Careers in product management require a significant amount of hands-on experience, which presents a unique challenge for those hoping to enter the field. It’s a catch-22: new hires need experience in order to land a role managing products, but may not be able to get that experience without actually doing so.

One potential solution for aspiring product managers is to launch a side project. Commonly referred to as “pet projects” within the software development community, these independent ventures can present valuable opportunities for aspiring PMs–but they also come with their own set of complexities.

To help guide the next generation of product managers, we’ve consulted with industry experts who have offered their insights on leveraging side projects as a strategic advantage for landing a role in product management.

These three experts have offered their advice for finding the perfect side project:

Thanks to Kristen Poli for crafting this piece for GoPractice.

Kristen Poli is a product leader and tech journalist.

She previously held the position of product manager at Contently and was the product management lead at Curacity.

Her articles have been published in outlets like WIRED and Hackernoon.

What types of side projects can be useful for entering the product management field? 

When done right, side projects have the potential to help aspiring product managers develop their skills–and find employment. As our experts have previously noted, product managers with strong leadership capabilities, refined communication skills, and in-depth technical knowledge are most likely to succeed in their roles (and build winning products). As such, side projects that allow aspiring PMs to build and showcase these skills can be particularly useful during the interview process.

To make side projects work in their favor, aspiring PMs should seek out (or create) projects that allow them to collaborate with teams, conduct market research, collect feedback, and iterate quickly. It’s also worth noting that these skills can be practiced regardless of whether a side project is conducted online or in person.

If you’re unable to start a side project on your own, our experts recommend getting involved in your community to look for leadership opportunities–and real problems that need to be solved. In addition, aspiring PMs can take on the role of ‘product reviewer’ in order to hone their analytical thinking and ‘product sense’ in preparation for their first role. 

Solve the nearest real-life problem

When it comes to side projects for budding product managers, consider building or contributing to digital products—like apps or websites—that solve real-life problems. This not only gives you a hands-on understanding of the product life cycle, but also hones skills like user research, prioritization, and stakeholder communication. 

Additionally, organizing events or workshops, even if they’re small, can be great. They’ll teach you project coordination, timeline adherence, and how to gather and receive feedback—key aspects of product management. 

Also, don’t discount non-tech projects: you can even set up a community event or run a small online store. At the end of the day, product management is all about understanding user needs, executing a plan, iterating that plan based on feedback, and delivering value. So, dive in and get your hands dirty!

Try community service–or tech criticism

PMs can learn a lot from volunteering in their local soup kitchen. All of the same skills that are required to be useful in a soup kitchen directly apply to the role of Product Manager. There will be someone else in charge of the kitchen and facility, there will be cooks (the engineers), there will be servers and greeters (sales and marketing), and there will be the hands (product management). Every soup kitchen has a process and system that works for them, and that is the same as any good product team.

The other area is in tech reviews of digital products. For someone wanting to hone in on their skillset as a PM, reviewing popular tech products is a great way to utilize the skills that a PM must have. How was this product marketed? What’s the UX like? Is this intuitive? What’s missing? What will make this product successful? Asking and answering those questions will help PMs recognize gaps in their own products in the future.

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Where can aspiring product managers find inspiration for side projects?

To develop a product manager’s mindset, aspiring PMs should seek out problems to be solved in their daily lives. These problems can become the source material for any number of side projects. By broadening their networks and collaborating with members of their personal and professional communities, aspiring PMs can test the viability of their side projects and collect feedback from users (all while finding inspiring material for new ventures).

Outside of the realm of personal experience, our experts recommend that aspiring PMs stay attuned to industry trends and follow popular discussions around new technologies by joining product-related forums and reading industry publications. Curating a list of inspirational projects and topics that already exist can help a future PM refine their interests and goals for future work. In addition, getting involved with startups–whether on a volunteer or paid basis–can offer a variety of advantages to aspiring PMs. Fast-paced, highly collaborative startup environments offer newcomers the ability to find new problems (and potential projects) quickly. In addition, aspiring PMs who contribute to a startup’s output may be more likely to see the impact of their contributions quickly.

