Are you considering a career in product management? Before taking the leap, it’s important to assess whether this path aligns with your skills, interests, and goals. With product management roles varying across industries, product types, and company sizes, it can be challenging to determine if it’s the right fit for you.
Product management requires a unique combination of technical, creative, and leadership skills, making it a fast-paced and challenging field. Whether you’re a beginner or considering a career change, it’s crucial to evaluate your strengths and identify areas for growth. To help you make an informed decision, we’ve gathered advice from these experienced product managers:
- Sandor Akszenovics (Senior Product Manager at Just Eat Takeaway.com)
- Hayden Davis (Senior Product Manager at VMware)
- Spencer Hardwick (Senior Product Manager at Ticketmaster)
- Tereza Kirk (Senior Product Manager at Microsoft)
- Shaw Li (Product Conversational AI Experiences at Capital One, author of The Elements of Product Management)
- Pedro Martinho (Senior Product Manager at OLX Group)
- Rebecca Scheigert (Senior Product Manager at Carvana)
- Sandhya Srinivasa (Senior Product Manager Technical at PayPal)
- Fabrice Talbot (Vice President of Products, Experience Cloud at Salesforce, author of Product Management Bytes)
- Jennifer McGill Walker (Lead Product Manager at Wolters Kluwer)
- Nick Wesselman (Senior Product Manager at Shopify)
Their advice can be distilled into three steps:
While it may seem daunting to determine if product management is right for you, with careful research, networking, and clarity on your goals, you can find the right fit. Keep reading for valuable insights.
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Evaluate your skills
Sandhya Srinivasa (Senior Product Manager Technical at PayPal)
Passion is great but a lot of us are efficient in our roles because we have learned to love what we do and have identified hidden strengths along the way. I started out as a quality engineer, went on to be a quality engineering manager, and worked for 12 years in that space before moving to product management. Transitioning initially was weird because it is a mindset shift but once that shift happens, the sky is your limit. There are various product roles but in general, the following skills would make you a great product manager:
If you sometimes ponder over how the world will be in a few years.
☑ Problem solver
If you are someone who can identify problems and think of what can solve them.
You should be able to comfortably speak the functional language of business and the technical language of engineering because you are the bridge.
When someone says there is a problem you don’t take it at face value. You dig deeper to find out if it really is a problem, the cause, and the repercussions for not solving it.
☑ Knowledge seeker
You are someone who keeps abreast of news and major events happening around the world, especially in the tech world and how it is changing.
You are a leader without authority so you should be skilled at influencing people and teams to sell your idea.
☑ Data analyst
You should be able to read data and deduce patterns. The ideas for building the next feature or identifying the root cause of user behavior are in the data and you should be able to identify that.
☑ Context switcher
Since you wear multiple hats you have to do a lot of context-switching for almost every meeting.
Most product managers only get to interview a handful of users but should solve for millions. So you should be able to identify the right users and validate your assumptions from the few user interviews you can do.
☑ Project management skills
Most companies expect the product manager to also oversee execution so you should be great at high-level estimates and know when to launch a specific feature.
☑ Pricing and marketing
Some product managers are also expected to do market pricing. You need to figure out how to entice users to pay for your product or services.
Sandor Akszenovics (Senior Product Manager at Just Eat Takeaway.com)
Drawing from my personal experience of transitioning from software development to product management a decade ago, here are some essential skills and qualities to consider:
My switch to product management was motivated by the desire to understand the “why” behind requirements. As a product manager, you’ll need to persistently ask questions and delve deeper to uncover user needs, industry trends, and competitive landscapes. This curiosity will enable you to develop more innovative and user-centric solutions.
Cultivating empathy for both your users and stakeholders is vital to addressing their actual and often unspoken needs. Empathy will empower you to make informed decisions that resonate with your users, ultimately resulting in better products.
Open-mindedness is crucial, as you’ll frequently face multiple solutions to a single problem. Being receptive to feedback and adapting to new ideas will help you continually refine your product strategy and grow as a product manager.
