There are two main tracks for getting hired as a product manager: applying internally and looking for a new employer. Let’s take a look at both cases and discuss recommendations that will help you stand out.
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- Don’t wait for a “product manager” position
- Take advantage of domain expertise at the market level
- Take advantage of domain expertise at the product level
- Make the most of your home field advantage
- What hiring managers are looking for
- Don’t wait for a “product manager” position
- Look for positions where you speak the industry’s language
- Activate your network and don’t be shy about recommendations
- Tailor your experience to the company and product
- Work with a product mentor
- Do a pet project
Becoming a product manager at your current company
Switching to product management at a company you already work for will usually be easier and more feasible than finding a new employer entirely.
The advantage is that you don’t have to start from scratch with learning names, integrating into the corporate culture, or mastering new processes. Plus you should have had enough time to gain a deep understanding of the business, product, market, and user base.
When this is combined with relevant experience, you should have a much easier transition to a product role.
Of course, internal transitions are not an option for everyone. Some companies don’t have any vacant product positions. And sometimes you may not want to stay at the company, in any role.
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Tips for getting internally promoted to a product role
Instead of waiting for a “product manager” position, start doing product work now: our main recommendation
Be proactive and step up. Whatever your current position is, take responsibility for a small project or portion of product work.
Your role may give you a vantage point regarding where to best deploy your skills and take the initiative. Then stake out an area of responsibility that includes some product work in it.
If you’ve been working in marketing, you will have a good understanding of the product’s target audience, how to do research, and how to run numbers. If you’re a developer, then you know the company’s processes for management, planning, and prioritizing, as well as the product stack.
Read more about the strong points of these related positions in our articles:
- How to move from marketing to product management?
- How to move from engineering to product management?
What you should avoid is asking for the product manager role up front. Because if you do that, you’re promising to master everything only after you’ve already been promoted. This puts risk on the company and forces them to make a big investment with uncertain payback.
Make it a loss-free proposition for the company: do product work first and only then leverage this experience to formally transfer to a product position at the company.
Take advantage of domain expertise at the market level
So you know the company’s products, who the company’s competitors are, and what the market situation is. And especially if the products are shaped by the needs of a particular industry, then you have some experience. This is the domain expertise critical for being a product manager. And this is one of your competitive advantages compared to a potential outside hire.
This is particularly important in industries that are highly regulated (such as banking products, which are subject to financial regulations) or ones that interface heavily with other industries (such as international trade, which is intertwined with logistics).
You already know the context of the industry and market, understand the opportunities, and are aware of the limitations that exist. An outsider would need a long time to acquire all this knowledge.
Take advantage of domain expertise at the product level
You can gain an advantage over both internal and external candidates by having expertise with a particular part of the product.
If you run a support team and your company needs a product manager to set up user support, then you should be a perfect fit. You already know all there is to know about the support team’s workings.
Or maybe the team is planning to move to a new monetization model. If you’ve been a product analyst for this part of the product for the last two years, running experiments and performing research, you know and probably even feel what’s going on. So you could definitely step up to that role. You might have something like 70% of the necessary knowledge and skills for making the project happen, and can pick up the remaining 30% on the fly.
Think about the areas of product work that you know well.
Make the most of your home field advantage
Moving into product management in a familiar setting (because of knowing the product, company, and team) is certainly easier than looking on the open market.
You know the company’s values and cultures, and what makes its processes tick. And just as importantly, you have earned the trust and esteem of your colleagues.
Ideally, your first steps in a product role should lean as hard as possible on your strong points and expertise. This will give you a solid start so you can get up to speed with everything else.
What hiring managers are looking for
It’s best to kick off the discussion of your transition to a product role after you’ve already demonstrated progress in a specific area of product work (if you’ve succeeded in gaining that experience).
This will be an enormous advantage for you as a candidate.
Other advantages over external candidates that you may want to mention to the hiring manager at your current company:
- There’s no need to spend time on onboarding and teaching the company’s core processes: you already work here and know a lot.
- You have a good understanding of the industry, market, and target users. You know the growth stages the company has gone through and the product struggles that it has experienced.
- You have good knowledge of a part of a product that needs to be developed.
But here is what you may need to compensate for in comparison to external hires:
- The hiring managers we’ve talked with note that internal candidates can sometimes come across as “more relaxed”. They might not be trying so hard and act chummy instead of proving real skills. You can address this concern by demonstrating results in action.
