How to Become a Product Manager? 3 Tips From PMs + John Fontenot’s Path to Product
The internet is rife with advice on how to become a Product Manager – often written by people who have never worked as a Product Manager themselves. We’ve decided to go against the grain and compile a list of tips on how to break into the product management career by experienced PMs + feature the story of John Fontenot – a sales-guy-turned-Product Manager – who is now working on building the first Bootcamp for aspiring PMs – Path2Product.
So if you’re looking to switch careers and become a PM – you will for sure find some insights in this blog.
- Why is breaking into the Product Management career path difficult?
- Tips for becoming a Product Manager
- John Fontenot’s Path to Product
Why is breaking into the Product Management career path so difficult?
Becoming a PM is not an easy task as it’s a fairly new career path and there are no specific degrees for PMs. Product Managers come from all walks of life – engineering, QA, marketing, sales…
Moreover, the Product Manager role sits at the intersection of many traditional departments and calls for a versatile skillset: from a general understanding of business and unit economics, through coding, UX design, consumer psychology…
Taking courses in all the relevant fields may not be the best way to land a PM job though. Most commonly – employers look for experience when hiring PMs.
But how to gain it if you’ve just decided to move into the field?
Here are some tips from experienced PMs!
How to Become a Product Manager Tip #1: Start from a Programming/ QA Job
One of Product Manager’s basic responsibilities (or Product Owner’s – if your work in a larger organisation) is translating the market requirements into a product roadmap – and creating stories, epics and tasks for the development team.
And if you want to manage the development team effectively, you need to understand how they think and work.
So having experience in a programming job is invaluable for a Product Manager.
“Product managers who know how to write code are a rare breed, and are in extremely high demand…because they’re better able to lead the developers who will build their products.“
Martin Gouldsbrough – Senior Digital Product Manager at Barclays UK, told us:
“I started out as a web developer taking crap requirements, sought out a role as a junior product specialist. That was 10 years ago, I now work as a senior digital PO looking after a platform for a bank.”
Eric DeVries also started in an engineering role:
“After 11 years as a software developer/engineer, the military put me in the role of a “Technical Engineering Manager”, because of my background and ability to define/describe requirements to developers, collaborate with Stakeholders while advocating for the end-user. I grew into the role without knowing it was a specialty.”
How to Become a Product Manager Tip #2: Find any Job in a Product Company and Show Initiative
If you can’t or don’t want to learn to program, there are plenty of other paths you can take to land your dream Product Manager job.
But first: it will be much easier if you join a product company.
Raquel Stark – VP of Data Solutions at AccuData Integrated Marketing told us:
“I work for a marketing company that was very data-focused for direct mail and offer a variety of tools to access…I started in customer service and sales, and just became an SME from experience so becoming our PM was a natural fit!”
According to Sanket Totewar, Product Ambassador at AIPMM, the best roles to have if you want to break into the Product Management field are UX designer, and Quality Analyst (QA).
Working in your product team especially is a great way to progress to a Product Management role. Internal promotions are still the easiest path to entering a product career.
For instance: you can progress from a general marketer to a Product Marketing Manager and then – to a Product Management role.
When doing your sales, marketing or customer success job in a product company, go the extra mile and show your interest in and understanding of the product:
- regardless of your role, regularly talk to your customers, understand their problems and how your product solves them; ask them about their experience with your product;
- become your product’s user;
- suggest improvements to your product you note in these meetings to your product team;
- regularly talk to your product team, make friends and hang out with them;
- learn about UX design and consumer psychology;
- don’t be afraid to express criticism and show your critical thinking skills, like Andrea Saez, Product Growth at ProdPad :
“I asked my CEO at the time why they had two products that did the same thing, when it was clearly causing them tech debt and wasting money. 3 years on that project and no one had questioned him before that. He stood up, shut down the project, and made me ‘decision maker’”
…or to be bold, like Paula Bâlea, Product Manager at Nobel Ltd:
“I was a pricing specialist and kept asking questions and looking at things everyone ignored. This lead to extra tasks and responsibilities, unrelated to pricing.
At some point, pricing tasks took less than 50% of my time, so I took the courage to say “I think you should call me a Product Manager”. And they did! 😁”
Sujud Ganda Saputra – Product Manager Associate at mClinica told us:
“I started as junior developer for only 6 months with IT background and I found that I didn’t like to sit and write code. Then, I found my pace and interest in Business Analyst for 4 years which communicates a lot with stakeholders to solve their problem. I found myself that I like to communicate and solve the problems that my users had using waterfall methodology. Also, as a BA, I did query with SQL as well. After several years, I finally become an Associate PM. And I think BA it’s a good start if someone wants to drive their career path to become a PM.”