☑ Data-driven decision-making
As a product manager, it’s essential to make objective, data-driven decisions. This involves defining KPIs, conducting data analysis, prioritizing features, allocating resources effectively, and measuring your product’s impact. More importantly, you must be able to evaluate your product’s performance using numerical data.
☑ Communication and collaboration
Effective communication is paramount for a product manager, as you’ll work closely with a diverse range of people (e.g., developers, designers, sales, and marketing). Adapting your communication style to each team member and actively listening to their input fosters a collaborative environment and is crucial for obtaining buy-in and support from executives.
In my experience, balancing multiple projects, deadlines, stakeholder expectations, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance is the most challenging aspect for any product manager. Developing self-discipline to pick battles, know when to stop, avoid cognitive overload, and prevent burnout is perhaps the most critical long-term skill a product manager needs to cultivate.
Rebecca Scheigert (Senior Product Manager at Carvana)
If you’ve considered a role as a product manager, here are some questions you can ask about yourself to decide if it’s a role you’d find fulfilling and rewarding:
☑ Are you comfortable working with ambiguity?
As a product manager, it’s your job to determine what problems to solve and how to solve them. You’ll often be given very vague direction if you’re given any at all. For example, a company might need to increase subscribers, increase gross profit per unit, or reduce operating expenses. You should be able to take a high-level objective and hone in on how exactly to solve a problem. Being thoughtful, curious, and data-driven will help you in this area.
☑ Are you empathetic?
Product managers are responsible for understanding and advocating for their users. They also need to navigate stakeholder relationships. The best product managers are patient listeners, and approach every conversation with a sense of empathy.
☑ Are you decisive and confident?
Product managers are leaders in the company, and they make decisions that impact customers and the business on a daily basis. You should feel comfortable and confident taking a stand and making decisions about the products you work with.
☑ Are you a team player?
People often say that product management is a team sport. Product manager is a role that depends on the engineers, designers, and other stakeholders on the team. This means you need to be collaborative, communicative, and truly value the working relationships on your team. You should also be proud to share the credit of your product’s success with the people who helped you accomplish it.
Hayden Davis (Senior Product Manager at VMware)
Product management is the right role for individuals who prefer long feedback cycles, have strong directional intelligence, and thrive in environments where the data only gets you 80% of the way to the answer. Product managers need to be able to speak the language of multiple disciplines and act as a translator between those disciplines and the customer. In addition to the more technical aspects of product like feature prioritization, choosing the right KPIs, and working on product strategy, excellent product managers also exhibit the soft skills to get their team “fired up” about what they are working on (many times a niche B2B product few outsiders know about) and a natural competitive tendency that rubs off on their teammates.
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Align your interests
Nick Wesselman (Senior Product Manager at Shopify)
After almost twenty years of software engineering and engineering management, I made the jump into product management for developer-focused products. I was actually somewhat reluctant at first. I really loved writing code and creating software, but I was also really excited about the idea of having a broader impact and a more strategic role.
No question, moving from engineering to product management means less time writing code, and more time talking to users, writing documents, aligning with other product managers, and communicating with stakeholders. The communication required can take a lot of energy if you are more of an introvert. The impact you can make is huge though, and for myself at least, this is incredibly energizing. If that sounds exciting to you, and you have great communication skills, then a move into technical product management might be right for you. If you think you would miss the craft of software engineering—creating new functionality, debugging complex issues, refactoring a codebase—then you probably wouldn’t enjoy being a product manager. But that’s ok! I sometimes miss those aspects of engineering myself.
Tereza Kirk (Senior Product Manager at Microsoft)
I like to say that product managers are jacks-of-all-trades, masters of none, but I mean it in the best way possible. Product management is a discipline that touches all areas of the business whether it is customer success, support, sales, UX and design, or marketing, so the skills required to be successful in the role of a product manager are quite diverse too. Product managers are like mini CEOs who are fully responsible for the success of their own part of the company. You might want to consider a career path of a product manager if:
☑ You are customer obsessed. I transitioned to product management from customer success because I got to experience the problems customers were trying to solve first-hand and wanted to have greater influence over the direction of the product. Being empathetic and curious about customer problems is an important prerequisite for a PM role.