- You have little or no product experience. But having domain expertise and relevant skills from your current role may be enough to compensate.
- Hiring managers can also see outsiders as bringing fresh expertise, skills, or knowledge about tools and approaches that are currently lacking at the company.
Moving to another company
Switching employers is almost always going to be harder:
- First you’ll need to get the attention of a recruiter who is looking for people who already have product manager experience.
- Then you’ll need to convince the hiring manager to take the risk of hiring someone without significant experience in product management.
- And then you’ll need to start from scratch at proving your value and abilities in order to win trust. You’ll have to learn a whole new corporate structure, culture, and processes as you get to know new people and set up relationships.
This offers plenty of complications, naturally. But there are still opportunities to be had.
Tips for transitioning at a new company
If you already planning to seek greener pastures at a new company, follow our key recommendation from the last section—start doing product work now, even without a formal position
Maybe you don’t plan to stay at your current company and are interested in leaving. But if you are still biding your time, make the most of the opportunities remaining. One way is to proactively take on a small project or area of product work.
Persist long enough to get definite results (not necessarily “final” ones) that showcase your contribution, which is something you can demonstrate to a would-be employer.
Not a possibility for you? Keep reading for other things you can still do.
Look for positions where you speak the industry’s language
Prior experience has probably given you domain expertise in your market. If you transition to a new company, you gain the opportunity to talk with recruiters and hiring managers in the language of their industry. Take advantage of this.
Example: You worked in car sharing and now are interviewing for a car concierge service, or worked at a bank and want to go into fintech. Just by knowing the industry lingo, you can impress potential employers with the fact that much of your journey to a product role relates to their industry.
But there’s more to success than slinging buzzwords. It’s even more important to demonstrate how you can apply your experience as a product manager.
Remember that the world is an interconnected place. A bank might have product tasks that involve teaching how to trade, where experience with educational products could be handy. Or an online marketplace could need expertise on referral programs, even if that expertise comes from totally different lines of business.
Your domain expertise and an employer’s interests can intersect in the least expected places inside a product.
Activate your network and don’t be shy about recommendations
Get help from people who trust you and can champion you.
If you know someone who works at a company where you want to work, ask for a recommendation for a product position. This will give an enormous leg up for getting past recruiters and other gatekeepers.
Many IT companies have recommendation programs for internal candidates, but they tend not to include junior product positions.
Tailor your experience to the company and product
Don’t do a one-size-fits-all resume. Don’t give the same canned speech at every interview.
Emphasize the aspects of your experience that are most relevant to the particular position and company in question. Find the angles that will cast you in the most flattering light.
Each employer will require targeted effort from you, as opposed to an assembly line of job applications. But stay engaged and remember that this is actually a good example of product work—after all, you are just trying to articulate your value to the end user.
Work with a product mentor
Mentoring with an experienced product pro will give you an advantage with structuring your experience and crafting a job hunt strategy. Your mentor can also help you to master a new position and help to properly prioritize the competing demands on your time.
Note that product mentoring is not the same as HR coaching. There are situations when HR coaching can be helpful, but it is a very different thing.
HR coaching addresses any issues that you might have that are not specific to a product role (such as excessive modesty), suggests effective ways of looking for openings, and helps to make strong resumes that sell.
Product mentoring leads you to deeper levels of understanding of how to present yourself in the context of a product-related position.
Do a pet project
A pet project is a great way to gain product management experience.
Pet projects refer to “extracurricular” or “freetime” projects done by developers outside of their working hours. Here we simply mean projects or products that are within your capabilities as a novice product manager. This will help you to strengthen skills that will serve you later in your real job.
One way is to make your own app, site, or small game. It doesn’t matter whether you write the code yourself or choose Python or Ruby. What matters is that you have applied a rigorous product approach, analyzed the available data, and used the data to make informed product decisions.
This project doesn’t have to be a solo one. The key is that your personal contribution involves product work.
Also remember that pet projects don’t have to be a service or product delivered to the public. For example, market research with insights relevant to an important decision (such as launching a new product or targeting a new niche) also qualifies as a pet project.
Conclusion: Making the transition to product
The two main pathways to transitioning to product manager are to get hired internally or look on the job market. Usually it’s easier to get promoted at your current company, but that isn’t always a possibility. No matter which of those two paths you pick, there are always actions you can take to make the best impression possible on recruiters and hiring managers.
Do you have experience that could help make this material more complete? Write us—we are interested in hearing your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.