How to Transition into Product Management by Product School CEO

The road to Product Management is rarely linear, with many PMs having transitioned to the role from something else entirely. Which is exactly what our CEO Carlos did, as he broke into product management from an engineering role. He’s been the CEO and founder of three companies and learned how to be a PM on the go, which took a long time. Instead of building another digital product he decided to create a school to teach others how the product development process works.

When we talk about product management and talk to aspiring product managers, there are three main questions that often come up. In his talk, Carlos answers these top three, as well as questions from the audience.

What is product management?

We define product management as the intersection between software engineering, UX design, and digital marketing. You’re the person in the middle. You don’t need to be the best at everything, but you need to know enough to feel confident with connecting with those groups.  A product manager is the person in between software engineers, UX designers, and digital marketers in order to build digital products like websites or mobile apps.

What is the recruiting process like?

This is a very competitive stage, as now everyone wants to become a product manager. Not only are you going up against other aspiring PMs, you’re also going up against existing PMs with more knowledge and experience. You’re going to see designers that want to be product managers, as well as people outside of the tech industry who want to break into tech through a PM role.

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It starts with an application:

Optimize your resume to get a phone interview. Highlight things you’ve done in your career that are related to product management. For example, if you’ve worked with engineers and managed the team, you learned some PM skills there. Focus on the skills and experiences which are transferable from your current role to your next PM role. A good application will lead to a phone screening, usually not with a PM but a recruitment manager.

After the phone screening:

There is usually a homework assignment. For example, create a product roadmap to explain where you would take this product in the next three months. There are so many things that you’ve done that you wouldn’t believe are very similar to what product managers do. If you’re interviewing for a larger company, you can probably find examples of interview questions and these homework assignments from Glassdoor.

After the homework assignment:

Usually, there is an in-person interview. Companies may sometimes try to invite multiple team members so you could do technical interviews with someone from the technical team such as the CTO or software engineers. You’ll also do some more business oriented interviews problem with product managers, and in some cases the candidates interview with designers as well.

The company’s goal with this is to make sure that the candidate knows enough about these three different components and is also a good fit for the team. Because at the end of the day you’re going to be interacting with so many different people, that it’s important that you are on the same page with all of them, and you can earn the respect from so many different stakeholders.

We define product management as the intersection between software engineering, UX design, and digital marketing

What skills do you need?

There are three skills hiring companies are always looking for:

1. Industry domain

You need to know a lot about a specific product or a specific industry even if you haven’t worked in product management in that industry. For example, let’s say you are a digital marketer in e-commerce. You probably know a lot about e-commerce. Yes, you haven’t worked there as a product manager, but you’re more likely to get a PM role in e-commerce than anything else. This is not just about applying to a competitor’s company, but it’s also about understanding that there are a lot of companies in the industry that might be a good fit and might be looking for someone they can hire into a product manager role.

Let’s say you work in e-commerce as a digital marketer, and you want to work in FinTech as a product manager. It’s going to be very complicated to transition immediately because you’re trying to switch roles and industries at the same time. So if your passion is truly in a different industry, I would rather move horizontally from the digital marketer in one industry to digital marketer in the other and then try to jump into product management. Or move to product management in your industry, and then move over to another.

2. Technical background

Not that you have to code, or be a software engineer, (although if you are, that’s a huge bonus). If you are not a software engineer, you have to know technology. You have to be comfortable enough talking with your software engineers on every single level; from a customer’s standpoint to software architecture, how to extract data, how to make certain technical tradeoffs, how to prioritize features, how to estimate how long the development of a feature will take, how engineers think. This is not something you can learn by reading a book; you have to spend some time with them.

3. Communication 

At the end of the day as a product manager, you are going to stop executing most of the stuff, and you’re going to be communicating to others or influencing others so they can execute. As a product manager, even if you have an amazing technical background you’re not going to be coding anymore. If you used to be a designer, you’re not going to be designing, and if you were a marketer, you’re not going to be doing the marketing etc.

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What are you going to be doing?

You’re going to be working with so many different stakeholders, explaining what the product needs to be and why this is important or why you’re picking this feature versus the other. You’ll have to convince them that that’s the right way to go, and help them to fully focus on what you want them to focus on, and not be distracted by many other things.  So communication is huge.