☑ You love solving problems.
☑ You enjoy wearing multiple hats.
☑ You are ready to lead a team even if you are not officially a people manager. Product managers are often individual contributors but even then, they are often in a position to bring a team of people together to work on a project and work against a tight deadline.
☑ You are ok saying no more often than saying yes and can defend that decision in front of many stakeholders. The product backlog is usually never-ending so being able to prioritize is essential. Making data-driven decisions and being ready to explain why certain items get prioritized while others don’t will become your daily bread and butter.
☑ You are not afraid to learn from mistakes and quickly change direction when needed. Being agile and adopting a growth mindset is important as priorities change and failure can happen for lots of reasons that are out of your control.
Shaw Li (Product Conversational AI Experiences at Capital One, author of The Elements of Product Management)
If you say yes to all three of the following questions, that’s a good indicator that a product management role could be a good career choice:
☑ What is your level of curiosity?
Curiosity and a learning mindset is critical for a product management role because you’ll always be learning about product, industry, and people.
☑ What is your comfort level confronting failure when the causes are outside of your control?
In contrast to software engineering, where answers are more deterministic, product management solutions not only don’t have set solutions, but sometimes failures occur because of market or other forces outside your control.
☑ Do you enjoy collaborating with people?
A product manager can rarely accomplish tasks alone, and thus must work with and influence others that they have no formal authority.
Find a suitable role
Pedro Martinho (Senior Product Manager at OLX Group)
My journey shows that diverse experience and the ability to speak many languages, from sales to finance to marketing to software development, is key. The most important thing is to have common sense, which as the saying goes is not so common after all. You should define what you are looking for and remember that at different stages of your career you’ll need different things. Once you have a rough idea of what you would like to do and what skills you would like to develop then you have a great basis to find good product management opportunities that match your career needs. Once you find an opportunity, use the following list to help you decide:
☑ Do I trust my future boss? Are they a person I can see myself having honest discussions with?
☑ Will I work with a proper product team or be able to build one?
☑ Is it a growing or shrinking business?
☑ Will this role take my career in the direction I want? Will it let me specialize in an area of interest or learn a new area?
☑ Is the remuneration aligned with my expectation and industry standard?
☑ Do I see yourself working there for more than one year?
☑ Would I recommend this job to a friend?
Jennifer McGill Walker (Lead Product Manager at Wolters Kluwer)
Determining if a product manager job is right for you can feel daunting, especially if you are new to the product management field. I address this by examining candidate/role fit from a micro and macro level and force ranking my key objectives.
☑ Macro Level
For my job search, I selected companies and roles where I could “see” success from a product and financial perspective. I suggest studying the economic outlook of companies where you interview to ensure the organization is positioned for product growth and invested in employee growth and development. In addition to quantitative data, look closely at qualitative data by reading reviews on sites like Comparably, Glassdoor, and Blind. LinkedIn connections can help you get an insider’s take on the work culture and feedback on specific divisions and teams.
☑ Micro Level
When looking at product management roles, I suggest de-emphasizing the job title and relying more on the job responsibilities listed in the job description. Job titles vary and are a notoriously unreliable data source for candidate/role fit. On the other hand, job responsibilities give you a more accurate picture of the day-to-day activities and focus of the role. When evaluating PM roles, I look for a balance of skills and responsibilities I already possess with ones I’d like to learn. Be ready to address any skill gaps with a plan of action and examples of how your existing skill set transfers. Also, anticipate what the team needs and amplify your qualities that speak to these needs.
☑ Finding Belonging
The final ingredient to a successful candidate/role fit is a sense of connection and belonging. As you progress to the final stages of the interview process, ask questions to learn more about your team’s communication styles, work habits, and preferences. This final element is the part you can’t read in a book or a blog: do I belong here? In my most recent job search, I was in the final interview stages at several different organizations. I felt a strong connection to one team and that sense of belonging helped me prioritize my options and accept their offer. Ultimately, you want to join a product team and organization that inspires you to be the best version of your future self that you can possibly be.
