As product innovations continue to fuel the success of some of the world’s fastest-growing companies, product management is an increasingly popular career choice for those looking to make a splash in the technology space.
With 7% of Harvard Business School graduates landing a job in Product and the popularity of product-focused university courses reaching an all-time high, competition between candidates is fierce. That said, if this is a road you’d like to go down, you’ll be happy to hear that there are a number of alternative pathways that can help you get your foot in the door without any product-specific experience.
What’s more, the world’s increased reliance on digital products following the pandemic means the demand for smart and driven individuals who have a natural flair for product management is on the rise and big tech companies will pay you handsomely if you can prove that you’ve got what it takes. While we don’t want to encourage showboating, saying “I work in Product” is pretty cool and will give you major street cred at your next dinner party…
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at how to get into product management with no experience as we take a deep dive into the character traits of a successful Product Manager and use real-life examples to shine a light on the unique career pathways of some of the industry’s finest minds.
Personality Traits of A Successful Product Manager
Before we explore how to get into product management, let’s start by taking some time to see whether a career in Product is right for you.
Although product management is very competitive, if you’ve been blessed with a certain set of personality traits and you’re not afraid to work hard to get to where you want to be, choosing a career in product management could take you on an exciting and prosperous journey.
So, what are the telltale signs of a product management extraordinaire in the making?
The best Product Managers are…visionary.
The ability to think outside the box and approach long-standing challenges from an alternative perspective is an absolutely integral part of product management. As is the case with almost any job that involves some element of design and creativity, one-dimensional thinking won’t get you very far. The best Product Managers will exercise critical thinking to develop unique solutions that improve people’s lives in a way that others couldn’t have imagined.
For example, if we look at the early days of Google (formerly BackRub), the fresh-faced tech firm was by no means the first to launch a search engine. Before BackRub hit our screens in 1996, the internet was home to Archie 1990, Lycos and Infoseek in 1994, and Excite in 1995. Despite all of these companies sharing a mutual interest in organising the internet, only one would evolve into a multi-billion-dollar empire that gave us Google Maps, Gmail, Chrome and even cute cat videos .
The key differentiator between BackRub and its rival search engines was the company’s obsession with sorting the world’s information by relevance. This breakthrough idea continues to form the backbone of Google’s flywheel business model and lays the foundations for an entire ecosystem of breakthrough product innovations that push technical barriers. Like Google, successful Product Managers are those who aren’t afraid to question the way things are done and exercise visionary thinking to pave the way.
The best Product Managers are……empathetic.
Ultimately, product management is all about building products that improve people’s lives. Therefore, the ability to understand how people feel about a certain situation and how a product innovation could help change these emotions is fundamental.
Take Airbnb, for example. When the company was starting out, the real challenge wasn’t a matter of creating a platform that connects holidaymakers with homeowners, but rather to create a platform that provides a sense of safety, financial empowerment, flexibility and human connection for all involved.
While Airbnb was also innovative from a technical perspective, the Product Managers responsible for its wildfire success were experts in marrying an understanding of technology with an understanding of people. If we look at the challenge of convincing hosts to welcome strangers into their homes (and vice versa), Airbnb’s Product Managers needed to understand how this might make a host feel and develop products that would address these emotional needs .
Empathy is also an important trait for a leader. If you’re managing teams of people, you need to understand what makes them tick and be able to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ to understand how you can enrich their lives.
To get a better idea of why having a strong sense of empathy and a natural ability to build human connections are important traits for Product Managers, check out this short video from the VP of Product at accuRx, Benji Portwin. He explains how those who enjoy interacting with other people and leave a lasting impression when they enter the room at a house party are likely to have a natural flair for product management.
The best Product Managers are……strategic.
Product innovations play an important role in the long-term strategic trajectory of a business. As we’ve seen with Apple’s ‘iPhone moment’, Amazon’s Prime service, Facebook’s rebrand to ‘Meta’ and Google’s acquisition of the smart home brand, Nest — all technology businesses rely on product innovations to remain competitive and cutting-edge.
Having both the imagination and foresight to identify how a product innovation could help an organisation move towards a long-term goal is an extremely valuable trait for product management.
If we take the example of Facebook’s evolution (a business that has shifted from a social media website to a ‘metaverse’), it’s easy to look back in retrospect at how product innovations like Messenger, Marketplace, Instagram and Oculus played a role in getting the company from point A to point Z.
However, as we all know, hindsight is a wonderful thing. If we take the reverse approach and put ourselves in Zuckerberg’s shoes all those years ago, many of us would have thought he was mad for making the decisions he made. His foresight to predict how certain innovations would contribute to the long-term strategic success of Facebook is extremely rare and extremely powerful. Product Managers who can combine innovation with strategic direction have the potential to shape the future and stay one step ahead of the competition.