It’s not about being a book author or public speaker

It’s about understanding and feeling comfortable talking with people. It’s about knowing that you’re going to spend a lot of time having meetings, you are probably going to be jumping between meetings, and spending a lot of time over email or the phone. You need to be comfortable with that, and that’s again something that you can learn on the job.

Questions from our audience:

I’m a Technical Project Manager, doing roadmapping, prioritization, team leadership, etc. How can I grow other PM skills, such as data science, research, and documentation?

If you already identified the areas of improvement that you want and some of the things mentioned, data analytics or data science, they seem to be pretty technical, and since you’re working with software engineers, you can definitely ask them, or work close to them to learn more about it. Honestly, I would also think about other areas of improvement outside of engineering such as UX design or digital marketing.

This is something we’ve seen consistently in software engineers that want to become product managers. They’re very technical and very smart and very good and we get that. And having one more year of experience as a software engineer or learning one more programming language doesn’t make a difference if you want to become a product manager. Being outside of your comfort zone means saying, OK let’s try to engage with engineers and designers, let’s try to engage with digital marketers, let’s try to go to networking events, let’s try to do things about completely different from what I usually do and then see how that goes.

How would you prepare for speaking to a Head of Engineering vs UX Designer versus VP of Product?

That’s a great question and it relates to the interview process that we were describing before, where if they call you for an in-person meeting you probably have different meetings that same day. One will be with someone in engineering; someone will be from the design team, and there will be someone from the product team.

So how you prepare for that? Number one thing here is, don’t lie, don’t make up cases, especially for aspiring product managers. Every time I have prepared them for this type of interview, I say try to think about cases or things you’ve done in the past that are kind of similar to what someone is asking you. So if you speak from experience you won’t have to sweat and try to make up an answer.

For example, let’s say you’re a software engineer and you are having an interview with a designer and the designer is asking, “Hey how would you work with my design team in order to connect these designs with the implementation?”  Well if you are a software engineer, I don’t expect you to give me a perfect answer about how the design process works, because you’re not a designer, and the interviewer knows that. What I’m expecting here is to relate to a previous case, so “well when I was a software engineer this is how we worked with UX designers.”

We have a project manager that is helping us make sure the designers are on time, sometimes we do brainstorming sessions, or we participate in user research with them.” Or “the other day I had a great idea, and my product manager let me create some wireframes to share with my designers.” All of this is way more valuable than trying to make up the whole story about how do you do something that you’ve never done before.

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One of the growing requirements in the PM role is being able to make data-driven decisions. What are the most common tools that are used to look at and analyze data?

It’s true as a project manager you’re going to make a lot of data-driven decisions. What is also true is that sometimes, most of the time, you don’t always have all the data, or the time, or the resources to make those decisions. So you also have to play with a lot of qualitative sources. As a product manager, there are so many different tools you can use. And yes, tools are important, but the reality is that will they all work eighty percent the same.

And they will change, whatever tools you’re using today might be different to the tools you will use two years from now, and that’s fine. You need to understand and feel comfortable with that. That’s something that I would rather give to my data analytics team, who are the ones that are really going to execute and get that data for me. The place where you add the most value as a product manager is identifying the data or the metrics that you need in order to make your decisions.

In order to define that, there may be some tools but it’s also about yourself. Then your data analytics team can use whatever they want, whether that’s Google Analytics or Mixpanel, or Google spreadsheets, or CQL or Tableau, You always need to know what’s going on and what they are using, that will make you more knowledgeable. But, try to kind of zoom out a little bit and focus more on what needs to be done, that’s what the product managers define and then let your team define how. This same answer would apply to software engineering, UX design or digital marketing cases.

What can you tell our current student in Silicon Valley, who is a senior business analyst, about the transition after completing the course?

This is similar to the case of the person who works as a technical project manager. Being a business analyst, technical project manager, product designer, product marketing manager; all those intermediate roles in between your specialty and product are a great stepping stone towards a full-on product management role. First of all, you’ve done a lot of product management stuff, probably in that company they call something different or they have a product manager that kind of stays one step ahead. But, you’re in a really good position for the transition.

