How to Transition to Product Management From Any Role: The Complete Guide was originally published on Exponent.
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Transitioning to a PM position can feel challenging, especially for those who don’t have any formal product management experience yet.
Luckily, being successful in a product role doesn’t require a deep product management background!
Many great product managers started their careers as:
- project managers,
- software engineers,
- UX designers,
- business analysts,
- and more.
Below is a comprehensive overview of the essential skills and strategies needed to transition to a product management role, no matter your current job title.
🔧 What do Product Managers Do?
A product manager leads the development and growth of a product.
- identifying and validating market opportunities,
- defining the product vision and strategy,
- and working cross-functionally to bring the product to market.
Watch Kevin Wei, a product manager at Amazon, break down his day-to-day as a PM.
The primary responsibilities of a product manager:
- Conducting market research,
- Defining product vision and strategy,
- Planning and road mapping feature releases,
- Leading product teams,
- Defining go-to-market strategy,
- Tracking analytics and metrics,
- Building user relationships,
- Managing stakeholders.
The average salary for an APM is about $80k/yr, while the salary for a product director is closer to $200k/yr.
↗️ Making the Leap: Jumping Into Product
The nature of the product manager’s job is pretty diversified. Product managers are involved in many things, hence their nickname “mini-CEOs.”
Before you attempt to transition to product management, decide if you want to become a PM in the first place!
No matter their background, successful product managers must first develop and foster the skills needed in a professional setting or by themselves with personal projects.
Develop the Skills to Transition to Product Management
Product management is such a broad discipline within an organization that an individual PM cannot develop and master all the skills involved in the job.
Depending on your professional background and personal preferences, you’ll inevitably have strengths and weaknesses.
Some product managers are more technically oriented, others are more design-centric, and some may have an eye for marketing.
Luckily, the PM role allows you to lean into your particular strengths, whatever they may be. You’ll usually work alongside other PMs with different skill sets to fill in the gaps.
Product managers need specific skills and qualifications to be successful. These include:
- Strategic thinking: The ability to think strategically and make informed decisions based on market research and user needs.
- Problem-solving: The ability to identify and solve complex problems, often involving multiple stakeholders.
- Communication: Strong verbal and written communication skills are essential for communicating product vision and strategy to cross-functional teams and stakeholders.
- Leadership: The ability to lead, manage, and influence cross-functional teams, including engineers, designers, and marketing teams, among others.
- Technical knowledge: Knowledge of the technical aspects of product development, such as software development, can be helpful, but it is not always necessary.
- Knowledge of user experience (UX) principles and best practices: user research, user-centered design, user feedback and testing, user empathy, user-centric metrics, accessibility, user onboarding, and user retention, with the ability to apply these principles in the development and design of products.
- Business acumen: Understanding key business concepts such as finance, marketing, and operations can help to make informed decisions that align with the overall business strategy.
- Industry knowledge: Knowledge of the specific industry in which the product operates can help predict market trends and customer needs.
- Project management: Strong project management skills to effectively plan and execute product development process.
- Data analysis: Understanding data analysis, metrics, and experimentation are critical for tracking product performance and making informed decisions.
A degree in business, engineering, or a related field can provide a sound foundation, but on-the-job experience and mentorship can be just as valuable.
Many books, courses, and online resources are available to help you develop the skills and qualifications needed to become a product manager.
Activity: How has your professional background helped you develop product management skills?
Which of those skills are most impactful to your work?
Discuss your answers with other members of the Exponent community.
Getting Your First Product Manager Job
There are a couple of strategies to transition into product management, regardless of your starting role.
The most common ways PMs get their first role in the product are:
- an internal, lateral move,
- getting a junior PM position at a different company,
- or joining a startup.
The Lateral Move
One method of transitioning is through an internal lateral move within your current organization.
This means moving from your current role into a product manager role within the company.
Lateral moves are great for those who have already established themselves within their organizations and have a strong understanding of the company’s products, culture, and goals.
This may be the most straightforward or effortless way of jumping into product management from another discipline.
Thinking of a lateral move? Ask yourself these questions:
- Does your current company have a product management department or team? Do they have open positions?
- Have you worked with product managers at your company before?
- Have you cultivated relationships with the product teams?
Even though you are already employed by the company, you’ll still need to make a case for why you’re an excellent fit for the product management role.
You’ll need to come prepared to highlight your previous experience and achievements and any skills or qualifications that make you a strong candidate.
On average, it takes about 10 years to become a director of product from an entry-level PM role.
The Junior PM Position
Another common way many product managers get their start is by obtaining a junior product manager (or even associate product manager) position at a new company.
