In the last 10 or so years, Product management has become one of the most sought after roles across the globe.
The thrill of launching products for millions, if not billions, of users has led to an unprecedented increase in the demand for product management jobs. New product companies (and roles) are not sprouting up at the same rate as aspiring product managers. As a result, there are considerably more job seekers than product management job openings.
This imbalance is making it challenging for non-PMs to land their first PM jobs. The employers, on the other end, are not to blame. They have a wide variety of experienced professionals to choose from; hence they prefer hiring candidates with more experience over those who have zero product experience.
This asymmetry in the product management job market makes the evergreen question - "How can I get relevant product management experience without being a PM?" - very relevant and, at the same time, tough to answer.
I spent the last few weeks reading tens of articles and speaking to product leaders in my pursuit to find the perfect answer to the above question. As an outcome, I created a strategy that is relentlessly practical and will help aspiring PMs acquire the expertise and knowledge required to land their first PM job.
I will share this guide in three posts.
This post details the three things that you should do to understand the real responsibilities and challenges of a product manager. The second post will highlight the most important skills of a product manager and how you can acquire them. In the final post, I will share the different paths that aspiring PMs can take to land their first job.
Do this to understand what a PM does:
- Have a side project
- Keep building your network
- Ask for help
Have a side project.
Product management is all about solving real problems by creating world-class solutions.
Doing that ☝️ doesn't need you to have a product mangement job. All you need is to identify a real-world problem - preferable something that you can relate to - and then try your best to solve it. The best way to do that - A Side Project aka Side Hustle aka Indie Hacking
Side projects could be of two types: freelanced short-term tasks or longer-term projects that you'd like to grow and maintain over time. I believe starting and growing a side project is a stricter test to pass than doing a few one-off freelanced tasks. But, both have their merits.
Why you should do it:
Working on a side project is very similar to working in a small startup or a new product. As a side project founder, you will ask the same questions that experienced PMs answer every day. And provided you keep working on your idea consistently, you will also start uncovering the answers to these questions.
Creating and growing a project will be the closest you can get to being a PM without having a real PM job.
Some of the questions that you might ask your self when you start a side project:
- What problem should I solve?
- For which customers am I solving the problem?
- What is the best solution to the problem? How do I validate the solution / how do I find product-market fit?
- Given that I work a day job, how do I prioritize my time and make enough progress every week?
- How do I scale my project from 10 to 100 to 1000 users?
- What does success look like for my project?
This list can go on and on. But, the point is simple - if you seriously set out to solve a meaningful problem, you will ask the right questions, and do whatever it takes to find suitable answers. This is what a PM does every day.
How you should do it:
If you want to explore the second route (of doing something that is more long-term), here is my recommendation:
Start broad, but go deep. There are hundreds of blogs, newsletters, communities, and job boards started as side projects. But even then, only a very few stand out. The reason is simple - solving a challenging problem for a niche audience always does well. These inspiring stories will help you put things in perspective: Marketing Examples by Harry Dry, 70K page views in 10 months of blogging, Blogging for Devs Paid Community made $5K in its first week.
Get on the #nocode wagon. No-code tools allow you to create full-blown websites, blogs, SaaS solutions in a matter of weeks without any coding skill. These tools have gained more popularity in the recent WFH times, as more and more people have more and more time, and hence want to try building something on their own.
There are many tools available. I use and highly recommend the following:
- Ghost for blogging
- Mighty Networks and Circle for community building
- Carrd for landing pages
- ConvertKit for email newsletters
- Bubble and Webflow to build full-scale websites.
- Zapier to automate and make all of it work together
Actively browse and participate in relevant online communities. Find relevant communities and utilize them to discover new ideas, or to validate your thoughts, or both. Aim for communities which have high engagement rates and helpful members.
Good communities will also provide an archive of success stories, which are the most significant source of inspiration and motivation. A few communities that I strongly recommend:
1. IndieHackers - a community of highly engaged solo founders who share their progress and help others building their side businesses
2. Product Management subreddit - has a highly engaged reader base and very interesting posts like this one:
I know PMs will actually value this. This is how a blind person uses iPhone. I always have heard accessibility questions in interviews, this gives a real perspective to them. from r/ProductManagement
3. Follow relevant accounts on Twitter. Most product champions and experts use Twitter to share their opinions. In other words, the product gurus of the world share knowledge on Twitter. For free.
I will save you the pain of finding these accounts by sharing a few Twitter lists that I created and follow actively: Product People, Product CEOs and Founders, Product Companies, Community Building, Content Marketing
Keep building your network.
Why you should do it:
The more people you know, the more you learn, and the more opportunities you discover. Product management is not science, which means every person you talk to will have a different approach to the same problem ("How can I get relevant product management experience without being a PM?"). The more solutions you discover, the better the chances of you solving the problem for yourself.
You never know when one of your connections is looking for a new PM, and gets in touch with you because they enjoyed their last interaction with you.
It sounds better when Robert Kiyosaki says it:
How you should do it:
Add relevant people on LinkedIn. I am confident there is at least one person out there who has a background similar to yours and works for the company you aspire to work for. The goal is to find that person (or persons) and ask them how they did what you are now trying to do.
An easy way to find such people is to do a simple LinkedIn search that includes relevant keywords. For example, when I was applying for product management jobs during MBA, I would find relevant profiles by using a combination of keywords like "ISB product manager India", or "ISB product manager Amazon", or "engineering product manager India".
Once you find the relevant people, ensure you ask targeted questions. Most people are helpful, but there is a high chance they get multiple unsolicited messages every day. So keep your questions short and to the point. "How do I get into Facebook" type of questions will almost always not get you a response.
Volunteer and attend conferences. Attend networking events, webinars, seminars on subjects that you find interesting. Attending these events will help you do two things: learn about the topic and meet new people who you can call later for guidance. The lockdown has forced the world to make all events virtual, which means it is easier for you to attend events that you wouldn't have had acess to otherwise. Make the most of this opportunity.
Leverage AMA (ask me anything) sessions by asking targeted questions to the speaker. You will realize that other participants in these sessions are facing the same problems as you. Connect with such people and exchange ideas and best practices. The Product School Slack Community does regular AMAs with PMs from Google, FB, Uber, etc.
Ask for help
Why you should do it:
There are more people than you think who are willing to go out of their way to help. And most of them have a lot of expertise and experience through which you can learn. Hence, just straight up ask for help and guidance. This zen proverb summarizes the thought very well:
"It takes a wise man to learn from his mistakes, but even a wiser man to learn from others."
How you should do it:
Once you have an extensive network, identify people who have been doing for years what you aspire to do in the future. Or find people who are inclined to share their experience with others. And then ask for help.
Don't be shy or overthink the "asking for help". The worst that can happen is that the person rejects your proposal or chooses not to respond. In either case, you would have lost nothing more than a few minutes that you spent writing the message.
"Help", in this case could be something as specific as "how do I tackle a prioritization problem at work?" or something as general as "I am struggling with product management, can you help me understand what I can do better?"
Asking non-specific questions might sound contradictory to my previous advicec on messaging people on LinkedIn. But there is a vast difference in the two scenarios. In the first, you are seeking an answer to one (or maybe two) question. Whereas in the second scenario, you are aiming to start a longer-term relationship in which you learn about multiple topics over a period of time.
I genuinely hope that you found this post useful and that you will put these suggestions to practice ASAP. If you have "specific" questions or need "help" don't hesitate to write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay tuned for the next post in this series, in which I will talk about the skills needed for PMs and how you can acquire them.
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