I go to a fair amount of product meetups here in the San Francisco tech scene. While awkwardly mingling over a bucket of Lagunitas, I often hear the same standard questions: “Where do you work? What do you do?”
If you ever go to product meetups, you’ll quickly learn that people there fall into two groups.
In group one, you have product people. They are the ones currently trying to figure out how to better prioritize their roadmap, spec out features, explain their product, deal with cranky customers, know when to hire, make better use of metrics, etc. Or they’re there for the free beer and to find a sympathetic soul who can relate to their product struggles.
The second group is comprised of those who want to be in product. Once they realize I’m in group one, a current “product person,” I almost always hear the following question, “How can I get into product?”
First, let me give you my credentials. I live in SF. I work in tech. I’m VP of Product at AdStage. I have glasses and a beard. I eat kale. I wear Allbirds. This means I’m highly qualified to give advice on becoming a product manager.
So, very often my first question is “Why? What do you imagine you’ll like about being in a product role?” People incorrectly assume product has all the power, and they WANT THE POWER. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you don’t.
The truth is, you often have limited formal power and must be constantly brokering a peace deal between conflicting groups. So first, I get that misconception out of the way. If they actually like the work that is done by a product person, then I give them some version of the advice I will share with you here. In fact, here’s a snapshot from an email conversation I recently had with someone I mentor, Jacob:
I started off in quality assurance and then moved into customer success doing both onboarding and account management. However, I have always been pulled towards the product side. I'm curious to hear how you transitioned to product as I would like that to be the next step in my career for this coming year.
Congrats on setting a concrete goal towards a product management career! I started in product before it was a popular discipline. At the time we didn’t have names for the multiple product roles. I just did what was needed to make the product successful. Looking back, I’d say I moved from sales to sales training to product training to product marketing -- and eventually into product management.
My advice to folks who don't yet have product experience is to learn and apply the skills you’ll need for product management while in your current role. Since the product role is so broad, you have many tasks to choose from. Ideally, you can go to someone on the product team and ask, “What are some of the things you never have time to get to? Would you mind if I helped out?”
If your product person doesn’t have any ideas just pick something that sounds interesting and helpful. You can do competitive research, mock a feature improvement, or have a customer session where you gather product feedback. If you're at a small company, you can usually just do these things and share your results. Ask for honest feedback and see if your work is any good. If it sucks, watch some YouTube videos on the topic and try again.
In rare cases, you may run into some office politics... “Why is Agnes from accounting talking to customers!” If that happens, stay humble, be honest, and ask them what they think would make for a better project.
Here’s an important caveat. If your role is currently in customer success (or engineering, or QA, or marketing), you have to make sure you’re still working hard to excel in that role. When I was a product trainer I taught salespeople about our digital products every day from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Then for the next two hours, when I was done with the commitments of my job, I made one-sheeters, training slides, and other product marketing materials.
I’d pass along feedback from the sales team, point out features that competitors had just released, and ask questions to understand the architecture and inner workings of the product. After a few months, the product manager asked me, “Do you want to move over to the product team full-time?” I never looked back.
So Jacob, pick one product task to do in the next week. Let me know what you chose, how it turned out, and what you learned.