Andy Lee

@productchops

Forget the MBA. Here’s the fastest way to become a product manager

March 15th 2017
Source: unsplash.com
Many people in their mid careers think about getting an MBA as a stepping stone to become a product manager. That’s not needed — there are faster and more effective ways to become a product manager.

Several notable people have weighed in on this topic on Quora — see this, this, and this. Excerpt from Keith Rabois: is getting an MBA worth it?:

2. The key levers in technology startups are almost never general management and rarely “strategy” qua strategy. Technology and design are usually the most important, perhaps marketing/messaging/framing and data analysis as well. Business school is a waste of time for virtually of these. See the Management Myth. 
3. Most elite business schools teach directionally wrong advice. 
4. I suspect MBAs also adversely attract people who value credentials. Entrepreneurs normally thrive by ignoring conventions.

A lot has been written about what product management is and what a product manager does, but the fact is it’s still a nascent field and every company views it differently. Product management isn’t even a formal role in many companies, especially startups. One of the founders wears that hat until they become big enough to formalize the function.

But if we step back and look at all the startup successes and failures from the past decade, it’s clear that product management is more of an art than science. Looking back, products like Uber or AirBnB seem obvious; but looking forward, it’s impossible to predict what the next Uber or AirBnB will be.

The tech industry is changing rapidly and thousands of new products and platforms are born every day. It’s never been easier to build new products, but it’s never been harder to build businesses out of them. Every new product is fighting the same fierce battle: getting attention from people that are overwhelmed with dozens of options.

Today, Product Managers are at war to get (and keep) mindshare — with creativity, hustle, speed. They’re constantly experimenting, learning, and improvising.

There’s no better way to explain product management than entrepreneurship. Product Managers are salaried entrepreneurs that need to do anything and everything to make their product successful.

If we look at what made products like Amazon, Netflix, and Tesla successful, it wasn’t a business strategy, it wasn’t even a preconceived strategy; it was really a belief — a deep conviction, combined with experimentation, hustle, and patience. The next Amazon, Netflix, and Tesla won’t be any different.

This fascinating paper sheds some light on what makes entrepreneurs entrepreneurial; it applies to today’s product managers as well.

An MBA gives you many benefits — a brand, a network, business skills; but it doesn’t give you any unfair advantages to build successful products.

You already have the core skills you need

As a process, product management varies from company to company. Consumer product management is generally data-driven and analytical with quick feedback loops. Enterprise product management is generally people-driven and relational with longer feedback loops.

Let’s look at what product managers do (courtesy of Josh Elman, Partner at Greylock and ex-Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn):

At the core, you’ll need three skills:

  • Researching and synthesizing information. You’ll be doing a lot of Googling and reading. You’ll be talking to lots of people. You’ll be analyzing lots of data. You already do this in various contexts. As a product manager, you’ll kick it up a notch. You’ll do a lot of synthesizing — combining information with your own intuition and developing hypotheses. That’s your USP, and the most challenging part of product management — to develop inspiring world views and visions that take people from point A to a better point B.
  • Communication. You’ll use both visual and written skills to communicate your vision, strategy and roadmap. Communication is your fundamental skill, but you’ll do it with a lot more clarity and precision. You’ll draw clear wireframes. You’ll write detailed user stories. You’ll explain your vision and strategy clearly and concisely. Communication is how to get things done — something you’ll do most of your time on a daily basis. You’ll have to hone it every day.
  • Project Management. This is the keep-the-trains-moving part that, again, you already do in various contexts. As a product manager you’ll become an expert at it. Good product managers are ridiculously well organized, almost to an OCD level. They run their meetings well. They document everything. They follow up. They manage scope well. They come up with realistic milestones. They’re proactive and course correct quickly.

These skills will get you going. The rest of the formal product management skills such as working with engineers and designers, sprint planning and execution, etc. — you’ll pickup in your first job. Some people emphasize them too much, they’re not that important.

The key to successful product management is just-in-time learning. You need to learn to learn fast.

