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How to become a product manager

Transitioning into product is notoriously hard. I’ve had this conversation more than 20x, so I figured it was time to jot something more “official” down. While there’s a ton of different paths, I’m going to focus on the most common (and how I personally made the jump). 

Warning: while I make this seem like a step-by-step approach, I very much so stumbled into product management. But, like most things, we tend to apply a narrative looking backwards. So, here’s mine. 

#1 Find a company with a strong learning culture in hypergrowth stage

And if you’re not at one, find one. Most people I talk to prioritize finding an open product role rather than targeting the right company. I recommend the opposite because 1) It’s easier to transition internally than it is to land a product role with no prior experience and 2) this transition can take a long time, a few years even. Working at a place you love, whose mission and values you align with, means you’re more likely to be happy and work with great people who will move mountains to help you make the transition (and generally help you in your career). 

Some things to consider when targeting the right company:

  • Stage of company: earlier stage companies (series A/B) typically have you wear more hats so you might find it easier to flex informally into different roles, catering to a natural transition into product. A catch 22 is that sometimes if it’s too early (e.g. seed, early A), they’ll need you focused on what they hired you for and you’ll be too busy to take on other roles. Series B might be a sweet spot, but this will highly vary based on the company. For example, I started at HubSpot right after IPO, but I joined a scrappy team that operated more like a startup within the company which enabled me to work more closely with product, wear many hats, and contribute in ways that were outside of my job description. 

  • Industry: Some industries and products cater more to PMs with technical backgrounds and others have fewer product roles in general. For example, I’ve seen fewer product roles in climate tech than fintech and enterprise software. I’ve also seen platform B2B software and AI skew towards hiring folks with more technical backgrounds. Just keep in mind that your likelihood of pivoting might change depending on your background and the industry you’re targeting. 

  • Culture: I think this is the hardest thing to filter for because it’s the least concrete. Look at glassdoor reviews and talk to people who have actually worked there to get better insight outside of the fairly generic careers page. Here are some questions to ask: 

    • [If not on careers page] What are the values and/or principles of the company? How are they used in the decision making process? Can you give any examples?

    • How do you make decisions on X team? How are general company priorities and decisions made? 

    • What does growth and career development look like here?

    • How would you describe the company culture? Can you give some examples of that in practice? 

  • Role: I don’t want to undersell the importance of role. There are certainly roles that will cater more naturally to working closely with product teams that could increase your likelihood of building strong relationships and then making the transition (e.g. consumer research, growth marketing, customer support). That said, there are ways to develop these relationships in roles that operate more tangentially to tech (e.g. sales), you just might have to work harder at it and get more creative. 

It can be helpful to look at job boards or portfolio announcements from reputable VCs for your search. Here are some that I’ve referenced in the past: 

Some filters to look for to evaluate if there will be strong internal mobility:

  • Lots of open roles generally

  • Lots of open tech roles specifically (e.g. engineering, product design, UXR, pm) 

  • Look through the profiles of employees – see if you can find more than a handful that transitioned between roles internally

I can’t understate the importance of this step. The single most impactful decision of my career was to join HubSpot – a company that met this criteria and that’s been consistently reviewed #1-2 best companies to work for. I chose this over opportunities with higher pay and in roles that aligned more closely with my longer-term interests. 

#2 Be curious and drive impact 

Once you find the right company, you need to crush it in whatever role you’re hired for. Be useful, drive impact, raise your hand for side projects, ask questions. Be curious. 

Start here vs. jumping straight into networking with product folks internally. You need to prove yourself and develop a strong reputation before you do anything else. 

I was working as a growth marketer when I started at HubSpot and constantly poked at our data, asked questions, and bugged the product team with ideas for how we could improve XYZ based on what I saw in the data. I built trust and confidence through the quality of my work before anyone advocated for me.

#3 Find side projects, network internally, and hustle

Once you’ve established a track record of success within your current role, start setting up coffee chats with product folks internally. Ask them how they transitioned. Ask them for advice. Ask them if they have any projects where they could really use an extra hand. Ask if you can shadow them. If you’re rejected at first, ask again. Keep asking. Fortune favors the persistent. 

Another path: create your own side project. Identify a problem or opportunity area within the product/market, do your homework, and find ways to socialize this with the product team to get buy in. Here’s an example of a problem brief we use at Ro. Bonus points for using data and opportunity sizing the problem area! 

Most importantly, be patient. This part is an imperfect, unpredictable combination of luck (being in the right place at the right time) and hustle. For me, it took almost 2.5 years of working at HubSpot before Nicholas Holland, a GM who I had established a strong working relationship with, raised his hand to advocate for me. I was in the right place (Dublin) at the right time (product role opened up). I interviewed for it, and thanks to the wonderful coaching of Síle Brehony, I got the role and began my career in product. 

Be patient and have faith in yourself. Progress is like cold honey. It drips slowly, and then, when you’re not paying attention, comes out all at once. 

If you’re looking to transition, let me know. I’d love to see how I can help. I wouldn't be in product today if it weren't for mentors like Nicholas and Síle, and I'm always happy to pay it forward.

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