or product changes you’re pushing for—to clear department goals that particular team has.
You don’t have to wait to practice being influential, either. Experiment with becoming an agent of change within your current role.
Know your decision-makers and work hard to get their buy-in with any big initiatives you want to push for. Make your pitch stronger by thinking ahead and developing strong selling points that your manager can use to advocate for your project up to their next in command. Once you’re in a product manager role, you’ll need to work hand-in-hand with your head of product to get executive buy-in on the changes you seek to make.
Here are some helpful tips to becoming more influential within your organization:
#1: Have a good attitude
Understand that becoming an influential product manager is all about your relationships with the other people in your organization.
Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz explains, “I do my job by taking care of the people, the products, and the profit—in that order.” Granted she’s a CEO, but your job as a product manager will be similar in many ways. Not only will you be interfacing with members of several different teams to find the right ways to create a better product that grows the business, but you’ll be spending the bulk of your time managing the progress of others.
Striking the right balance of approachable friendliness appreciation, humor and the willingness to hop straight into the trenches and get to work with anyone will be essential to show you have the right attitude for creating lasting change within your company.
#2: Show gratitude and empathy
Gratitude is another highly important trait that effective leaders (product managers) must learn to develop.
Be thankful and give praise when someone on your team does a good job with one of their projects. Beyond just that, think about possible rewards and motivational incentives you can bring to the table to keep your best teammates engaged and wanting to repeat their strong performance.
However, it’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll be delivered subpar work, or be on a team where someone is underperforming. What then?
It’s your responsibility to make sure your team is proud of the work you ship. But when something turns out below your standards, rather than immediately redoing the work yourself or delivering harsh feedback, think about your relationship with the person—ask yourself how you can best communicate with them to go back to the drawing board and still get your desired end result.
Have an open conversation to determine where the project fell off the rails.
- Was there a misunderstanding about objectives or deliverables?
- Were there internal hurdles that blocked them from delivering their best work?
- Did they have right tools, skills and amount of time to get the work done?
Expressing gratitude and empathy is all about showing your team you’ve got their back in both the good and bad times.
#3: Foster discussion
Discussion also plays a critical role in building influence within your organization.
Once you’ve become a project manager, you’ll need to be very collaborative across all stages of your projects, so start practicing within your current role now. If you manage a team of people, rather than taking a top-down approach to implementing new projects, initiatives or campaigns, begin involving them in the process of developing the goals and objectives you’re going after in the first place.
By involving all members of your team and getting them personally invested in the success of your projects from day one, they’ll naturally be more engaged in the work they’re doing.
Step #5: Start your job outreach
Once you’ve practiced developing your product manager skills, and have a real side project that’s been shipped, it’s time to land a product manager job.
While self-learning is a great way to build your foundational skills, there’s nothing quite like accelerating your abilities by diving into your first real product manager role.
Here’s how to land your first job as a product manager:
#1: Revamp your LinkedIn profile
Does your LinkedIn profile make you look like a product manager?
If not, this is your first priority. Observe how other product managers position themselves on LinkedIn, how they describe their work experience and what kind of language they emphasize. For example, check out the Carmen Spitz’ LinkedIn profile, a product manager at Shopify.
Notice how she leads her introduction by clearly stating she’s a product manager, then immediately dives into her credentials—which include her own projects from over the years in additional to the different types of companies she’s worked with. Take inspiration when revamping your own profile.
Start by doing these three things:
- Write a clear introduction explaining what you do (within the context of product management).
- List your past experience with product, even if that’s primarily with your own side project. Most employers will want to see that you’ve executed on an idea and shipped a real product before investing in hiring you.
- Ask your network (preferably other product managers and makers) to endorse your skills and give you recommendations based on the work you’ve done with your side project.
#2: Find companies that are hiring product managers
Always start within your network first.
Do you know anyone from within your immediate group of friends, family or past co-workers who work at companies that frequently hire product managers? Regardless of their personal role within the company they’re at, pick up the phone to catch up, connect with them for coffee and gauge their willingness to refer you internally for a product manager position—whether one is posted yet or not.
If they’re not the right person to introduce you to a hiring manager for product roles, ask if they’d be willing to connect you with someone on the product team—or point you in the right direction for establishing that relationship yourself.
Next, you’ll want to move into the websites and job boards that get a lot of product manager postings.
The very first website on your list needs to be Angel List where more than 28,000 startups hire top talent. Search for product manager jobs, enter your location, set any other interest preferences and start browsing.
Other sites where you’ll find product manager roles are:
#3: Skip the application, go for connecting
If you’re using that shiny “Apply” button for every product manager job you see, your chances of success are pretty slim.
Because 99% people are doing the same thing. Instead, put in the extra effort it takes to stand out from the crowd and show the companies you’re applying to that you’re a high-achiever.
For establishing that connection, I recommend sending a personal email like this to either the hiring manager or director of product:
The beauty about this strategy is that you’re personally adding value, instead of just uploading your resume, answering some templated questions and crossing your fingers that they’ll choose you. This takes the application process into your own hands.
Need their email address?
Start by installing the Rapportive Chrome extension for Gmail.
That’ll add a little sidebar inside of your Gmail account that looks like this:
What’s great about Rapportive is that it allows you to type in a suspected email address for someone you want to reach out to, and when you hover your mouse over it, the Rapportive sidebar will populate a bunch of information about the person—if this email address is at all connected to their LinkedIn account.
Cycle through testing the most popular email formats and verifying with Rapportive.
Chances are, you’ll get their email address in less than a minute.
If you’re not able to verify it with this method, find them on Twitter to see if they list contact information (or follow a link to their personal blog which might have that information).
I get it. Starting a new career is a major endeavor.
It’s time-consuming, challenging, and guaranteed to result in moments of discouragement and failure.
But at the end of the day, I can guarantee every skill you strengthen the relationship you build will lead to exciting new opportunities and returns you could’ve never predicted sitting here today.