Transitioning to a Product Manager Role in a Tech Company

Over the past few months, I have been receiving a steady stream of messages from business analysts, developers, product consultants, sales professionals asking for advice on how to transition to a Product Management Role (who is a product manager?) in a tech company (product management in a tech company). There are three main challenges that people have reported:

  • I work as a Product Consultant/ Analyst/ QA
  • I don’t work in a product company
  • I don’t have a tier 1 college on my resume

Before we get started, it is worth thinking why do you want to transition to a Product Manager role. Remember, while a Product Manager role may look powerful, it often is opposite of that. Product Managers help the engineering team move faster and better. Product Managers must have the right balance of the right brain skills of empathy and creativity and the left brain skills of logic and analysis. Answer these questions for starters. Do you have a very high level of curiosity? Does using technology to solve problems fascinate you? Can you build a team that is passionate to work with you on solving problems? Do you think of ways to make products you use — Google Maps, Notepads, Traffic Lights, better? Do you know how to balance your instincts with structured decision-making frameworks? Do you notice how products and systems influence human behaviour? If your answer to most of these answers is yes, you should consider a career in Product Management.

Now, if you already work in a good technology company, you will have a relatively clearer path. It also seems like people already working as engineers/ designers are able to switch easier than others. If you already work with a product company, you can follow up on transitioning to a Product Manager role internally. The tips mentioned below will help you transition to a Product Manager role better — internally or externally. While these tips don’t guarantee a success, they should improve your chances of a successful transition significantly. Why should you trust me on this? Well, for these three reasons:

  • I have interviewed hundreds of PM candidates at various levels and been a direct hiring manager for 10 product managers and a bunch of product marketing managers.
  • I have also given some of this advice to 6 people over the past year and all of them have made a successful transition.
  • Finally, although long ago, I have also made this transition myself. Since then, I have had 8 product management stints at various levels.

Here’s one final thing. A reality check! It is not going to be easy. In some ways, you are rolling a dice that is heavily biased against you. A lot of what you have to do is adjust the bias and get it working ‘for you’. How? Let’s see:

Build an actual product. If there was a 20–80 on the list of things here (top advice to guarantee the best results), this is perhaps the top tip. If you can’t code, you could partner with someone who can. Working with developers is an important PM attribute. Bootstrapping is another key attribute and skill. It is important that you learn and apply Lean Startup Principles to build your product. This will help you appreciate business strategy, product strategy, product design and product execution.

  • Effort needed: 12–24 months (varies depending on your product)
  • Bonus points: talk about your product via blogs/ videos.
  • Side benefit: your product may take off and you could be hiring PMs yourself!

Build a Strong Web Presence. I had a great blog which featured interviews from thought leaders in Agile software development landscape which helped me get noticed (sorry it is gone). Another of my blog still gets 1000+ visitors a day despite not being updated for years. Andrew Chen, a widely respected growth hacker was first noticed by his blog. I know of several other Product Leaders who were noticed for their research in computer science, psychology, and analytics. Those three topics are also among the most interesting ones to transition to a Product Management role. Blogging also helps you demonstrate proficiency in effective written communication. Remember, communication skills are not just about correct grammar but also about how you present your ideas, tell a story and influence others. Clear communication is perhaps the single most important skill in a large organization. If long-form blogging is not your style, you can use art/ graphics/ photographs. Being active on social media — Twitter, LinkedIn, and Whatsapp groups especially is very important to ensure that your content spreads across the Internet and starts reaching the right target segment. Don’t spread yourself thin, target 1–2 networks and be consistent there.

  • Effort needed: An hour a day for about a year
  • Bonus points: Post videos and presentations online/ on your blog/ LinkedIn
  • Side benefit: You may open up great non-PM opportunities in consulting, content writing and do better in your existing job

Volunteer at and Attend Conferences, Meetups and Networking Opportunities. I participated and organized events about Agile and Product Management (I still do). Speaking at a conference or an event is a great way to be found by potential employers. If blogging demonstrates your written communication skills, speaking at a conference helps you demonstrate your verbal communication skills. It is also a great way to network. Your chances of encountering someone who is hiring aggressively increase significantly at trade events and conferences. Remember, it is not about the size of the company but the right people at the start of your career. Once you have your first opportunity, grab it with both the hands.

  • Effort needed: 1–2 days a month for 1–2 years
  • Bonus points: Remember faces, don’t oversell yourself
  • Side benefit: You will learn how to sell yourself, read people and network — useful skills in themselves

Do that MBA! Yes, people will tell you it is not worth it but, it depends. If you are under 32, get into an IIM, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Berkeley or ISB. All major technology companies come to those campuses for recruitment. This is not going to change in the near future. Although getting into a top Institute is not easy, you can ace it with a 2–3 year horizon. Cautionary note: getting into the college is just half the work. Strong academic score may be needed to sit in placement interviews. This is easier said than done in a tough environment.

  • Effort needed: 4–6 hours a week for 2–3 years
  • Bonus points: Pursuing a PhD from a top 50 Institute would probably be even better and more future proof
  • Side benefit: You may end up identifying opportunities in strategy, consulting and general management

Master User Experience Design. Do you know there are more UX Designer job openings (check https://www.linkedin.com/jobs/search/?keywords=UX%20Designer&location=India&locationId=in%3A0) than Product Manager positions. Add UI Designer/ Visual Design to the mix and even more opportunities open up. Most technology companies see a shortage of talented designers. And, compared to Product Management, this field has less bias in terms of college or company background. Your work and portfolio is the pass to a great job. Learn Design Thinking and software/ tools to design, and then paint the canvas red, blue or yellow. Highlight your work on Dribble, get noticed and then you can do two things. Either you can interview as a Product Manager or as a designer. Most companies would allow designers an opportunity to transition to a Product Manager role (provided you also demonstrate strong quantitative skills).

  • Effort needed: About 1 year, 3–4 hours a day
  • Bonus points: Redesign the app/ website of the company you are interviewing with as part of the application process
  • Side benefit: Design is a great field to slay anyway!

Learn to Code. Work through any online course and you can pick a language of your choice (HTML does not count). You need to be strong in data structures and algorithms. A lot of people ask me about Data Science. In my limited experience, data science is tougher for people who are not exceptionally strong in Math (generally speaking, Data Science is Statistics meets Programming). If you can manage this, great. I am not posting links here to where you can learn to code. Head over to Coursera or edX and get started. While you don’t need to be a rockstar programmer but barely knowing something won’t work either.

  • Effort needed: At least 1 year, 4 hours a day
  • Bonus points: create profiles on HackerRank or have a public repository on Github.
  • Side benefit: you may actually land a developer interview!

BONUS TIP: When you are not a Product Manager and don’t come from a strong college or an engineering background, most recruiters and hiring managers are looking for evidence of A-category behavior: perseverance, determination, consistency, and excellence. If you are not making significant progress in your search or transition in three months, evaluate critically what can you do better. A good product manager should be able to diagnose the problem, do a root cause analysis and come up with several ideas to improve the situation. In addition to above tips, it would be fantastic if you are a voracious reader (50+ books a year at least), speak more than 4 languages (German, French, Chinese, Japanese, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil will usually get top marks) and volunteer for community service.

6 months into your plan, try and also start your interview preparation (a simple google search would be good enough to start).

I wish you all the best in your transition and search. For questions, feel free to reach me on LinkedIn at https://linkedin.com/in/vikrama

Acknowledgement: Thank you Anurag Gaggar, Abhinav Goel for the feedback on the early version of this post.

Transitioning to a Product Manager Role in a Tech Company was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Publication date: 
07/11/2018 - 21:49