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How do I transition to being a Product Manager?

Last updated:
13th May, 2016
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How do I transition to being a Product Manager?

(Note: This article was first posted on LinkedIn Pulse by Dalan Mendonca, Product Manager at Instamojo.)

Answering a question that I get asked a lot.

Short answer
The Product Manager is the jack of all trades, coordinating with design, engineering, sales, et al. to make the product better and grow the business.
In general, if you’ve:

  1. Taken a project from start to finish/operational state.
  2. Worked with diverse stakeholders to get your project out.
  3. Have a basic awareness of the multitude of things that shape a product like design, marketing, support, QA, analytics etc.
    you should be able to move into a product manager role.

Long answer

Step 1. Understand who a Product Manager is
You may have heard about this job indirectly (as I did) or worked directly with a PM or two. In any case it might be useful to know the job before trying for it!
PM are to products what CEOs are to companies. A PM (or the PM team) is responsible for every aspect of the product from the bounce of the animations on the app to the speed of customer service. You own that shit & any product problem is your problem.

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Sounds like a vague job description doesn’t it? You must be thinking so what does the PM actually do?

The answer, whatever it takes to make the product successful.
Yes, it’s a vague role because PMs by nature are generalists.

The product manager will:
Define goals for the product, decide actions to be taken, communicate that clearly to the team, get things built, see if it matches expectations, rinse repeat.

The work varies based on the stage of the company too. A PM at an early stage company will be responsible for defining the product, understanding the market, picking the best features to push out in version 1, and probably also hiring the team.

Slightly later, it’s about tuning the product to its users, testing out the assumptions underlying your product, and making something your users get with ease. As the product matures, the focus might shift to growing the number of users, putting the right metrics around it, optimizing the product to perform at a better scale, etc.

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Step 2. Get/fake PM experience
Now you’re like “Yeah great I get what a PM does, how do I become one?”
Get product thinking — A product is the culmination of many things, the important thing is learn how to take a holistic viewpoint of products instead of sitting on one side of the iOS vs Android or insert you pet battle here> debate.

Go own a project — Take something from start to finish. Do things you couldn’t have done on your own.

Go cross-functional — Try to understand in depth what people in various departments in a company do on a daily basis.

Figure out business models — Take your random idea and then imagine how you’d make money from this. How does X company sell its stuff/make money?

Critique products — Love/hate some product? Explain what’s so awesome/sucky about it. What would add/remove from it? If you were to launch X today, what would be different about it? How did it get so popular?

Working on a hobby project/product of your own is by far the easiest way to gain the above. 

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Step 3. Understand basic PM terminology
What to build — Requirements, wireframes, product specs, functional specs, technical specs, flowcharts.
When to build — Roadmaps, pipelines
Measuring things:
What are people up to — Funnels, AIDA, MAUs/WAUs/DAUs, retention, (likes, shares, tweets, pins), (likes, shares, tweets, pins)/ person, time spent, bounce rate, installs, searches, ..
Money — Total revenue, ARPU, LTV, avg. ticket size, GMV,
General management BS: Stakeholders, value proposition, .. just hangout with an MBA grad for a few hours and you’ll be sorted in this department.

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Step 4. Know the different paths to get there
If you’ve got can crack beginner product roles like Associate/Junior PM good for you, else you might have to take a hit and get some “management education”. Also, a lot of folks move into the Product Management from related roles like Product Marketing, QA, etc.

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My own story
I kinda got lucky.
I had worked on product-ish projects since right since my college days. My first job was that of a data analyst on the Site Integrity/Anti-Spam team at Facebook — apart the regular data analysis/data modeling work that most analysts do, I got the opportunity to lead some really impactful projects where I worked with lawyers, engineers, policy writers, fellow analysts and security researchers.

This was my first taste of blood in terms of working cross-functionally. Hereby lead I mean being the person owning the project and responsible for its success, not in terms of having any title that implied the same.

Another experience that got me awesome exposure was an internal rotation I did within Facebook. Think of a rotation as an internal internship where you work with a different team for a while. I worked for the Global Sales Reporting team — this teams assists the top advertisers on Facebook in understanding what happened to their ad money; working here showed me a whole new world of online advertising — Clients, client partners, account managers, sales pitches, campaigns, demographic targeting, ad impressions, click through rates, ad inventory, various ad products/ad networks and a whole lot more.

It was really eye opening to work in a team operating in the same company but working very differently because they solved a whole different problem.

The above experiences amongst a litany of others, helped me make up mind about getting into the PM space. I decided to hunt for APM roles or Business analyst roles in companies where I could move into a PM role later. Did crack quite a few interviews where everything went fine but in most cases was rejected in the end for not having any prior PM experience. However all was not lost, I did crack an Associate PM role at Paytm, one of India’s fastest growing e-commerce companies. That gig however didn’t pan out for too long and I was out looking for another place — I ended taking up a Product Manager role (YAY! Promotion from APM :’D) at an early stage startup called Instamojo for the (possible) experience and challenge of seeing a company grow into something bigger and thats from where I write this today.

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So around 18 months into this, having not (yet) being fired as a PM, I can say my transition into being a product manager hasn’t gone that bad 😀

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Ravijot Chugh

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1Is it easy to switch into product manager roles?

It depends a lot on your qualifications and experience. If you already have coding experience, but do not have the qualifications for business management, then all you have to do is pursue an MBA and then make the switch. Conversely, if you have sufficient experience in business functions such as sales, you could make the transition. However, companies would also want you to have technical knowledge so that you could handle a product management function. The good news is that no matter what side of the court you are on, you can pursue a part time course in product management and then make the switch – not only within your own company, but across industries.

2What do recruiters expect from candidates while hiring for product management roles?

Candidates for product management roles are required to demonstrate knowledge and experience to prove that they have the necessary technical and business management skills to fulfil product roles. These days, companies prefer hiring candidates who have the requisite experience in handling similar profiles since these roles involve a lot of responsibility. However, what is more important than qualification or attitude, are the soft skills. Recruiters need to be able to trust that the candidate they are hiring is capable of handing multiple stakeholders and get the job done through a combination of diplomacy, negotiation, perseverance and strategic thinking.

3How to crack product manager interviews?

Product manager interviews could be brutal. Recruiters wish to test candidates for resilience, technical experience and business management skills. However, while candidates can fill in the gaps of their qualification or experience by completing certification courses from reputed institutes, they will still need to convince recruiters that they are up for the job. This means displaying confidence, tenacity, negotiation skills and out-of-the-box thinking. If you have the necessary qualifications and skills to make this happen, then you can easily crack product manager interviews. If you feel that you need some help, you can take part time courses to boost your career.