The best Product Managers are……problem-solvers.
The best Product Managers are born problem-solvers. If you’re someone who enjoys critical thinking and won’t rest until you’ve overcome a challenge, Product could be for you.
While many people see problems as barriers, a Product Manager’s job is to view a problem as an opportunity to do something that others can’t. As the tech entrepreneur and YouTube sensation Casey Neistat put it in this four-minute video: “do what you can’t”.
The best Product Managers are…strong communicators.
Managing a group of people and unifying them to work towards a common goal requires strong communication skills. Explaining your vision to key decision-makers is an absolutely vital skill for Product Managers if they are to earn the support of senior managers and receive funding for their ideas.
What’s more, communication skills also play an integral role in the process of developing products that end-users understand how to use. There’s no point in creating an amazing product if it’s too complicated or abstract for your target audience.
If we take Steve Jobs for example (one of the greatest Product minds of all time), he famously announced that his high-tech products would not come with an instruction manual. While at the time, everything from a simple electric kettle to a bedside alarm clock would come with a hefty instruction manual to walk you through their not-so-intricate workings, Jobs was confident that Apple could communicate the functionality of its products such that users could take an iPhone or iPad out of its box and begin using it intuitively.
Owing to the team-orientated nature of the product development process, the best leaders will be confident speakers who can effectively orchestrate group presentations to ensure everyone is working towards the same goal. Standup meetings where Product Owners check in on the progress of ongoing projects and retrospective meetings where they reflect on the delivery of completed projects all require a Product Manager who can effectively ‘rally the troops’ and communicate clear team objectives.
It is this ability to communicate, both to internal team members and to end-users, that separates great Product Managers from good Product Managers.
The best Product Managers are……confident.
If you’re someone who crumbles under pressure, maybe product management isn’t for you. The day-to-day responsibilities of a Product Manager involve making confident and decisive decisions that might not necessarily be the most popular option among your colleagues.
In almost any product development process, there will be people who challenge your decisions and question your direction. While this friction is absolutely vital to ensure you’re asking the right questions and thinking critically about your decisions, leading with confidence and believing in your vision is even more important. Product Managers who back down at the first sign of resistance or shy away from fighting their corner of the ring won’t last long.
The fact is, people won’t always believe in your vision so it is your job to instil confidence in your team and earn the confidence of senior decision-makers to convince them that your vision for progress aligns with their strategic objectives.
Remember — the best leaders lead through influence, not authority. The way you communicate with people and bond with them on a human level is critical to getting the best out of the people around you.
The best Product Managers are…detail-oriented.
As I’m sure everyone reading this will agree, using bug-filled apps or broken websites is infuriating. Whether you’re trying to order a new pair of jeans or book a hotel, small technical issues or lazy mistakes in a product can result in an extremely unsatisfactory user experience that leaves you pulling your hair out.
With this in mind, the best Product Managers are sticklers for detail. Nothing (be it a spelling mistake or a line of dodgy code) gets past them.
If a Product Manager continually releases a product that’s filled with errors and delivers a sub-par user experience, their dreams of climbing the product management ranks and working at a top company will be short-lived. The best Product Managers aren’t afraid to pick up their red marker pen and push their team to deliver watertight products that promote customer advocacy and customer loyalty.
Finding individuals who can marry creativity with precise attention to detail is rare. If you possess both of these skills, product management could be your calling.
Pathways to Product
If you think you tick the above boxes and have what it takes to make it as a Product Manager, it’s time to start thinking about what routes you could take into this exciting corner of the tech world.
While many career trajectories have prescribed pathways that require you to jump through a series of hoops and provide a step-by-step guide to get from point A to point B, Product is unique in that there are a number of different ways to get your foot in the door.
Unlike disciplines like DevOps, accounting or data analysis that require a very specific set of technical skills, a career in Product presents opportunities for individuals with a wide spectrum of talents and interests to excel. Namely, Product Managers often find their way into Product through a chain of events and decisions, as opposed to setting out on a streamlined mission to become a Product Manager from the outset.
So, what are the different routes into product management for people who don’t have product-specific skills? To find out, we took to LinkedIn to ask our network of Product Managers about their Product stories and to reveal how these industry leaders got to where they are today.
Everyone who replied had an entirely unique story and a rollercoaster of twists and turns that helped them build a career that was perfectly tailored to their individual skills. Using real-life examples from our LinkedIn respondents, here are a selection of some of the best ways to get into product management without product-specific experience.
Internal Transfer At Your Existing Employer
An internal transfer is the most common route into Product. Lots of people who end up in product-related roles, don’t realise they are interested in Product until they’ve had first-hand experiences of working in a business, seeing how everything works, understanding what makes them tick, and working with colleagues across a number of different teams.
