Becoming a Product Manager

Recently, I’ve had a slew of friends, coworkers, and acquaintances express their interest in becoming Product Managers. They have heard that PMs are “mini-CEOs”, which sounds important and lucrative. Those in Sales or Customer Support who don’t yet know how to code or design hope to find an alternate career path in tech. Developers and designers are tired of being told what to do and want to gain some control over their projects. Others, coming directly out of MBA programs, are seeking opportunities outside of finance and Wall Street.

When they approach me, they ask how I became a Product Manager. They want to know if my experience will teach them how to make the transition. Well, my path was relatively straightforward.

  1. Got a customer support job in a tech startup.
  2. Figured out what Product Managers actually do. (Also this.)
  3. Told my boss daily that I wanted to be a Product Manager. He and other managers at the company championed my transition.
  4. Spent a year and a half of Saturdays and ten thousand dollars to become a certified Project Manager through UC Berkeley Extension. (Subsequently I learned the difference between Product and Project management, but the courses were extremely useful.)
  5. Became the liaison between the Product and Customer Support teams.
  6. Was the support person for the support people. (I logged so many bugs and knew the product so well I was courted to join QA. I declined and held out for the PM position.)

This list represents what I would consider a relatively common transition from Customer Support into Product Management. Deducing the steps to become a PM wasn’t difficult. Having a good reason why was the significantly harder task.

And now to answer the question I wished people would ask me…

  1. Talking to People. Being with People.
    For anyone who knows me, even a little, they know I love talking. I’m very extroverted. Communicating and collaborating with interesting and innovative people brings me energy and joy. Product managers should be fantastic conversationalists, sherpas of dialogue, and attentive listeners. Exceptional speaking skills are a requirement for Product Management.
  2. Champion of the User
    Without a user, there is no need for a product. With a customer service and training background, I found myself driven to create products that people actually wanted to use. This was a large part of what beckoned me to the role. Product Managers are responsible for being the voice of the customer.
  3. Manage without Authority
    As a Product Manger, no one actually reports to you. PMs manage the product, not the people. There is no better way to develop management skills than by working with a cross functional team who all report to other internal stakeholders. I think this is an important opportunity to learn what I’ve often heard called the “Jedi mind trick” where, through influence, you are able to get anyone to come to an agreement and proceed forward not because you are their boss or superior, but because you are a master of getting teams to align and work together.
  4. Learn All Areas of the Business
    Working on repetitive tasks bores me. Thankfully, Product Management is the antithesis of boring. To make excellent product, you need to align yourself with all areas of the business. Being a master of product means constant investigation into the market, competitor analysis, and insight into the product’s alignment with the goals of your company.
  5. Solving Problems & Being Helpful
    I love getting to the bottom of things. In and outside the office I spend a decent amount of time helping friends and co-workers make decisions and solve problems. As luck would have it, a large part of Product Management is about being of service to others. You must be available to your team to answer questions at any time or to acquire items they need to do their jobs.
  6. Working with Computers
    I am a geek. I love computers and I love being with people who love computers. I grew up in an age of Starcraft and LAN parties. Working in tech is essentially a selfish decision to be close to my favorite kinds of people.
  7. Great User Experience Design
    I like useful things. It fills me with rage when an application is confusing or upsetting. Part of being a product manager is having a secondary skill set to bring to the team such as User Experience design. In customer support, after talking to a particularly confused user, we would often joke, “the problem was somewhere between the chair and the keyboard”. But, in truth, if the software is confusing it isn’t the customer’s fault. Fault falls with the Product Manager who didn’t care enough about their users to create a thoughtful UX.
  8. Making Lists
    If this article wasn’t proof enough, I love making lists. Putting things in order makes me feel calm and collected. PMs spend a lot of time making all sorts of lists: product requirements, user stories with acceptance criteria, A/B test results, competitor analysis, etc. You better love making lists if your want to be a Product Manager.

You might have other reasons why you want to be a Product Manager, it’s okay to be different. If you still think it is a good idea and you are considering taking the plunge, the next question is…



Geek, Philosophy Nerd, Hiker, Women in Product Chapter Lead and Product Innovation Leader on Sabbatical

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Vanessa Garber

Geek, Philosophy Nerd, Hiker, Women in Product Chapter Lead and Product Innovation Leader on Sabbatical