If you’re looking for a job that allows you to directly shape products, work with other teams, and creatively solve problems, you may have landed on product management.
And yet, breaking into the field can feel almost impossible at times. You’re often told you must have relevant experience to get the job—but you’re left wondering how you can get that experience without first having a position as a product manager.
One way around this is to acquire product management experience without a formal job title. This is sometimes called “stealth product management” and involves taking on small projects or tasks that involve the same skill set a product manager, or PM, would use. You can engage in stealth product management as part of your current job role or as a volunteer.
In this article, we talked to people who have experience with stealth product management. They shared their tips on how one can build product management skills in a current role and make it easier to move to a formal PM role in the future.
These experts have weighed in on what it takes to move into PM roles:
- Suzanne Welker Jurgens, Senior Product Manager at Adobe
- Jenna Hasenkampf, Product Manager at Discovery Education
- B. Pagels-Minor, Founder of DVRGNT Ventures and The Wealth Salons, Former Product Leader
- Vishakha Kulkarni, Senior Product Manager at Istation
- Melissa Bierly, Former Director of Product at Parse.ly (acquired by Automattic)
- Bosky Mukherjee, Founder of PMDojo
- John Fontenot, Director of Product Management at Lendio, Founder of Path2Product
Read on for their advice and you’ll be on your way to a new PM gig in no time!
Thanks to Nikki Carter for crafting this piece for GoPractice.
Nikki Carter is a journalist and editor.
She’s worked with companies like Indeed, Skillshare, and Wistia. Her articles have been published in Business Insider, The Muse, and more.
How can aspiring product managers start upskilling on the job?
You don’t need a PM team at all to get relevant experience
The advice I see most often is to take on extra work supporting the PM team. But that only works if you have a PM team; I came from advertising agencies where that role doesn’t exist.
Being able to define meaningful metrics, create your graphs/charts, and tell a story with data is a PM skill that you can get in a lot of different roles. I did this in every role I had in marketing, so that means I came into the PM role with 14 years of solid data experience, even if I’m not a data scientist or analyst.
Another big skill is being able to break down problems and prioritize essential vs future vs nice to have vs let it go. It’s pretty rare to have a project where resources or budgets are not an issue. Learning how to make those decisions and get buy-in on them is a PM skill. You don’t have to be building products to be doing this; leading a project will give you a similar experience.
The last one I’d go after is showing understanding of your customer through persona and testing. The deeper the understanding you can show you have of your company’s customers, the better you’ll do positioning yourself for a PM role and testing (and then using data to make decisions) is a key part of that. That’s not always going to be possible in your current role, so this one may be worth coming up with side gig ideas or getting experience with another team if you can.
Start shipping now
By shipping I mean finding a problem, building and launching a solution, understanding the impact, and then doing it over again.
Specifically, you want to find problems that get you exposure with the customer, the business, or designers and engineers:
- You need to understand the customer because it’s a PM’s job to build something customers will want to use or want to pay for.
- You need to understand the customer because it’s the PM’s job to build something that’s viable for the business.
- You need to understand engineers and designers because these folks are your partners in discovering solutions to problems and building them.
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And you want these to be problems that play to your strengths so you can bring a unique set of skills in a scenario where you’re learning something new.
If you’re wondering why you should solve problems instead of projects—when you solve someone’s problem, you get them to like and trust you. Each problem you solve is another few charge percentage points in that trust battery. You can do a project and help no one. You always need to keep the problem in mind because solving problems is the core of being a PM.
Who can help you break into product management?
Find a company where you have niche knowledge
One strategy is to find a company that is working on a product where you have a tremendous amount of knowledge (e.g. insurance product and you were formally an insurance agent) and get a job in virtually any role. Once there, learn everything you can about the company, mission, strategy, etc. and then use that knowledge to get the most impactful work so that your team will support your development to become a PM.
It is much easier to grow into a PM role at a company through being excellent than it is to try to come in as a PM.