I would look into two different options:

One option is to see this a real opportunity to transition into product management within your current company. I always mention this option first, because it’s the hopefully easiest one. Because the team knows that you know the product, you know everybody there, you’ve proven yourself and it will always be easier for you to make the move within your current company than try to prove everything to a different company.

Now I understand that sometimes your current company won’t offer the option because they don’t have that availability or whatever it is. In those cases, I would look for an opportunity outside of your current company. Which is not impossible, but obviously it’s even more difficult because you need to prove yourself from scratch.

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What’s the difference between Product Owner and Product Manager?

Great question. I think I get this question at least once per week. The reality is that every company defines the product team in a different way. For example, Microsoft calls “product managers,” “program managers,” and in Apple the product managers there are not as relevant as the product designers.

At Google, every product manager has a very strong technical background, and there are companies where they have product owners and product managers, there are companies where they only have product owners, and companies where they only have product managers, and the list goes on and on.

Technically, the product owner is the person who owns the vision for the product, this is the person who is the final decision maker, and the person who is really responsible for whatever is happening with the product. If their product team is small enough the product owner and the product manager might be the same person.

Now, if the companies or the product team is big enough where there are product managers, Senior product managers, directors of product, VP of product, then the product owner might be somebody who is a little more senior in your organization. And the product manager might be under that person, directly working on their product but still reporting to a product owner.

Again, this is the most standard definition,  but I would encourage you to ask that same question to every company would you interview because the answers might be different. And that’s why when we teach product management to our students. We try to simplify this definition and put product in the middle and define these three main areas of expertise which is software engineering design and business and everything in between is something to discuss with each of the companies.

How helpful is getting a certificate, like a certified scrum certificate or a certified scrum product owner certificate?

In my opinion, that’s not relevant to getting a job as a product manager. At least, I have never met anyone that got a job as a product manager because they got a ScrumMaster or product owner certificate. I don’t think that’s going to make your life worse of course. The more you learn, the better.

I would also focus on really learning how to do scrum, and the way to learn how to do scrum is by doing it. For example, a lot of software engineers that come to our course and and they have done scrum. They were on the other side of the table because there was a scrum master or a project manager in that same room leading the session, but they know a lot about it. They probably know more than someone that’s never been in a scrum meeting or even in a tech company and just took a one-day workshop about scrum and they think that they are a master.

The only way to be scrum master is by really spending a lot of time doing it. Nothing against learning more, reading books, going to workshops, but honestly I think this is more to be proved in order to become a product manager than just taking a one-day workshop.

My expertise is not in product whatsoever. What advice would you give me to prepare myself to have more educated conversations surrounding product. Are there any resources or books that you could point me to?

Thank you for asking this because if you just Google it, you’re going to find so much information you’re going to get lost. I would say it all depends on the time commitment that you have and if you want to start from the very basics. If you don’t have time or just want to start educating yourself, I would probably buy a book, or attend some webinars where you can connect with other product people.

The books that I would recommend are Cracking the PM interview or Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love. There are many other books and I’m not saying that the others are not good, but I think those are good resources to get started.

We also have a Slack community, which is free and you can access it from any device. We have over 3,000 members; a combination of aspiring product managers and existing product managers who are constantly sharing resources like articles events, and books. So you can join that for free and start networking.

If you want to move to the next level, I would look for something that is more offline. And before you commit to a part-time course like ours I would say start checking out some networking events. We organize workshops every Wednesday at all of our campuses. We have our own offices across North America and in London, and our community organisers hold events worldwide from Abuja to Zagreb. Most of them are free or very affordable. We invite different product managers from different companies to talk about something related to product and we get together around 20 to 50 people depending on the topic. They are great low-commitment events for someone who is just starting out. If you also know someone in your team or a friend or someone who is a product manager and can help as a mentor, that’s also great. I think all of those options can help you learn more about what’s going on.

Product School Event 2019

Now, if after reading a book or you decide to go about learning more about product management, I would encourage you to check out our certifications. They are part-time and fit around work, so you don’t have to quit your job or anything. And that’s also, in my opinion, a way more powerful way to learn product. Because you’re going invest a few months with a real-world product manager in the same room, building products together, getting real feedback, and learning about all of these topics that we discussed in this webinar. But way more in detail, so it all depends on your level of commitment and your timing but I think those would be good starting points.

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