Michael Mauer – Head of Product Management @medavis & Product Leader
“Looking back it was kind of luck. As junior PM I had no clue what to do. I got in the role since I was always trying to go further. As a requirement engineer, I spent time with the developers and of course the customers. I brought in the values I knew from writing the specs (what are the benefits for the customer and what problems will be solved with the software) to marketing and sales afterward and tried to bring the products into the market. With my commercial background, I was able to work deeper with sales when it came to pricing and forecasts and with my software knowledge, I could support them in demos and on trade fairs. At this time my boss came to me and meant what I was doing is clearly PM and that s where I belong. He was also one of my great mentors at this time which was really great. And meanwhile more than 20 years of my career in product management have passed.”
How to Become a Product Manager Tip #3: Gain Startup Experience or Build Your Own Product
Showing your potential in the startup world is the easiest way to break into any career. Bootstrapped startups, which usually have very limited resources, will often take enthusiasm and willingness to learn over experience (which comes at a price). You can e.g. offer to work for them for equity part-time on top of your day job.
This is also true for Product Management.
If you choose this path to a career in Product “show that you can identify and then solve problems. Startup experience was where I learned these two skills.” – said Jack Gandolfo – a PM at willistowerswatson.com, currently also building an app in the food and delivery space.
Now that we have discussed these three paths to a product career, let’s look at yet another option – a PM bootcamp – inspired by John Fontenot’s personal career story!
John Fontenot’s Path to Product
It was 2016, and I was working as a contract employee for Intel’s Software Group. My role as a Software Partnerships Manager was an incredible learning experience. It’s also where I first discovered the role of a Product Manager. As we worked with software companies around the world, I experienced first-hand what Product Managers did, what they cared about, how they prioritized their work, and how they were in the middle of every part of their business. I was hooked.
It would be another year before I gave the career change serious thought, but I spent that year learning all I could about the role of a Product Manager so I could relate better to the key stakeholders I worked with at these companies. And by 2017, I thought I was ready to take that next step in my career. Little did I know, job-seeking can be an unforgiving game.
After many rejected applications, I started asking around to try and understand why I couldn’t even land an interview. The feedback was consistent. I didn’t have experience in Product Management, and the reputation of my employer made it seem as if my background was more sales-oriented than product-focused. But one recruiter gave me some solid advice that changed my career trajectory.
“It’s next to impossible to change industries AND roles at the same time. Pick one and go from there” the recruiter said.
And that’s what I did. Since my background (or at least my resume) screamed “sales”, I decided to go after a sales role at a software company. At least I’d be in the right industry, and I could figure things out from there. That’s when I got the opportunity to join SwipeClock, a leader in HRMS software for SMBs.
As fate would have it, I was fortunate enough to run into one of SwipeClock’s Sr. Product Managers a couple of weeks into the job. Out of character, I walked up to him, shook his hand, and told him that I was interested in Product and wanted to get coffee with him to hear more about what he did. Bill, the Sr. PM, had a heart for helping Aspiring PMs and took me up on my offer.
Here’s where I have to back up a bit. It was a year of trying to break into Product before I made this move to SwipeClock. In that year, recurring questions echoed through my mind. “How can someone without experience get the job they want? Is there a credible alternative to experience other than formally holding the title at some company?”
Throughout that year of job-seeking, I turned that resounding question into a personal challenge. I was going to pave a path so that anyone could get any job they wanted, even if they never had formal experience in that role. It turned out to be a lot harder than I expected.
Before trying to build anything, I knew I had to find what that “credible alternative” to experience would be. That was mission #1. So, like any good PM, I started interviewing hiring managers, Talent Acquisition leaders, and struggling job seekers. Those were the three personas I knew I needed to lean on for insight.
What did hiring managers want to see out of entry-level talent in a variety of roles? How did Recruiters go through and pick out resumes, and what was there “why” behind it? How were job-seekers attempting to switch careers? What did they see as the path forward, and were any of them successful in those attempts? These were the questions I had to answer.
As the answers came in and the realities of these personas became clear, I thought I had found my answer. Fortunately, my neighbor was a full-stack web developer who loved and saw the potential of the idea, so we set out to build the “next big thing” and completely disrupt the Talent Acquisition market. Lofty goals for two people and no funding.
Fast forward back to SwipeClock. I’m working in Sales when Bill walked up to me in the lobby with an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. The Director of Product was looking to grow his team and wanted to hire a UX Researcher. I had no clue what that was, but it would put me on the Product Team! I didn’t care what the role was, because I knew it meant I was a big step closer to where I wanted to be. With Bill’s help, along with my experience in building JobReadi (the “next big thing” mentioned earlier), I was able to land the UX Researcher role.
For reasons I won’t get into, JobReadi fell apart, but I was loving my time on the Product Team at SwipeClock. I even had the opportunity to define and launch a couple of small features. Mostly internal stuff for in-product usage data, but it was still cool to get my feet wet! And when the Director left, Bill was next in line to run our Product team. With his added responsibility, he made me a full-time PM and dispersed user research responsibilities to each PM for their respective products. I finally made it!
Two weeks later, I had about five or six recruiter in-mails in my LinkedIn messages asking me if I was interested in a Product Manager role.
