Product Management

Finding your first job in product

How do I break into product?

I just took XYZ bootcamp in product and need to find a job – can you help me?

I’m working in {insert role here} and want to move into product, how do I do that?

I get asked these kinds of questions a lot.

As a white, cis-gendered male who’s been at this for awhile, I also know I’m very privileged to be where I am in my career. When I got started in product there were few books, the internet was emerging and largely not yet fully understood, and I got in largely because someone gave me a chance. Opportunities are as much about luck as anything. I had a supportive set of startup founders who were aware of the role of product emerging in Silicon Valley. They opened the door for me to meet others, learn, experiment, and try. They gave me access to people shaping what this could and would look like. And they empowered me to get shit done. And these opportunities still exist today, you just have to find them. Breaking into the product management space is going to be hard. Get ready and be willing to be persistent. Tenacity is a good trait.

So here’s my advice:

Understand the landscape and opportunity size

I like to remind folks that PM represent a very small pool of the overall headcount in a company. For illustrative purposes, I’ll break this into three groups:

  • about a third of a company is “product” – that’s design, engineering, and product management. A typical product team would include a product manager, a designer, and a lead engineer supported by 5-8 (and maybe up to 12 engineers). It’s also not unusual to see PMs spread across 1-3 of these teams (though not ideal)
  • about a third of a company is “customer-facing” roles like Support, Customer Success and Sales
  • about a third of a company is “operational” roles like Marketing, People/HR, and the Leadership.

So if you take a 100 person startup (which is a pretty good size) about 33 people are in product, 33 in customer-facing roles, and 33 in operational roles.

From the 33 in product you can probably form about 3-4 product teams. And you might still have a co-founder who has their hand in product still or acts as the VP Product or CPO. So you might have overall 1-2 product management roles or about 1-2% of total staffing as product managers.

Understand the problem space

And here’s where the problem comes in. There’s a lot of hype and buzz around the role of product manager right now. And a lot of people selling snake oil and potions in the form of bootcamps, certifications, online courses, “product coaching” (ok, there are a few great product coaches) etc. that will say these will help you get a job in product. The fact is no one in the industry cares about that and the opportunity pie (per my summary above) is small. Very small. This is a small fish, big pond problem.

Focus on outcomes, not output

As such, my suggestion as far as breaking into product would be to do the following:

First, find the product you’re passionate and love. Honestly there is nothing worse that managing a product you hate, with people you don’t want to work for, with a mission, vision, objectives that you can’t be inspired by. Don’t just take a job to take a job.

Second, do a honest evaluation of where your skills are at today. Take some time to grab about a dozen or so job roles. Make a table with one column listing the competencies that you see in those job roles and what they want from people and in the other list where you think you are at with each of them (a simple Low, Medium, High rating will do). Then once you have a sense of your skillset you can work to close gaps via learning or by doing product things yourself like building stuff, experimenting, etc. Also look at the soft skills side of things — tools like Kate Leto’s Product EQ wheel, StrengthsFinder, and the PM Daisy can all be super helpful in shaping your understand of who you are and what makes you tick.

As far as learning, if you’ve had some exposure to a bootcamp or course that’s great, but nothing helps you grow more in this career than building something. So look for a side hustle, apply the skills you learnt from the program. Read product books, listen to product podcasts to build a vocabulary that you can internalize and apply the skills to really understand the craft of product. Get up and close with what product is about as much as that is possible.

Third, take a look at the market. I like to think of the market as having roughly three buckets of companies:

  1. small startups where there is a co-founder looking to hire their first PM. I like to analogize this as a parent who has to give up their first child to a daycare employee. They want to do their diligence and make sure you’re the right person, that you’re going to take care of their “baby” — their product — that they’ve put so much work into nurturing. This is a hard one as often co-founders want to give this over to someone experienced, but others may be willing to do it in a fractional way (often co-founders who are product-led don’t fully give up the reigns anyways). So your opportunities here will come from networking and demonstrating that you can get things done. I’ve even seen a few folks find traction by networking with fractional CTOs who often need people to help in small, possibly shorter-term opportunities that may grow into bigger things. The nice thing about small startups is you get to do a lot of things, but the bad thing is that you often lose out on the chance to surround yourself with good product mentors (unless your co-founder came from a product background).
  2. mid-size startups. These ones tend to have product/market fit so are really trying to grow and deal with competition. They are trying to move quickly so tend to lean on experienced PMs. These are great places to join in a non-PM role that works with or intersects with product. Good examples would be Support, Success, Sales, and Product Marketing (Design and Engineering are good too if you have those skills). Generally though these see new PMs akin to an anchor attached to a boat, slowing them down so typically will avoid hiring this kind of talent and will lean on hiring within from those product adjacent ranks if they do have less-experienced roles as they have the domain experience.
  3. large startups and established firms. These tend to have more hierarchy so the nice part here is that you can find more mentorship and growth opportunities. Depending on the company and location (and even culture) their pace of hiring may vary. Good places don’t have a lot of churn of people, so these roles may come up seldom. Others may have aggressive and continued growth so may have APM programs or paths in for less experienced PMs.

Fourth, find a way into a company that fits you best based on the above that gets you a chance to learn about the product, customers, and the business. Domain knowledge is like gold. Don’t underestimate its power. From there you can likely find a path to product more efficiently than trying to get a product role directly. Or at the least you can help create that space.

And lastly, take some time to keep networking and find your people. Know this has been hard with COVID and all, but you have to do it. Join communities, share and create value (contributing to discussions and sharing resources and materials with others) not just extract value, and find your tribe that can also advocate for you. Once they get to know the real you then when they have opportunities you can be more top-of-mind as their next potential hire.

Hope that helps. Feel free to reach out anytime 😀 I look forward to seeing where your career goes in product.

P.S. hey product leaders, we need to do better too

I’ll also say that we need to do better as product leaders. We need to open the door wider, be open to giving people a chance and an opportunity to shine, be more willing to hire for aptitude and a passion and invest in training for skills and less on always looking for that unicorn of a PM with 3-5 years or 5-7 years experience. Without these folks finding their place, our product space will flounder. Make some room, support others around you. Stop being a closed door and instead be an open one.