Breaking Into Product Management: A Guideby@sshubhi
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Breaking Into Product Management: A Guide

by Shubhi SaxenaSeptember 25th, 2020
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Aims to give you a framework to think about making the switch to Product Management. Is Product Management right for you?How to land a Product Manager job? How to spend your first 90 days as a product manager? And how to spend the next 90 days in a Product Management job? These are not general and not facts. These are the answers to these three questions. The answer to these questions is to answer three important questions: Is it the right thing for you to do? How do you want to be Product Manager?

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Over the last 2 weeks, 7 friends have asked me how they can break into Product Management. Additionally, I have got an opportunity to interview several people from product management roles over the last year where I see first time candidates making the same mistakes over and over again.

Hence, I have decided to jot down a guide on landing your first PM job. Its made up of 3 parts, answering three important questions -

Is Product Management right for you?How to land a Product Manager job?How to spend your first 90 days as a Product Manager?

This is a summary of my key learnings and aims to give you a framework to think about making the switch. These are not general and not facts. I have tried to not reinvent the wheel and give links to the right resources wherever I could. Hope it helps!

Part 1: Is Product Management right for you?

This is the first step. I remember searching across the internet trying to understand what a PM does and landing onto this universal representation of a PM role -

The problem with this is it’s too superficial and does not tell much about what qualities, characteristics, traits, or interest will really help you excel as a PM. In this post, we try to explore that in detail.

Role & Success criteria of a PM

A product manager’s role is to define a product (or a product line, in some cases) and do whatever it takes to make it a success. Success is broadly defined based on the business impact created by the product which could be measured in different ways based on the type of business.

B2B vs. B2C

At a very high level, a business either sells to consumers (B2C) or enterprises (B2B). The key difference is that in the case of B2B — your buyers (decision-makers) are not actually the users of your product. So, subscription, retention, and reliability matter more. Whereas in B2C, your buyer is your end-user (may not be if e.g., you are selling dog biscuits, but the buyer is still in very close contact with the end-user), hence scale is huge and virality, user retention, and UX are the prime focus.

Metrics by Business Models

Lean Analytics has a pretty detailed description of various business models and the key metrics that matter in each. Summarising briefly below -

  • E-Commerce — Conversion rate, purchases/year, avg cart value, abandonment, Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC), Customer Lifetime Value (CLV)
  • SaaS — ARR, CAC, Churn, New Registrations, Conversions, Stickiness, CLV
  • Mobile app — Downloads, CAC, % active users, virality, churn, CLV, avg users per month, time to first purchase
  • Media/Content Site — Audience size, Content availability, Churn, Ad inventory, Ad rates, CTR, Stickiness
  • User-generated content (community) — Content creation, Content value, % of engaged users, virality, engagement funnel shifts
  • Two-sided marketplace — Buyer/Seller growth, Inventory growth, Search Effectiveness, Conversion funnel, Ratings and signs of fraud, Pricing metrics

So, as a PM, your success will be measured by how your product(s) impact the above metrics based on the kind of business that you are in, and your role will be to drive all stakeholders across marketing, sales, engineering, customers, users, etc. to -

  1. Identify the most critical product problems to solve to achieve business goals.
  2. Decide what to build & how it should work.
  3. Make sure it gets built as planned and on time.
  4. Drive communication & demand generation with growth teams.
  5. Drive adoption and collect data on usage.
  6. Use the data to evaluate product success/failure & scope for improvement.
  7. Plan the next steps, align your leadership and go back to step 1

Since you have seen enough Venn Diagrams on PM already, here is a breakdown of Automattic’s design process which I think is quite relevant to the product development process -

Four Planets by Automattic

What skills help a PM succeed?

Looking at the above Venn diagram, a lot of beginners feel that PMs need to be great at design, business, and tech before they even start their journey. However, that is usually not the case. A lot of PMs have T-shaped skillsets which means they are great at one thing and good enough in several others. I personally think that it’s important to be deep enough into one of these three to be able to make a mark in the interviews. See 10–30–50 rule [1].

In this section, we will break down PM skills into soft and hard skills and list down some of the top skills that make good PMs.

Hard skills of a good PM

  1. Intellectual ability to process & synthesize a lot of information.
  2. Systems thinking & analytical skills.
  3. Comfortable with quants and data.
  4. Technical background
  5. Comfortable with UX/Design

Soft skills of a good PM

  1. Influential communication
  2. Demonstrated leadership (execution, alignment)
  3. Extreme Ownership
  4. Product Sense [2]
  5. Truth-seeker mindset (hypothesis creation & testing)
  6. Perseverance to always show up
  7. High Agency (ability to solve any blocker to get stuff done — all day, every day) [3]

Shreyas Doshi has created this comprehensive mindmap listing all possible PM skills -

I learned a lot about this from Todd Jackson’s post. Would highly recommend [4].

Common questions (and myths) about being a PM

Do I need to know to code to be a PM?

