How To Break Into: Product Management

Ah, product management. One-third of the holy trinity of fetishised buzzword job titles alongside ‘strategy’ and ‘growth’.

It’s this weird, nebulous role that sits at the intersection of engineering, design, and business, and in that sense, it’s a pretty cool opportunity to work across several domains and solve problems holistically.

Whilst it’s quite a popular path in tech powerhouses like the US, Australia’s product management pathways are still quite nascent and limited despite our growing tech landscape, and visibility around what the role actually entails and requires is quite low.

I encountered a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity in landing my upcoming role in product management, so I decided to pick the brains of two product managers with quite different backgrounds (both technical and non-technical) to give y’all a sharper understanding of the most important skills and experiences you need to break into your first product management role as a young person:

Clement Kao

Founder @ Product Manager HQ & Product Manager @ Blend

If you develop the following three core skills as a product manager, you’ll thrive even while tackling the monumental workload that comes with the role:

  1. Empathy and communication: Necessary because your job is fundamentally focused on filling the white space. You won’t know what space is most critical to fill unless you fully understand the customer, the business, and the development team. On top of that, you need to serve as the mediator between all three groups, which is why communication is so critical.

  2. Grit and speed of learning: Necessary because product management is inherently an infinite space. You need to have grit because you’re going to face difficult decisions every day, and you’ll face conflict from all three groups all of the time. You need to be convicted in your mission and your passion, and you need to be the spiritual cheerleader and representative for all three groups even when times are tough. You need to learn quickly because customers, businesses, and development teams are changing all of the time. New industry trends, new competitors, new technologies, and even new hires might completely change the way in which you work.

  3. Ruthless prioritisation: Necessary because product management is infinite. You have thousands of decisions to make every day. Should you send that message? If so, to who, and when, and how, and with what tone and content? Should you take this customer call? If so, what’s the objective? If not, how will you turn them down tactfully? If you can’t quickly identify the key factors that will make or break your company, you’ll drown from analysis paralysis, or you’ll be too overwhelmed with inbound work. You have to know when to decline work and when to delegate work - you can’t do it all yourself.

Additional Resources: Clement wrote a book on breaking into product management, called, you guessed it, Breaking into Product Management, which you can check out on Amazon.

Andrew Vo

Associate Product Manager @ Atlassian

From what I have seen, tech companies pattern-match on five key experiences:

  1. Leadership experience: Making a tangible impact as a leader.

  2. Technical or problem-solving experience: Could be anything that demonstrates experience solving complex problems, i.e. software engineering work experience, consulting, etc.

  3. Startup experience: Being in or running a startup.

  4. Personal projects: Blogs or apps released to users.

  5. Diverse experience across the product cycle: Business, design, VC, engineering, etc.

These experiences map to underlying traits/abilities that they are looking for: communication, leadership, product sense/passion, analytical/problem-solving ability, entrepreneurship mindset, passion for the user, design sense.

You don't have to have all of the above experiences, however, it's expected that you've experienced most at a reasonable level or some at depth. It isn't a good sign to a recruiter (or to be honest, if you're fit for being a product manager) if you haven't gone out of your way to pursue things.

Being a PM is a demanding role which is amplified when you're an intern or a graduate, because of your lack of experience. You will compensate with tenacity, passion, and curiosity.

Additional Resources: Andrew was featured on the UNSW CSESoc ‘What is Product Management’ podcast episode last year to explain a bit more about the field. He’s also written a full article on A Roadmap to PM for Students.

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