Good product managers are ridiculously fast learners. They can pickup any topic or situation and become an expert in short order. To be successful in the long run, though, you’ll need to develop the following skills and knowledge:

  • Leadership and persuasion. A lot of product management is rallying people towards a vision they might not believe in. So leadership skills are important for success. But don’t worry — you won’t need to be great on day one; and this will come over time with experience.
  • Technology and design. You don’t need formal computer science degree but you will need to understand how things work and why things work. If you observe products, you’ll pickup a lot of this learning naturally. Again, you won’t need to be an expert on day one — you’ll build this up over time.
  • Working with engineers and designers. If you’re not an engineer or designer you’ll need to learn how to work with them. You don’t need to learn coding or design per se, but you’ll need to learn their language and earn their trust. Again, this will come over time with experience.

You can only learn it by doing

Unlike programming which you can learn from books and online courses, the only way to learn product management is by building products. In fact, no matter what your role is today, you’re already product managing things without realizing.

If you’re an engineer, the components and APIs you create are products. Your peers, people that consume your APIs, are your users. The care with which you design your APIs, your collaboration with them to make shell APIs and implement things in small steps, and getting it all to work — all that is product management.

If you’re into design, marketing or sales, you’re also doing product management on a daily basis. Every deliverable you produce is a product, and how you produce it, how valuable it is, and how much your consumers appreciate it (and you) is all product management.

The only way to learn product management is to land a formal product role. It’s a three step process — develop a product sense, build some credibility, and hustle.

STEP 1: Develop a “product sense”

Product management is a role where passion is very important. If you’re not passionate about the space you’re in, it’s unlikely that you will succeed. The best place to start is to look at the products you use daily and understand the following:

  • What makes them valuable?
  • How did they start out and get to where they are?
  • How can you improve them?

When, why, and how do you use Facebook? What do you get out of the experiences it provides? What makes you go back to it? What value do you get from LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, Uber, or any of the products you regularly use?

These products didn’t get there in a day. They started with one user and went through a long and arduous journey to get where they are today. Dig into how they started and how they got traction. There’s a ton of blog posts, articles and stories about them. Systematically understand (and write down) their journeys. This is perhaps the most valuable learning you can have.

The most valuable knowledge you can develop is understanding what worked and what didn’t work in the past. Every product is a valuable case study.

The best product managers are an encyclopedia of products. They can tell the how, what, and why behind successes and failures in their space.

Finally think about how you can improve these products. As products grow, they become bloated. They end up developing unnecessary features and miss out on valuable opportunities. Write down specific things these products can do to add more value to your life.

STEP 2: Build some credibility

When it comes to entry level product managers with no prior experience, startups generally look for smart and determined people. They use proxies such as top school education or top company experience. If you have them, great. If not, I strongly suggest you build some credibility first.

In my experience, and the experience of many respectable founders I’ve worked with, promising entry level product managers have three traits:

  • They’re very good at what they do in their current role.
  • They’re generally well organized, thoughtful, and articulate things very well.
  • They’ve dabbled with entrepreneurship in some way (even if they failed)

You can build up the first two in your current role, no matter what it is. But the third is where you can really move the needle. Entrepreneurship is not just about starting and running companies. Even if you start a blog that’s read and valued by a hundred people that’s entrepreneurship.

Building or doing things people find valuable (even in small ways) is the best way to establish credibility for product management jobs.

Here’s a few ideas:

  • Build a product. If you can code this is the best thing you can do. Pick a problem you personally have. Or a problem someone you closely know (family or friend) has. Understand it deeply — Why is it a problem? Why aren’t there any solutions for it? How can I solve it? More importantly, what’s the easiest possible solution for it that I can launch within days or weeks? Do some market research: How many people are likely to have this problem? Is it a nice-to-have or a must-have? Would they pay for it? If so how much money can I make? You won’t have answers to all these questions immediately, that’s fine. Build something small, launch it, and hustle to get some traction. Don’t do this just to get a product management job. Do it to build a business around it.
  • Build a blog. If you can’t code, this is the best option. You can get some inspiration from Ben Thompson’s blog stratechery — it’s the best tech blog today and it’ll make you smarter about technology in general. Pick products you use and write about the questions I listed above — What makes them valuable? How did they get to where they are today? How can we improve them? Don’t worry about whether your ideas are good or bad. Don’t worry about getting an audience. Just write. Writing is the best way to learn. It forces you to think. It makes you smarter. It gives you clarity of thought. The more you write, the better you’ll get. And, you never know who might read it. Blogging is the best way to engineer serendipity.
  • Answer questions on Quora. If blogging is too much for you, Quora is a good option. There are tons of interesting product questions on Quora. Many founders and hiring managers follow them. By writing thoughtful and well researched answers, you’ll get their attention directly. There are people who hire candidates just by looking at the quality of their Quora answers. Don’t miss out on this valuable community, chime in.