Wait a minute?! I’ve been a PM for two weeks, and I’m somehow more qualified now than I was two weeks ago?
This doesn’t make sense! While having this inner-dialogue, those feelings of frustration bubbled up inside of me again. There had to be a better measure of credibility than just having the title on your LinkedIn profile. And I was bound and determined to find it.
With JobReadi dead and some great advice from investors on what makes a startup successful, I decided to focus my efforts. Going after the “anyone can get any job” angle was way too broad. And what better place to start than with the most ambiguous job path of Product Management? This question led to the birth of Path2Product.
I knew I had to restart my research efforts, but my prior experience paid off. I knew I had to go deeper and talk to more people if I wanted to be sure I had enough of the right inputs to start building something successful. Knowing the challenges of how Talent Acquisition works today, I knew this product would have to circumvent the traditional path.
I also knew that there had to be a well-defined answer to what that credible alternative to experience would be.
But before I got there, I needed to understand what type of experience would resonate most with hiring managers in the broadest sense possible. Every company does Product Management a little differently, but there had to be a common thread or a common set of competencies that ran through any company in any geography. That was my mission, to identify that common thread if I wanted Path2Product to be scalable.
Once I had my answers, my next challenge was identifying what to do with it. What was the solution? How could I productize this information? Fortunately, the research I did with job-seekers led me to the answer. Many Aspiring PMs try to gain credibility through courses and certifications. While those things are good, they in no way show credible experience. Sure, you get theoretical explanations of product practices and frameworks, but that doesn’t mean you can apply them effectively. At least that’s what I kept hearing from hiring managers in my interviews with them.
So, I decided to marry the concepts. I would package the product into a course-like experience, but it would be unique to courses that had come before it. This course wouldn’t just cover what product managers do, but it would guide each student through the process. I would take them through the experience of starting at a new company (of their choice) and manage a feature launch for one of the company’s products (of their choice), and they would document key aspects of their experience. They would conduct user interviews (yes, with real users of these products), prioritize the problems they identified, craft solutions, validate those solutions with those users, write user stories and acceptance criteria, and prepare for go-to-market. After each milestone, the students would document their experience, upload the recorded user interviews, document their prioritization methods, and so on.
Even after all of this, I knew I still had two major hurdles. The first was whether I could create all of this teaching material in a way that was understandable enough for students to execute the assignments. Would they understand it? Would my delivery be understandable and enjoyable? The second major hurdle was validating if the student’s documented experience would still resonate with the hiring manager.
First things first, I needed the content, students, and a concierge MVP to get started. The first phase of the MVP was me coaching five Aspiring PMs from five different countries. I personally taught each one of them each of the lessons I would eventually digitize into pre-recorded content. That experience helped me refine the curriculum and where I needed to go deeper or add more things. After the first MVP phase, I digitized the training material and moved to phase two.
In the second phase, I had five more students. But this time, they would watch the videos, complete the assignments, and meet with me weekly to review the assignments, ask questions, and have me critique their assignments as I coached them through each step. This part of the process was incredibly eye openings, and I had to re-record several videos. After enough students finished the second phase of the MVP, I felt ready to go. There was just one more problem. I still had to validate whether the portfolio project, as it was documented and packaged, resonated with Product Leaders.
With several projects completed by many of the students in those MVP phases, I started socializing the projects with Product Leaders. Was it too much information? What mattered more than other parts? Was the quality of the project any good? I needed the answers to all these questions if I was going to launch this product and have any chance at success.
Eventually, I was able to create and refine an “executive summary” version of the portfolio project that had links out to the raw data, video recordings, and detailed acceptance criteria, and go-to-market planning. With my last box checked on pre-launch validation, it was time to launch.
After attempting to recruit and work with several software developers, I was left with the only option of figuring it out myself. No, I didn’t learn to code, although I thought I might. Fortunately, I found a platform to build the Path2Product product. Mighty Networks provided a ready-to-go solution that had almost everything I envision for the product I had intended to build myself. But I was able to get all of it much sooner.
Now that I had a validated solution and the product ready to go, it was launch time. On December 5th, 2020, Path2Product was born, and I’m happy to say that one student from my MVP cohorts has been hired, and two more are deep into their interview processes. There’s still a lot of work to do for us to accomplish our mission of “bridging the gap in Product Management experience for Aspiring Product Managers”, but we’re off to a great start.
Here’s what some of the students have had to say:
“Finally, everything paid off. My efforts and time invested now seem worth it. Big thanks to you. Really really appreciate your efforts to guide me through the entire process.” –
Adarsh S. recently hired by a firm in NY.
“Hi John, just want to let you know that I received my first invitation to a PM interview. Thanks to my wonderful mentor!”
Felix P. is interviewing with a startup in Germany
“First of all, I want to say thank you for creating this amazing HUB and putting your time and effort into it. I’m learning a lot. Plus it so nice to be part of the community to help each other out.! I really appreciate all of what you have done!”
Current PM in HealthTech
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