Spencer Hardwick (Senior Product Manager at Ticketmaster)
I highly recommend getting clarity on what you’re looking for or what’s important to you. The best product management roles for you are always going to be the ones that align with your passions, interests, values, and goals. Here are a few things I recommend getting clarity on before anything else (shout out to my career coach Jennifer Fink for helping me with these):
☑ Industry. What sorts of spaces interest you the most? Gaming, music, sports, technology? The more specific you can be, the better.
☑ Role. What roles are you looking for specifically? Are you looking for an entry-level role, or something more specific like data or growth-focused? Are you looking for your first senior role, or maybe you want to take the next step into executive leadership?
☑ Location. Is location important? Do you want to be remote? Close to family? Would you prefer to work hybrid, or even in the office? West coast or east coast?
☑ Company. Any specific company or type of company, like enterprise, startup, B2B, or B2C?
☑ Core values. What’s most important to you? Is it work/life balance? Ability to make an impact? Technology for good? Transparency and candor?
☑ Interests and hobbies. What sparks joy for you? What sorts of things do you find yourself getting lost in?
Once you’ve honed in on what’s important to you and you’re getting interviews, now you need to figure out if where you’re interviewing is a good fit. Questions to ask:
☑ How do you know what to build? This is one of my favorite questions to ask in interviews because the answer is very telling. Do they start with problems and build solutions that solve them, or do they build what executives ask for?
☑ How do you measure success for product managers? Setting yourself up for success means understanding up front how your performance is going to be measured. Even if you’re wanting to go to a start-up where this sort of thing doesn’t exist yet, it’s helpful to know if the person hiring for the role has thought about it.
☑ What does your typical product team look like? There are a few different ways to ask this question depending on how the interviewing has gone so far, but generally you want to get a sense of who is going to be on your team, what resources you’re going to have access to (or not have), and how many teams you’ll be responsible for. You’re not always going to have a dedicated analyst or UX resource.Do you feel comfortable rolling up your sleeves for what you might need?
☑ What does growth look like for this role? This is not really product management specific, but if growth is something that’s important to you, finding out how much support you’ll have for achieving your goals is important.
☑ What are you struggling with as a team that you’re hoping this product manager will help with? Much like with the rest of these questions, your goal here is to try and get as much a sense of what you’re in for as possible, so you can make an informed decision
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it should be enough to help you get started. At the end of the day, just be curious, ask questions, and make thoughtful decisions! Good luck out there.
Fabrice Talbot (Vice President of Products, Experience Cloud at Salesforce, author of Product Management Bytes)
I regularly speak with people from various backgrounds who are interested in becoming product managers. Here are ten pieces of advice to determine whether a career in product management is right for you:
☑ Read blog articles written by product managers to learn first-hand what they do.
☑ Read product management job boards at the seniority level you would fall in and see if it sounds like work you’d like to do.
☑ Talk to product managers in your company or network; ask about their typical day, what they like the most and least, etc.
☑ Product management jobs come in many flavors: technical vs functional, platform vs app, niche player vs industry solution. Find out where you fit.
☑ Consider taking an online course like GoPractice to learn the craft and build your resume.
☑ Check sites like salary.com for product management salaries at your seniority level; does it work for you?
☑ Having transferable skills or experience (industry knowledge, technical background) will smoothen the transition.
☑ You will need passion and grit. Do not choose this career as an excuse to get out of your old job.
☑ Check out my journey on becoming a product manager
☑ Treat everyone’s advice with caution, including mine. Remember, it takes courage to pursue your dreams! A colleague went from pre-sales to product marketing to head of product for a startup in just 3 years because he works hard and is talented. A senior engineer talked to me about his desire to become a product manager for two years; he kept networking and recently landed his first product management job. Patience is key.
We’d like to thank Stephanie Walter for incredible help in creating this article.