Industry forums and blogs

PMs should definitely scour ProductHunt, HackerNews, and GitHub Topics for inspiration. I used to go through different topics on GitHub to star certain projects and eventually figure out which I could directly help out on. GitHub Topics will usually show what the next hot thing in technology will be, as open-source software is always leading the way. It’s a great place to search for ideas.

At startups, or within your personal network

Searching for inspiration from startups–or getting involved with a startup in any capacity–can be hugely beneficial for aspiring product managers. This could be anything from helping a friend launch a small business to building your own app. 

Startups move quickly and have very loose role definitions, allowing you to wear multiple hats and gain insight into various teams and how they work. Working with a startup provides opportunities to gain hands-on experience in every stage of product development, from ideation and launch to tracking and adoption. This mimics the feeling of being a business owner, which is exactly what you’ll be for your product or feature area in a product-led company.

How can an aspiring product manager present a side project to potential employers? 

Aspiring product managers seeking new roles should begin their side projects with potential employers in mind. In other words, emerging product managers should be sure to structure their projects with care during initial development so they can be packaged, presented, and explained with ease. Aspiring PMs who define problem statements, KPIs, milestones, and quality frameworks for their side projects will have clear advantages over others when presenting them to their potential bosses.

In particular, our experts recommend that aspiring PMs highlight aspects of their side projects that showcase their leadership capabilities, data analysis skills, and ownership mentality. Presenters shouldn’t be afraid to discuss their missteps or outline possible limitations of their projects and how they could take them further in the future. When done right, this provides an opportunity for aspiring PMs to showcase their accountability and drive.

Present your development process

When you’re presenting a side project to potential employers, start by showcasing the problem you aimed to solve and how you identified it, underscoring your user-centric approach. Also be sure to highlight your decision-making process: how did you prioritize features or make trade-offs? 

It’s also valuable to showcase any metrics or results—even if they’re modest—to demonstrate impact and how you measured success. Collaborations are key; mention how you worked with designers, developers, or any other stakeholders. Remember to discuss lessons learned, both successes and failures, as this reflects an ability to iterate and grow. 

Lastly, be enthusiastic! Your passion can be contagious and can show employers you’re not only analytical, but also deeply invested in creating valuable products.

Highlight your “why”

Aspiring PMs should focus on all of the things that made their goals and milestones worth working toward. What went well with your side project? What did you learn? What changed? How did you land on this specific set of decisions? Highlight the key areas that you improved upon and the key areas that can still be improved. If there were metrics, highlight those as well.

Showcase core product skills

There are certain traits and skills that potential employers are looking for in product managers that you can demonstrate using your side project:

  • Leadership ability: Highlight your ability to prioritize by sharing examples from your side project where you had to put off certain tasks in favor of more important ones. Did you prioritize a better UX as opposed to more features? Highlight that and explain why.
  • Data analysis: Highlight metrics from your side project and explain what you inferred from them and how you would use them to make decisions. This is critical, as PMs need to strike the right balance between using qualitative and quantitative data when making decisions. For example, did you track how users were interacting with your product and where they were getting stuck? Highlight that.
  • Ownership mentality: While this may seem basic, a successful side project is one that shows that you are self-driven and accountable. To build trust with future employers, highlight how you took ownership of your project, the challenges you faced, your successes, and your mistakes from the project. 

Conclusion

Completing a side project is an excellent way for aspiring PMs to practice the art and science of product management. While it may be challenging for emerging professionals to identify real-life problems, define the scope of their solution, and outline a set of KPIs and goals for their work, well-executed side projects can pay dividends across a PM’s career, and make all the difference when applying to new roles.

While our experts shared different perspectives on how to identify ideal project opportunities and begin work, all of them emphasized the importance of documentation during each stage of a side project’s development. The side projects that provide the clearest advantages are those that showcase an aspiring PM’s thoughtful decision-making processes, technical know-how, and leadership capability. 

When beginning a new side project, we recommend defining a clear scope and getting to work–oftentimes, the most difficult part of a side project is making the decision to get started.


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Illustration by Anna Golde for GoPractice