How to transition to Product Management?

If you’re asking yourself this question, let me tell you right at the beginning: You’re not alone. There are scores of engineers out there, who are hankering after this change. In fact, people from other streams are also gravitating towards product management these days. Even I was in this quandary not so long ago – and here I am! Don’t be surprised when a job search by the keyword ‘product manager’ on any job portal like Indeed or Monster or Naukri throws up hundreds of vacancies across the globe. It is, after all, in the trend. 

A Product Manager is the Gordon Gecko of the job world these days. Market trends show a 65% increase in the demand for product managers this year, and this makes product management one of the highest paid jobs out there. Actually, it makes perfect sense – the more products you need to put out in the market, the more managers you need to ‘manage’ them. One of the first great thinkers of our times to foresee such a trend was Lee Iaccoca, who said, “In the end, all business operations can be reduced to three words: People, product, and profits.”

What is Product Management?

Product management bridges the gap between innovation and the user. A product manager has to intelligently gauge what the consumer wants next, or what the need of the market is, present that clearly to the management, and unify different departments of the company to work towards the development of those tools or products. They have to guide their team – and various other departments of the company – to develop the right products for the customers. It typically involves research (lots of it) and planning, developing a design specification, testing the product, and finally, the GTM, or Go-To-Market phase. The last one is the litmus test for the product manager. The feedback and success-analysis of the product go back to the research and analytics team and the cycle begins all over again. So, this, in a nutshell, is what the work life of a product manager will be like. 

If you think you can work as an engineer or a sales executive and later shift to this stream, it’s not impossible. I’ve done it, and so can anyone else. However, let me tell you right at the outset that shifting the job stream is not easy – often the HR may tell you off if you don’t have ‘product management’ experience, as they did with me. I had to face four rejections, followed by much soul searching before I landed a job as a product manager – and I was into analytics, and so, as everyone told me, ‘it should have been easy’.

Thankfully, since the product manager does not need any one precise qualification of mastery over a particular subject, these days, one can become a product manager right upon graduation, if you play your cards smartly. If you are a young student with a futuristic view reading my blog, you can look for a Bachelor’s in Business or Economics, Statistics, Advertising, or Communications.

Also, go for a master’s in Business Administration. Alternatively, you can go for an MBA in business and finance related topics like Organizational Behaviour or Managerial Strategies.

How Do I Make the Transition?

However, for those looking to transition to product management – first and foremost, don’t let the word ‘manager’ fool you. You have to begin at the beginning. Also, it’s a good couple of years of execution before you can become a ‘product manager’ in the true sense of the word. If you are in sales in a company, and you want to slowly shift focus towards product management, start by spending a considerable amount of time learning about who the customers are, what are their problems with whatever it is that your company, or you, sell or market.  As Bill Gates of Microsoft puts it, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Identify the need, and think of what to develop to fulfill that need. This ‘what’ is your product.

The product could be anything from software to a turbine, but you need to have a concrete plan of execution – in detail. From the development of the product to how to sell it and projecting its success in the market, you must have charts and figures and analytical data about everything. At the end of the day, you will be the deciding factor on all product calls of your company. And so, as Jeff Bezos of Amazon, one of the companies that places all its worth on product management, says, “Be stubborn on vision but flexible on details.” 

You have to continually see the idea as a product that needs to be developed and taken to the customer, and do what it takes to achieve that. Take consumer feedback, collect all the experience they have had with similar products, see how their opinions impact the company’s business and share this information with the decision makers within the company. It could be something as simple as analyzing website user patterns and suggest the development of a new interface or app. If your company is already into selling those products, learn everything you can about them, feel proud of them, and advocate to everyone who is looking for something similar. A good product manager needs mathematical skills to chart out the market into figures and percentages, and a mix of creative thinking and analytical reasoning to be able to figure out market feedback and innovate. You should also be able to influence people with your words, as you need to lead a team to believe in your idea and work towards making that a visible, tangible product.

Where Do I Begin?

Alternately, if you’re applying to other companies with a clear intent of changing your profile, and are getting interview calls, here are areas you can smarten up in. 

First and foremost, find the niche you are passionate about. Beauty? Travel? Healthcare? Software development? Finance? If you zero in on this, you can narrow down your job search and target that specific industry. As a product manager, you’re going to have to eat, sleep, and live with the product, so, passion will have to be the driving factor. Therefore, spend time on this.

Read up as much as you can – about product management/development; go through blogs that share experiences of well-known successful product managers; companies like Microsoft, Google, and Tesla are all about innovative approaches to product development. Subscribe and read. Live your dream inside your head. 

If you know of colleagues who have become product managers, ask them what the job entails. The more questions you ask, the more you’ll learn. In these days of social media, a single Facebook post seeking information can get you ten good responses.

Develop your personality. You have to have an analytical mind, be tech-savvy, a critical thinker who is consumer-driven; someone who is a good planner and can motivate and work with different people from different walks of life. So, do a SWOT analysis on yourself and start building upon your weaknesses. Start with solving the newspaper crossword, if you must!

Announce yourself and your intent. I went for a total overhaul of my CV, my online profiles (LinkedIn, Monster, everywhere) and proclaimed my wanting to become a product manager loud and clear. Be visible on product management platforms – give your opinions, comment on other people’s blogs and posts, and break into that network to become a part of it. Not only for product management, for anyone looking to land a new job, this is one of the best approaches. As you network, you will be in on meetups and seminars – attend them to meet people in person.

Attend all interviews – each interview that does not translate into a job is an opportunity to learn something new. Do not get dejected and cynical with the first unsuccessful interview. A Chinese proverb goes: ‘When the wind blows, some people build walls, others build windmills.’ Believe in yourself, and believe that you will definitely become a product manager one day soon and you will.

Anyone Can Become a Product Manager

Just remember, there is no ‘one’ specific thing you can do to become a product manager. It just clicks. Which is why a product manager can be a brilliant ideator, or a good people manager bringing together diverse ideas, viewpoints, functions, and people to deliver a crackling product. There isn’t a clearly etched out path here – for all you know, the product manager you envy in your current organisation could be someone who can only plot immaculate profit graphs. And then there are those, especially in start-ups, who claim they ‘do everything’, and perhaps they do, too, for, on the product manager’s shoulders rest the ultimate success or failure of a product, and in a start-up, there isn’t enough workforce to plough through everything individually.

Not so long ago, Microsoft, when it realised that all their coding and innovation wasn’t reaching the users in the right way, came up with a product management team that brought together its brilliant developers and coders to work around a new idea and take it to the users. That’s how we have OneNote and InfoPath from them today. Product management is an ever evolving, developing field. So, a product manager can never be complacent and rest on the laurels of one product launched successfully. Next, next, next should be your motto, and you should be always willing to learn, experiment, and take risks.

Lastly, remember the four words a product manager must never, ever utter: “It’s not my job.” 

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