STEP 3: Hustle your way in

Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle. — Abraham Lincoln

1. Transition within your company

The fastest path is your own company. Assuming of course you’re good at what you do and people respect you. If you’re part of the product team (engineer, designer or data scientist), you have an unfair advantage. You already know the product and the process intimately. People already know you closely. Even if you’re not part of the product team (marketing or sales for example), you still have many advantages outsiders don’t. Leverage them.

How to approach it?

  • First and foremost, be good at what you do. Earn respect. Build goodwill. Without that, it’ll be hard to pull off favors. If you’re not there yet, double down on your efforts and get there first.
  • Help your product management team. Product ideas are good, but data and information is even better. Start by hanging out with them. Figure out their pressing needs. Do whatever research you can and help them out. Remember: they’re not lacking ideas, they’re lacking clarity. The biggest help you can do for them is bringing clarity to their problems.
  • Once you establish yourself as a valuable product resource, reveal to them that you want to transition to product management. Offer to help them out while you’re still in your current role. Work nights and weekends. Work your ass off. Nudge them to hire you full time. Your existing reputation and this side hustle should convince them to give you a shot.

2. Pick interesting early stage products and start helping out founders

In early stage startups, one of the founders (typically the CEO) drives all product decisions. As they grow, the CEO has other areas to focus and will look for a trusted lieutenant to take over product management and create a formal product process. Now, there’s a couple of things about these CEOs that are interesting for you. They’re scrappy and hungry for help. And they don’t know how to hire good product managers! At least they don’t have strong bias for that role. If you play your cards well and blow them away, this could be a great option for you.

How to approach it?

  • Signup for a product or service you like. Chances are you’ll get an email directly from the CEO. If not, dig up their email address. Send them some initial feedback on the product. Be thoughtful — tell them how you discovered their product, what you think of it, and some quick, detailed ideas to onboard users better and deliver value better.
  • Research about their idea. Understand who they’re trying to go after, what they’re offering, and where that fits. Why would people use it? Is it a nice to have or a must have? How big is the market for this? What would it take to build a business around it? How can we grow this and acquire lots of users cheaply?
  • Keep sending them your research and thoughts. They’ll appreciate it. Slowly start building a relationship with them and offer to help out for free during nights and weekends. Tell them you want to join as a product manager at the earliest opportunity. Offer to take a pay cut (in lieu of equity) if you can. Convince them to get you on board.

3. Hustle your way into mid stage startups

If super early stage (option 2 above) is not your cup of tea, chase startups that just raised a Series A or Series B round. These companies are likely getting ready to hire their first product person or grow their product team. Chances are they’re still scrappy and willing to take a shot at someone with lots of passion and hustle, as opposed to someone with pedigree and credentials. Before you approach them, build some credibility. Help out some super early stage company for free. Write some blog posts. Answer questions on Quora. Anything that showcases your product chops. Going to them with a resume is a weak option.

How to approach it?

  • First and foremost, research the heck out of their product. Learn as much as you can about their users, their market, their opportunity. Understand what they’re trying to accomplish.
  • Do a valuable project for free. Research their market and identify some opportunities. Read their reviews and synthesize some ideas for improvement. Find some customers. Hustle. Do something they might find valuable.
  • Email the founders or their VP or Director of Product directly. Send them your research project. Tell them how much you love their product and ask them to try you out. Offer to work for free initially if you can.
  • Keep following up. Continue to do more research and send them more ideas or findings. Don’t give up until they no.

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