However, once they’ve got a taste for Product and compared it to the kind of work they’re doing in their existing role, employees pivoting into Product is an increasingly popular trend among tech companies.
Specifically, there are two main disciplines where internal transfers into Product are particularly common:
Ultimately, good product management is all about understanding the customer. As Steve Jobs once said: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology – not the other way around.”
With this in mind, pivoting from Customer Success to Product is a fairly natural step in many instances as employees are able to channel their deep knowledge of customers (accumulated through their work in Customer Success) into valuable insights that can be used to develop highly-desirable and high-usable product innovations.
If you’re able to demonstrate how your existing knowledge could be applied more effectively in a different capacity, good employers will recognise this potential and consider you for fast-track routes into the Product team if/when an opportunity presents itself.
Real-Life Example: Internal Transfer via Customer Success
Jennifer Rose , Product Director at accuRx
Similarly to Customer Success, Sales is another popular internal transfer pathway and, arguably, the easiest route into Product.
With sales teams spending their days convincing customers about why they should part with their hard-earned cash to buy a product, it’s only natural that salespeople understand the emotional drivers behind purchasing decisions. Again, the ability to channel this customer knowledge into a more product-specific role can provide a smooth transition from Sales into Product.
The important thing is to be aware of how your existing skills could be complementary to a Product team and to be vocal to your employer about your career ambitions when you identify a potential opportunity on the horizon.
Real-Life Example: Internal Transfer via Sales
Benji Portwin , VP Product at accuRx
Want to hear more about Benji’s Product story and get your hands on insider tips for aspiring Product Managers? Check out this podcast where he shares his secrets to success in the Product world.
Direct Application Into a Junior Product Management Role
A common approach for MBA students or recent business school grads who want to make a beeline for Product is to enrol on a junior product management programme. Namely, Rotational Product management (RPM) programmes are a popular choice for those who want to fast-track their route into Product.
Despite being extremely competitive, pathways like Facebook’s RPM Programme , Google’s Associate Product Manager (APM) Programme or Amazon’s Business Internships for Students Scheme are the perfect springboards for ambitious grads looking to dive into the deep end.
To learn more about direct application routes into Big Tech firms from a non-technical background, you might enjoy this free guide.
Real-Life Example: Direct Application via RPM Programme
David Zuo , Product Manager at Zynga
Real-Life Example of Direct Application via RPM Programme
Dianthe van Velzen , Product Manager at Facebook
If you want to hear more about interesting Product journeys and take an even deeper dive into the various career pathways for aspiring Product Managers, check out this video from Colors of Chloe . In just 15-minutes, Chloe explains how she and her friends “swindled” their way into highly-competitive product management roles at the likes of Google, Twitch, EA, and TikTok.
The Startup Hustle Approach
While it’s certainly not the easiest way to get into Product, some of the world’s most successful Product Managers hustled their way into a senior Product position by grafting in intense startup environments.
Whether it’s starting your own business from scratch or finding an ‘in’ with founders in the nascent stages of a business’ growth, demonstrating your ability to work across multiple domains, solve problems, manage people and understand your audience will set you up for success. Better still, if you can contribute to the growth of the business so that it gets to a size where a formal product management position is required, you’ll be at the top of the list when it comes to hiring for that role.
Alternatively, if you play a major part in a startup that is subsequently acquired by a larger organisation, you will be well-placed to transition into a formal product management role — opening the floodgates to a plethora of career opportunities.
Real-Life Example: Hustle via Early-Stage Startup Internship
Stuart Pittman , Product manager at accuRx
Real-Life Example: Hustle via Building a Startup
Milo Spencer-Harper , Product Manager at Facebook
Real-Life Example: Hustle via a Failed Startup
Oliver McQuitty , Head of Product at HURR
Accelerate Your Pathway into Product
After delivering our Product Bootcamp at the likes of the University of Cambridge Judge Business School , the University of Oxford Saïd Business School and HEC Paris , our team of Product coaches are on a mission to help more and more young people land a job in product management.
In just two hours, we’ll take you on an intense deep dive into the inner workings of project management and equip you with a toolbox of practical tips and tricks that will give you a winning edge in job applications.
Meet Exactimo’s Product Coaches
Benji Portwin , VP Product at accuRx
Benji is a product management maestro with an impressive track record of building visionary products for the likes of the NHS, Monzo, and Spotify. He’s a straight-talker with a wealth of knowledge up his sleeve. You can get a taste of Benji’s unique style by listening to this podcast.
Jennifer Rose , Product Director at accuRx
Jennifer and her team were responsible for building a rapid vaccine booking solution that has processed over a third of all vaccine bookings in the UK and has recently been recognised as one of the 20 Women in Software 2021 Power List winners.