How I Became a Product Manager

In the PMHQ Slack community, we regularly get thought-provoking questions that we feel should be explored in-depth and documented for future reference. We’re starting a new set of Q&A posts called Highlights to dive into these kinds of questions, and enable everyone in the community to revisit the answers and contribute further!

Hi Clement –

I saw on your that you went into a Product Analyst role before being a PM. I’m curious why you started as an Analyst, if being an Analyst offered a great platform to being a PM and figure out if that’s what you wanted to do for a career.

I’m trying to figure out what the best way is for me to enter a PM role, if I’m qualified for one today (if so, how do I find one?), and if not, then whether a Product Analyst role offers the best way to become a PM.” 
– Anonymous

Thanks for reaching out! Let’s break this discussion down into a couple of distinct parts: why I started as an Analyst, how to become a Product Manager (PM), and whether there are minimum requirements for becoming a PM.

1) Why did I start as an analyst?

I actually first started my career in Consulting. I had no clue what I wanted to do as a long-term career and figured that broad exposure to multiple industries would help me orient myself professionally.

As a consultant, I worked a lot with my company’s proprietary SaaS (software-as-a-service) analytics platform, which our institutional clients used to analyze large-scale experiments within brick-and-mortar stores.

One of my core responsibilities as a consultant was to train my client users on how to better use the platform so that our product offering would be sticky within their organization.

As a client trainer, I was frustrated whenever there were bugs or UX (user experience) flows that didn’t make sense. After all, the more difficult it is for any given user to use our platform, the more time we as consultants needed to spend with those users to enable them to be effective.

Since our business model was license-based (how many users are on the platform) rather than billing hours-based (# of hours worked), buggy software meant reduced profits for the company.

I wanted to enable my fellow consultants to be even more effective with their clients, and the best way for me to do that would be to help improve our software.

Therefore, I started proactively filing bugs and creating UX flows or feature wireframes (based on client requests) to hand over to the PM team.

Of course, this passion for easy-to-use software led me down the path of Product Management as a potential career path.

Given that I had already demonstrated strength in data analytics as a consultant (my daily responsibilities involved at least 4 hours of Excel and SQL), it made sense for me to look for companies that were hiring Product Analysts with eventual growth paths to Product Management.

Note that not all companies have that particular career track, so make sure to ask upfront whether they expect their Product Analysts to move into Product Management, or whether they expect them to stay within Product Analytics and Data Science.

To be totally honest, I didn’t graduate knowing that I would want to be a product manager. After speaking with many of my fellow PMs, I’ve found that a large number of us “fell” into product management.

I raise this point because I did not consciously decide on the consultant-to-analyst-to-PM path.
Rather, I iterated on my own career trajectory, making adjustments to my responsibilities where I felt I would make more of an impact within my organization.

Once I decided I wanted to be a product manager, I started actively picking up responsibilities and achievements that I felt would help me be a better candidate as a product manager.

2) How do you enter a PM role?

There is no one “right track” to being a Product Manager.

Some of the most effective PMs I know came from the liberal arts or worked in customer support or marketing. That being said, Silicon Valley generally appreciates backgrounds in the following areas (starting from most valuable): engineering, design, analytics.

Of course, this is a broad generalization, so be sure to speak with hiring managers and recruiters about what backgrounds they prefer for their particular companies.

You are qualified to be a PM if you can demonstrate that you have the following skills: communication, prioritization, empathy.

These skills sound easy to obtain, but they’re not; those “squishy” skills are some of the hardest ones to bring to life on either a resume or a cover letter. In fact, the majority of the PM interview process is based on these three core skills.

The behavioral interview checks to see whether you can communicate clearly about your experiences, how you prioritize on the fly, and whether you will fit in well with the organization.

The case interview checks to see whether you can clearly structure your approach to a problem, how you determine priorities in situations with little context, and how well you can understand the customer and the stakeholders before you even join.

Starting as a Product Analyst is great for training and demonstrating those particular skills, because it teaches you the context of the product (which helps with empathy for stakeholders and customers), the magnitude of the problem (which helps with prioritization), and how to communicate with executives during analytic readouts.

To find a role, be scrappy! Remember that PMs work with people, so you need to leverage your people skills here.
Reach out to recruiters, check out job sites, go to networking events, and find 2nd or 3rd connections to get an introduction or an internal referral.

The PMHQ community is a wonderful place for you to meet hiring managers and fellow PMs who may have open positions at their organizations.

3) What are the minimum requirements (e.g. technical skills or hard skills) that are required for a PM role?

There’s no real universal threshold. Different companies have different expectations for different roles; it’s a combinatorial headache! For example, Google expects PMs to be quite technical, whereas a 3-person startup may focus heavily on your customer research abilities.

While this advice may sound cliche, it’s true: you should focus on what you bring to the table, rather than who you are competing against.

It’s important for you to find an organization that appreciates your skills and experiences. After all, imagine if you wound up at a company where you didn’t feel appreciated; you would likely feel burnt out.

Fit goes both ways: it’s critical that your hiring manager finds you to be a great fit for the role, and it’s critical that you find the company to be a great fit for your career.

One of the biggest mistakes that I’ve personally committed before is limiting myself based on the job description.

You’ll find that many times, companies will say something like “must have 2+ years of experience with Balsamiq (prototyping tool)”, when really they just want you to know how to work alongside a designer, and that knowing how to create paper mock-ups is sufficient.

When speaking with the recruiter and the hiring manager, dig in deep – understand what pain point they’re trying to solve with a particular qualification on the job description, and see whether you have skills or experiences in your portfolio that directly address the need.

Have thoughts that you’d like to contribute around how to become a product manager? Chat with other product managers around the world in our PMHQ Community!

Clement Kao
Clement Kao
Clement Kao is Co-Founder of Product Manager HQ. He was previously a Principal Product Manager at Blend, an enterprise technology company that is inventing a simpler and more transparent consumer lending experience while ensuring broader access for all types of borrowers.