You don’t need to know how to write code. However, if you are working on a tech product, knowledge of the basic principles of computer science is essential, so that you can communicate effectively with developers. Having said that, you should definitely aim to learn the basics of programming and computer science over time as it’ll help you get better at solving issues and removing tech blockers. It also depends on how technical the product is, e.g., a PM at a cloud storage company needs to be much stronger at tech than a PM at a mobile gaming app company. Cole Mercer’s course on Technology for PMs[5] is a good start.

Do I need to learn how to make wireframes to be a PM?

You don’t need to create beautiful designs, however wireframing is an essential skill that helps PMs communicate their ideas visually. So, would highly recommend getting your hands dirty on Sketch, Figma, or whatever your tool of choice is. More than design, it’s important to develop user empathy and a great UX sense. Try solving Artiom Dashinsky’s design exercises [6]. More resources in Part 2, where we talk about how to prepare for the interviews.

Do I need to do an MBA to get into Product Management?

No, and if you’re looking for a PM role in a startup, absolutely not! If your long-term goal is to continue down the PM/founder (builder) path and not go into consulting, investment banking and other traditional MBA pursuits, I would highly recommend to save those 2 years and spend them learning about building better products by grinding with a good product team.

Is the PM the CEO of the product?

I literally cringe when I hear someone say that.

IMO, PM is not the CEO of the product, because while PM gets to decide the product strategy, they do not have any say in how the engineering or growth resources will be used and their success solely depends on being able to convince the leadership and other teammates to go that route and take specific tradeoffs.

So, when someone says this to you, it usually means, “we would like you to take as much ownership of this product’s success or failures as a CEO would.”

How to build credibility in my resume?

By building stuff or having strong opinions about how something can be made better. We will talk more about this in part 2.

What is Product Management not?

This deserves its own thread because a few companies rebrand multiple roles as PM to attract quality talent. To keep it short. -

  • PM is not a Program Manager.
  • PM is not a full-time developer/designer.
  • PM is not a Product Marketing Manager.
  • PM is not an engineering manager.
  • PM is not a business analyst for requirement gathering.

Career progression in Product Management

This is what a typical PM career path might look like. Each PM starts off as an individual contributor. However, just to emphasize, PM is by definition a fairly senior role (even if you are an IC). Based on how the company is structured, you may or may not be given P&L responsibility as part of the role.

However, since you learn a variety of skills as a PM, you actually don’t need to follow this path. A lot of PMs end up becoming CEOs (Susan Wojcicki, Youtube) or founders (Ivan Zhao, Notion) themselves.

The tough parts about being a PM

Like every other role, PM has its challenging bits as well, and while there are ways to deal with them, it's extremely important to know what you’re getting into before making the choice. Here I mention a few things I have experienced and validated from other PMs as well:

Disclaimer: These have a lot to do with the company that you work with as well. Have seen it happen a lot lesser in companies with mature product orgs.

  1. Most of the people that you work with do not report directly to you — Responsibility? Yes. Authority? Umm..not so much.
  2. Have you ever heard — “PM ko aata kya hai” (what does a PM know)? They don’t build stuff, neither do they design or sell it? What the hell are they doing around here, giving gyaan on what we should build! To remind myself on how to add true value, I read this great post by Ken Norton atleast once a month — “Remember friend, nobody asked you to show up”. Well worth a read.
  3. It does get psychologically draining at times to show up and motivate yourself and your team every day to push harder and create better stuff. Mental health is super important for PMs. 
  4. “PM-ing is the kind of sales job where the sales call never ends. Where every moment is show-time!”
  5. You own all the criticism (from sales, customer, devs, marketing, etc.) but don’t really get as much appreciation because you actually neither built nor designed the product!

Here is the visual description of what the journey of building any venture/product is like :

Why did I become a PM?

If you’re reading this, you are probably looking for an answer to whether you should give up whatever you’re doing and switch to a PM career. It’s hard for me to provide a generic answer to this. However, I can share my story of why I decided to give up my high-paying software engineering job at Arcesium (DE Shaw & Co.) to take up the role of a PM :

  1. I liked coding but I hated the fact that I could only work on one or two things at a time [6]. I wanted to widen the scope and work on several features at once.
  2. I felt that I was too far away from where the real money was made. I knew I couldn’t hope to be a great software dev if I came back from work to read strategy blogs and business books every single day.
  3. I am a very purpose-driven person and the goal of making an app work did not excite me enough.
  4. I have been in leadership roles right from college where I was the first person to set up a team of 25+ to manage a makerspace[7]. I knew I liked mission-driven roles where I got to play a larger part.
  5. I am a genuinely curious person and love to read and write. I was told that these would be useful skills as a PM [8] as its a role where you constantly learn.

That’s how I figured that this was the role that excited me the most and here I am! I hope this post helps you get some more clarity as well in terms of what future might look like if you do opt for a PM role.

Further Reading

  1. The 10–30–50 rule of building skills as a PM
  2. How to improve your product sense
  3. High-agency PM — what and how
  4. Todd Jackson on hiring great PMs
  5. Technology for PMs course on
  6. Building our own DSL for a Hackathon
  7. Innovation Garage, NIT Warangal
  8. Good vs. Great PMs by Shreyas Doshi

We will follow this post with Part 2 and 3 where we talk about how to land a PM role and what to do to make the most of your first 90 days, respectively. Stay tuned!