How to Become a Product Manager (No Experience Needed)
Product managers shape the life cycle of the products we use — from their first proposal to their last stop with the consumer. Therefore, product management typically requires a deep understanding of a product’s mission and marketplace. Product management is fast-paced and driven by those who are organized, diligent, and innovative.
Curious about job opportunities in product management? In this article, we will cover five primary steps to becoming a product manager:
Understand Key Skills
Obtain an Education
Test Your Skills
Before detailing these steps, however, let’s examine the basic responsibilities of a product manager.
What Does a Product Manager Do?
At a high level, product managers oversee the creation and distribution of new products; facilitating their full life cycle and keeping internal development processes focused and efficient. Managers also aid in market analytics efforts, establishing key insights that inform how future products may be developed and released.
5 Steps to Becoming a Product Manager (Even Without Experience)
Whether you’re making a career change or striving to break into the industry for the first time, the path to becoming a product manager can be successfully navigated if approached properly.
The following are a few key steps to consider along your product management journey:
1. Understanding Key Skills
In order to find success in the field, aspiring product managers must first understand the key skills that consistently define success in the role. Product managers work in a unique space — one that blends aspects of IT, engineering, marketing, sales, finance, logistics, and public relations.
Managers must be comfortable communicating with teams in each of the above fields, as they will likely be corralling multiple plans and perspectives into one complete vision. This usually requires a number of cross-industry soft skills, including critical thinking, organization, attention to detail, prioritization, listening prowess, and self-motivation.
A graphic representing the six main soft skills every product manager needs.
Additionally, communication is key in product management — particularly with product stakeholders. For example, the Harvard Business Review details how product managers should hone emotional intelligence, or emotional quotient (EQ), as a core competency since it plays such a vital role in managing relationships with product stakeholders, anticipating concerns, and driving a product’s vision to fruition. Specifically, a high EQ allows managers to empathize with the various workers responsible for a product’s development and launch which, in turn, helps build lasting relationships between teams and foster a culture of transparency and trust.
Possessing these soft skills is a great starting point for new product managers. Necessary hard skills, however, will depend on the industry for which managers will be building products. In tech, for instance, product managers must be comfortable working with Agile methodologies of development (including the Scrum framework), performing A/B testing, and conducting market research. The latter could require writing database queries with SQL, a specific language for working with databases. Meanwhile, such technical skills may not be as necessary for managing the development of products like retail clothing or consumer packaged goods, such as beverages or paper goods.
Further, product managers must develop a deep analytical knowledge of their business and the market. They must be tuned into consumer needs and desires to create a product that will stand out in a crowded market. Without this valuable insight, product teams may lose touch with market trends, inadvertently develop obsolete or otherwise dated products, and ultimately fall behind their competitors.
2. Obtain an Education
There are a variety of viable educational pathways for those interested in product management. Common pathways include bootcamp programs, traditional degrees, and self-guided options. Below is a brief outline of each:
Bootcamps like The Product Management Boot Camp at Texas McCombs offer a concentrated curriculum designed to help aspiring product managers start their journey. In this specific program, students learn concepts like the Agile Manifesto — which has become the basis for software development — and the methods and frameworks used to make products using that principle. Students also learn the most common tools used in Agile product management.
Further, bootcamps cover the essentials of product management, often including market analysis, product prototyping, and business model development. These programs also typically cover in-demand skills such as roadmap development, writing user stories, sprint planning and execution, and product life cycle management. And, since many programs are conducted online, students have the chance to learn in a flexible, personalized capacity.
Another approach to consider is a traditional degree applicable to product management. Many product managers arrive at their positions with a degree — often in computer science, business, or marketing. These programs allow learners to gain comprehensive knowledge in both product management and the broader fields that often encapsulate such positions. What’s more, degree programs are rich, gradual experiences offering a communal learning environment.
Aspiring product managers may also find success learning in a self-guided capacity. Options such as free online courses and educational apps offer the chance to learn industry fundamentals in a flexible, unstructured manner. This pathway may be ideal for those looking for more autonomy and freedom in navigating product management skill building. It can theoretically conform to any schedule or level of weekly commitment.
3. Test Your Skills
After gaining an education in the field, new product managers should strive to hone their freshly acquired skills, and a great way to achieve this is to take on projects.
For those just getting started, many practical educational pathways, like this product management bootcamp, offer the chance to complete industry-related projects simulating real-world experience. These projects can also lay the foundation for a comprehensive project portfolio, which can be referenced during subsequent job interviews.
Meanwhile, those with existing product management jobs might consider seeking applicable project opportunities within their current employer They may, for example, volunteer to join a product team or take the lead in solving a particular issue with a product in development. By undertaking these initiatives, professionals can demonstrate their problem-solving and leadership skills, opening up opportunities in product management where they’re currently employed.
4. Gain Certification
Though not every company requires them, product management certificates can be strong resume builders; offering proof of knowledge to potential employers. As with other fields, the product management industry contains several different, notable certifications. The Association of International Product Marketing & Management (AIPMM), for example, offers a general Certified Product Manager™ credential, as well as certificates in digital product management, brand management, and product marketing.
5. Seek Employment
After you have compiled relevant skills and training, you will be ready to explore the job market. Although this can seem like a daunting task at first, here a few tips to get started:
If applicable, source jobs in which you already have product or subject-matter expertise. For example, if you are already employed within the grocery retail business, consider looking for opportunities to help your employer develop private label products. Or, if you are working for a digital content provider, consider asking to be involved in their next app development starting with requirements gathering.
Put together a strong resume that highlights your successes and experiences. Be sure to highlight examples of team leadership, problem solving, cross-functional aptitude, and adaptability as well as your relevant education, past jobs, and any certifications or other supplementary documents reflecting applicable experience. You can also consult with a resume writing expert if needed.
Build a professional portfolio that showcases the projects on which you have worked. These projects may have been completed during an educational experience, in a past role, or on your own. Regardless of the context, consider referencing any project that frames your ability to handle common product management responsibilities.
Establish a strong professional network to potentially gain information on available job opportunities. For example, past co-workers may be able to provide insight into job openings communicated by their own professional connections. Digital networking platforms like LinkedIn can also be helpful to keep you in the loop.
Prioritize interview preparation. Learn as much as you can about the company in question, be prepared to ask questions, and enter the interview with confidence in your prior training and growing expertise. It can only help to demonstrate fundamental knowledge of the company where you intend to work.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Product Manager?
Product management usually isn’t considered an entry-level position, though such opportunities do exist. Often, product managers find their roles after gaining experience with many elements of business and technology; becoming familiar with product lines and industries while finely honing their leadership and relational skills.
In many cases, the time spent becoming a product manager relates to the educational path taken. For example, product management boot camps can offer a comparatively accelerated means of getting started in product management, while traditional degrees are typically more gradual in their progression and timing. Regardless of the chosen pathway, it is important that aspiring product managers remain patient and focused on their long-term professional goals.