Initiate coffee chats
If you’re at a company that has a PM role, have some coffee chats to make connections and understand what those roles are like. If you have former coworkers who work at companies with a PM role, see if you can get an introduction for a coffee chat.
Don’t push for a job; look to ask good questions and share your related experience. Create a connection because then if there is a role, you can ask if they’d be willing to refer you.
Don’t keep your product management interest a secret
Talk to PMs at your company, if they’re there. Find people in your network who have made the transition already (people who are 2-5 years ahead of you in your career) so you can understand how they got where you want to be.
You should tell people, especially folks in product, that you’re interested in becoming a product manager. Don’t keep it a secret. Usually if people know what your ambitions are, they will try to help you and keep you in mind when opportunities arise.
Ask specific questions
Identify what you want to know and frame your questions in a way that makes it easier for others to help you achieve your goal. It is hard to respond to generic questions like, “I would love to learn product management from you. Can I pick your brain?” People receive hundreds of messages like this.
Here are a few ideas for who you can reach out to:
- Other PMs to understand what product management looks like in their companies
- Hiring managers and product leaders to build relationships
- Myself, as I support career folks as they get hired and promoted in Product roles through my work with PMDojo
How can aspiring product managers track their progress to landing the role?
There are plenty of free and cheap online learning options if this is outside of your comfort zone. You need to be able to measure success and explain your process. Data can be a project’s performance, efficiency improvement, revenue related, etc.
Most roles have a way to measure success—understand yours, and start measuring.
Another important shift for roles can be that as a PM, it’s not your job to be right or solve the problem always. It’s more important to be comfortable with being wrong and not needing to be the smartest person in the room. As a PM, I need to critically look at our work as we go and be ready to stop or retire a product/feature. I need to get us to the best solution for a problem or opportunity and that often means other expert’s solutions. Our success is in the outcome, not who came up with the idea.
Keep a detailed project diary
Keep a project diary with the following points. These are not exclusive; grow the list as you go through your project;
- Who is your user? What are your user’s characteristics?
- Problem space?
- Why is the problem important to the user?
- 5-10 user feedback analysis
- 3-5 internal stakeholder interview analysis, ideally with those who understand the user and the problem well
- 2 solutions, and how these can alleviate the problem
Focus on your impact
What’s the impact of what you shipped? Can you tie it back to the business or customers? Did you reduce churn, increase acquisition, reduce onboarding time, increase revenue, increase efficiency?
Remember, it’s the PM’s job to build something that customers will use or buy and that works for the business. So if you’re making an impact in either of those directions, that’s a good sign.
Establish a definition of success
If you can get access to company data for anything you’ve directly or indirectly helped with, that would be ideal. But regardless of the situation, you need to first establish a definition of success. Once that’s in place, you need to decide how you’re going to measure it.
Whoever “owns” access to the data you’d need for measuring success or failure, you should work with them early in the process. Explain what you’re trying to do and ask them for help. Most people are willing to help when asked for it.
What are some common challenges associated with stealth product management and how can they be overcome
Visibility, clarity, and big-picture thinking can be tough
The biggest challenges are:
- Visibility: It’s hard to get exposure while doing stealth PM work. To overcome, be over-communicative. Document all goals, inputs, outputs, and outcomes to ensure your project has visibility.
- Clarity: Clarity can be tough in terms of your goals and managing expectations with stakeholders including your manager, PM team, and adjacent teams. Be sure to initiate touchpoints with all stakeholders, along with frequent asynchronous updates. Ask questions of your peers and managers and get feedback from all directions. Document all feedback and showcase how you are putting the feedback into practice.
- Future focused: As a stealth PM, your goal is only relative to your project. It’s challenging to be strategic and think from a 1000 ft view. As you document your project updates, create a future-focused document that collates your feedback about the product and how this product should grow and scale in the future. Make sure your feedback has organized data and your intuition to back it up.
