This article was originally featured in PM Insider, a leading Product Management publication run by Alpha HQ.
As Preston Smalley pointed out in this article, there are as many pathways to Product Management as there are career stories.
A former classroom teacher turned Product Manager I’ll be sharing my story and 5 steps you can take to land your ideal PM role if you’re coming from a non-tech and non-design background.
1. Analyze Your Career And Personality DNA
At first glance, my path into Product Management simply follows Preston’s outline:
M.A. in Romance Studies (French), LMU — University of Munich, Germany
Marketing experience across the public and private sectors while in college
Language Teaching career (German) in France (university) and the UK (private school) and private tutoring experience via a well-known online tutoring platform
Marketing Manager at a private tutoring agency in London
Product Manager, overseeing the delivery of their bespoke, bilingual tutoring platform to streamline business processes and enhance the customer experience
Although “speaking” is what comes to mind when we think “Languages & Linguistics”, there is a lot of mathematical logic happening in the background.
Ever since my university days, I have particularly enjoyed the grammar part of studying French, which, when it comes to French, falls under “creative problem-solving” in and of itself.
To me, creative problem-solving is what Product Management is all about. Building a product is as mathematical as it is creative: Scenarios are mathematical statements and hypotheses (“If this then that”), each User Story is a subcategory of a specific Epic. Analytical and creative thinking skills are equally as important.
Building a product is as mathematical as it is creative: Scenarios are mathematical statements and hypotheses (“If this then that”), each User Story is a subcategory of a specific Epic. Analytical and creative thinking skills are equally as important.
As you can see, it’s not just about your job title — it’s about your personality, your upbringing, the underlying interest and all the strengths that make you ‘you’. ‘Analytical thinking’ is not listed under “achievements” on my resume. The ‘ability to combine linear and fragmented thinking’ is not listed under “credits” on my diploma, yet these underlying strengths have been fueling my career all along.
Being grounded in who you are will help you understand and explain your interest in Product Management, which will make you stand out and help you find the perfect PM role and the right employer for you.
List all the components that make up your career trajectory and all your relevant personality traits. Connect 2–3 of them to Product Management.
Example: Marketing experience helps articulate features and benefits in order to define the product-market fit.
Note: If you’re a Creative/Liberal Arts Major struggling to define your career DNA I encourage you to read this article by career coach Laura Simms.)
2. Position Yourself As An Industry Expert
As you can see from my example, I offer a blend of language study, classroom teaching, private tutoring, and marketing experience. Therefore, stepping into an EdTech PM role to build a platform localized in English and Russian has been a natural career progression for me.
The industry knowledge you bring to the table is your value proposition — combined with empathy it will make you relevant for the right company, even if you do not have PM experience yet.
Write down any industry knowledge you have and research companies (small businesses, startups, corporations) that could use those insights, be it FinTech, EdTech, Manufacturing, Retail, E-Commerce, Hospitality — you name it!
Note: If you are a recent graduate/still in college, your area of studies, internships, projects, and entrepreneurial pursuits are your areas of expertise!
3. Monitor Your Favorite Brands
During my university years, I used to participate in market research focus groups on a wide range of products and services across a variety of industries. From magazines to yoghurts, from mobile operators to soap operas: Weighing in on the product lines of well-known brands, such as Danone or O2, allowed me to gain a first glimpse into Product Management from one of the most important perspectives for a PM — that as a customer, and to practice the most important skill for any PM — empathy.
To this day, I fill out feedback forms whenever a business wants my opinion and monitor digital products from a user perspective:
“TransferWise app has an improved UI — Noted!”
“The hotel I stayed at on my last business trip has launched a new app — Let me check it out!”
“Eventbrite customer support does XYZ for their customers — Noted!”
Even if you don’t have any idea of the Design and Engineering aspects of Product Management –- if you practice empathy you will have plenty of examples and even case studies to mention in the interviews and, more importantly, you’ll be showcasing your ability to put yourself in the customer’s shoes.
Pick 5 websites, apps or favorite brands, follow them on social media and keep a log of new functionalities and product development trends. Ask yourself what you would differently and what area of improvements you see as a consumer.
4. Define Your Ideal PM Entry Role
In my role as an in-house PM at a small business, I have sourced a full-service design and development agency to liaise with.
In this case, the agency’s Project Manager tracks the timeline and the budget, co-writes scenarios/user stories, liaises with the UX designers and developers and advises the in-house Product Manager.
The in-house PM, on the other hand, oversees the product delivery on the whole, including:
planning the overall big-picture strategy and budgeting;
liaising with internal stakeholders;
aligning business requirements with customer needs;
defining the initial product-market fit;
co-translating product specifications into user stories, prioritizing features in liaison with the agency’s Project Manager, UX/UI designers, and Software Engineers;
If you’re coming from a generalist Project Management background, are detail-oriented and enjoy the variety that comes with working across different industries, Project Manager might be the perfect entry role to apply transferable skills and transition into a Product Management role over time.
On the other hand, if you already have specialist expertise in a particular industry and enjoy ‘big picture’ roles, a Product Manager role will allow you to apply your specialist knowledge from the outset.
For your entry role, decide whether you want to start out as a Product Manager (strategy and big picture) or Project Manager (detail-oriented execution) and research suitable agencies and/or companies.
5. Educate Yourself On All Levels
Product Managers are considered to be generalists, yet a lot of businesses prefer to hire specialists with a background in UX Design or Software Engineering to ensure the new hire is ‘fluent’ in design or tech.
However, there is more to a viable product than tech and design: Sales and Marketing, Customer Service, Growth and Business Development all influence the UX. As a PM, you have to educate yourself both on a micro level — i.e. UX, Design, Software Engineering — , and macro level, i.e. Business Development, Marketing, Sales, Customer Service, Growth. It is only by connecting the dots between all those components that you can shape a viable Product.
Book Tip: “Entering StartupLand” by Jeffrey Bussgang (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017) offers an in-depth overview of all the business aspects described above — highly recommended, even if you don’t want to work at a startup.