Junior PM roles will help you gain experience, develop skills, and learn the ropes of product management.
Look for companies and industries that align with your interests and skills, especially if you don’t have a product-related background or role.
On your resume, emphasize your experience with:
- product development,
- project management,
- UX design,
- and/or market research.
Consider taking product management classes or certifications to help boost your skills and projects.
A junior role likely won’t come with the same level of autonomy and responsibility as a senior product manager or product role in a startup.
Still, it will provide you with a firm foundation in product management and open up opportunities to move up the career ladder later.
Stephen Cognetta, former Google PM, outlines how to think about your career as a PM.
Jumping Into a Startup
The most ambitious but potentially exhilarating option is joining a startup in a product role.
By nature, startups tend to be less rigid than FAANG+ companies.
For example, they may be more open-minded towards your non-traditional product background than a Big Tech company.
Why work at a startup?
Transitioning into product management via a startup job can be an exciting opportunity to join a small, dynamic team and directly impact a company’s growth and success. You own the wins and losses in significant ways.
It can also provide you a high level of autonomy and the ability to wear multiple hats and make decisions quickly.
Nevertheless, startup culture is certainly not for everyone. Depending on the organization, industry, and product, the work can be incredibly demanding, and the company’s ultimate success is, by no means, set in stone.
Jumping into product management this way requires high flexibility, adaptability, risk tolerance, and some good ole gumption.
These roles at growing companies can allow you to have a direct impact on the company’s success and to learn and grow as a product manager.
🔢 Step by Step: Making the Transition to PM
No matter the role you’re starting from or the strategies you’re taking to get there, here are some general tips on making the leap:
Step 1: Network with other product managers.
Networking is an essential part of transitioning to a product management role. If your company employs product managers, establish relationships with them.
Ask to get lunch with them during in-office days to ask about what they’re up to. These connections can be invaluable for learning about what it takes to become a product manager and help you land a job down the line.
Step 2: Gain PM experience.
As much as possible, look for opportunities to gain experience in product management within your current role or through a side project. If you work with product managers at your organization, ask if they need any help with something, even if it’s not necessarily within the parameters of your job description. This can help you develop the skills and qualifications needed to be a successful product manager.
Step 3: Prepare for the job search.
Prepare for the job search by researching companies and roles, tailoring your resume and cover letter to the role, and practicing for interviews.
Step 4: Ace the interview
During the interview, highlight your relevant experience, skills, and qualifications. Be prepared to give specific examples.
Practice interview questions, work on mock interviews, and connect with an interview coach to help you feel confident.
Review these top PM interview questions to know what to expect in your interview rounds.
Jumping into product management might take time, so be patient and persistent.
Be open to different roles early in your career, such as an associate product manager or product specialist.
These roles can act as a launch pad and help you develop the skills and experience to advance to a full-fledged product manager role.
Developing a Product Management Mindset
Becoming a successful product manager requires more than skills and qualifications—it also requires a product management mindset.
The mindset of a product manager may be a little different from the ones in other roles.
- User-focused: A user-focused mindset is essential for product managers. It means constantly putting yourself in the users’ shoes, building a deep understanding of their needs, pain points, and preferences, and using that information to inform your product decisions.
- Data-driven: Product managers frequently rely on data and metrics to inform their product decisions. This includes tracking key metrics such as user engagement, retention, and conversion rates and using that data to make informed decisions about the direction of the product.
- Agile: An agile mindset means adapting to change and pivoting quickly when necessary. This is particularly important in product management, as the market and customer needs are constantly changing and shifting.
- Innovation: Product managers need to be highly innovative. After all, users don’t want the same old same old. PMs must always look for new and creative ways to solve problems and improve the product.
- Collaboration: Product management is a highly collaborative role. Any successful PM must work well with cross-functional teams and stakeholders, including engineers, designers, sales, and marketing teams.
- Continuous learning: A mindset of constant learning, meaning being open to new ideas and ways of doing things, and constantly seeking opportunities for learning and growth, is also necessary to transition into and succeed in a product management role.
Activity: In what ways does your professional background mirror aspects of the product manager mindset?
Which of these qualities are most immediate in your current role?
Ace The Product Manager Interview
Exponent has helped tens of thousands of product managers, technical product managers, program managers, and more land their dream jobs in tech.
- 💬 Study up on example PM interview questions.
- 📚 Brush up on your strategy with a list of the best PM books.
- 📖 Read through our company-specific product management interview guides.
- 👯♂️ Practice your behavioral and product sense skills with our interview practice tool.
- 👨🎓 Take our complete product management interview course.