How to know what you can (and can’t) talk about
The biggest challenge is feeling unsure what you can talk about and what you can’t when working at a stealth company. I coach many folks on this and here are 3 ways to overcome this:
- Respect the IP details every single time
- Speak about the problem and your solution while keeping the company name confidential
- Redact IP information when demoing what you built
When should someone apply for a product management role?
Focus on an area where you have domain knowledge
If you feel confident in your understanding of the SDLC (Software Development Life Cycle) process, know how to gather requirements, write user stories, develop a product roadmap, and are adept at working within an agile framework and advocating for your users, then your chances of successfully transitioning into the product manager field are higher. In this case, you should consider applying for an APM or potentially a PM role.
I would recommend focusing on an area where you have domain knowledge. There are various tiers of product management roles, including internal Product Managers who may work within Marketing Technology or an enterprise technology team, as well as Product Managers specializing in B2B (Business-to-Business) or B2C (Business-to-Consumer) products.
It depends on your goals
There are apprentice-style roles from some of the big companies (like Microsoft and Google) that specifically want people just starting out. You should apply when you can clearly articulate why you’d be a good PM, your related experience to the role, and how you’ll handle any areas you’re less strong in.
PM is a very multi-faceted role; you will not be strong in every area and that’s normal. Figure out what you’re good at for the role and how you’ll handle areas that you’re less strong in. I haven’t written any code since the 90s when I had a Geocities page, whereas there are a lot of PMs that come from a web development background.
However, I really like and respect engineers, so I work around this by working on strong relationships with my engineers and taking the time to understand enough to contribute ideas, provide feedback, and explain to stakeholders while staying honest about what I do and don’t know. You work with a lot of experts as a product manager, and trusting other people’s expertise is a strength.
Ask yourself these three questions
Three questions to consider while applying for a PM role:
- Can you speak to your PM projects? Product teardowns, etc to showcase how you picked a problem, gathered user feedback, and narrowed it down to a solution.
- Can you speak to your transition to PM? What makes you a good PM? What are your skill sets, experience, domain expertise, and so on?
- Can you speak to your contributions to the future PM team? This includes skill sets that match the job description, how you can solve user problems, etc.
Note: PMs come from different industries and experiences. Your goal should be to speak confidently and humbly about your experience and how you can add value to the team.
The more things you ship, the more ready you’ll be
It’s all practice. You’re probably ready to apply for a PM role when you have at least a couple of good stories of things you’ve shipped, their impact, and what you learned from them. Good stories have a structure, like STAR or PEARL or CARL.
If you have the opportunity to transition into a PM role at your existing company, that’s the easiest path. Applying for a PM role when you’ve never been a PM before at another company is going to be harder because you have to prove to complete strangers that you have the right skills and experience for them to take a chance on you.
You’ll never have 100% of the experience
No one has this even after years of actual PM experience. The market keeps evolving and so does the PM field. The key is to do some reflection to identify how big the gap is between your competencies (skills + experience + aptitudes) and what the market needs.
I wrote a post about this, but you can’t address the gap by pursuing certifications. Once you identify the gaps, you can timebox and apply for a handful of roles. Look at the data to understand where in the process you are facing struggles. Approach your job search and career like a business.
Always be applying
You can only learn. It’s a source of feedback whether you’re rejected before the interview or during the interview process. If you want to be a PM, using the application and interview processes as data points to learn and iterate is a good way to practice PMing your career.
As soon as you can tell a compelling story from your experiences, tied into a solid PM process, using the language of product management—that’s when you’re ready.
While breaking into product management can seem daunting without prior experience, these experts prove that it’s possible to get the right skills without the official job title.
Through stealth product management, you can take on work resembling PM responsibilities in your current role or as a volunteer. You’ll be able to build a portfolio as you also reach out to people in your network to learn more about PM roles and advertise your interest in shifting your career.
There’s no “right” amount of experience that you need before you’re ready to apply for your desired PM role. Instead, focus on documenting your progress, defining success, and practice telling compelling stories about how you work through problems and apply the PM process to your work.