Product managers have a very strategic job: they must identify whether a product will actually fulfill customer needs, then rally the team to fulfill the vision for that product (preferably within budget and on deadline). For those interested in how to become a product manager, keep in mind that it requires a mix of “big picture” thinking and attention to detail, along with “soft skills” such as communication and empathy.
While technical product managers usually start as software engineers, there are multiple pathways to a career in product management. A growing number of online learning classes have made it easier to pick up key skills. In addition, many product managers are willing to mentor younger tech professionals who show interest in the profession.
Christina Gilligan, product manager at Spotify, has been in digital or tech product management for about five years, with an undergraduate degree is in business management and marketing. “When I was in college in 2011, the whole concept of product management was really evolving and there weren’t any classes to take on the subject,” she says. “So, any product management experience I had was strictly from hands-on practical experience on the job.”
She completed the Northwestern Kellogg Professional Certificate in Product Management with Emeritus in February 2022. “I decided to take this course after an interview with a large tech company that ultimately didn’t offer me the role, but said I was 90 percent there in terms of my product acumen,” she explains. “This course was a six-month program that has made me the product manager I am today.”
Take Advantage of Online Options
For those looking to start a career in product management, Gilligan’s advice is to take advantage of the multitude of courses that are available: “Especially in this hybrid and remote era, taking online courses like the one I did with Emeritus is more accessible than ever.”
After taking the class and posting the certification on LinkedIn, she says she saw a noticeable increase in recruiter outreach from all types of companies, especially companies in tech. “It’s definitely a great way to kickstart or grow your product management career,” she says. “Sometimes your employer might even offer continuing education funding and programs as a benefit, so definitely check in on that.”
But product management is a profession that allows for many approaches to mastery (and employment). Justin Bauer, chief product officer at Amplitude, had a somewhat unique path into product management. “I started my career in data science and analytics, and I then took those skills and applied them to the world of business at McKinsey,” he says. “That’s where I got my first product manager job, as one of the first product managers at the entire firm. Since then, product is all I’ve ever done.”
During his time at McKinsey, he was part of the team that raised that money internally for what eventually became Periscope, the technology backbone of McKinsey's Growth, Marketing & Sales Practice. “That’s what changed my viewpoint on creating impact at scale—it’s possible to develop software that changes how people work, operate, and live,” he says.
Foster Strong Relationships Inside Your Own Organization
Luke Gannon, product manager at Neo4j, says he was fortunate enough to have a great relationship with some of the project managers at his company prior to undertaking that career path himself. “I had previously worked with them while in the field engineering organization to help them understand the customer, their pain points, what they want, and to ultimately scope customer requirements,” he says. “After working as a field engineer, I connected with the project managers and then transitioned to that role at Neo4j.”
While training and certifications are great, don’t discount real-world experience. “You can be ‘book smart’ but that doesn't fully prepare you for being ‘street smart,’” Gannon says. “Training and certifications can give you some preparation when it comes to tackling a new challenge, problem or market.”
“Street smarts” in the context of product management is valuable because recruiters and hiring managers will ask about your practical approaches and stakeholder negotiation during job interviews. You’ll need to show you can effectively overcome roadblocks, that you’ve adapted in the face of unexpected challenges, and you can work with people who might initially disagree with you.
Keep an Eye on Upskilling Opportunities
Because the product management and tech worlds evolve every single day, product managers need to continually keep their skills up-to-date. That means taking classes and training sessions; given the demand for product managers, you can probably persuade your boss to pay any necessary fees for continuing education.
“Also, engaging with a product manager at your organization and asking them for mentoring can be extremely useful, too,” Gilligan says. “I’ve done this, and I’ve mentored others before as well.” One of the most important skills is having the language to successfully collaborate with every discipline, from designers to engineers to executives.
“Data is everything, as it allows you to determine metrics and define objectives and key results (OKRs), as well as the ability to create value propositions, mission statements and vision statements,” she adds.
The way you approach challenges and lead a team are two of the soft skills that make a successful product manager. Anyone who masters the role should become good at helping their team figure out what to prioritize in order to meet the project’s goals and deadlines.
Product managers also must ensure their product achieves any OKRs, all while the team stays on schedule without sacrificing the quality of the end product.
Bauer says most of his product management training has come from experience rather than specific training or certifications. “When I was first starting out in product, the field was still fairly new and certifications like we see in other industries didn’t exist,” he says. “Like many other product leaders today, I learned on the job.” He cites programs like Reforge, as well as courses taught at business schools dedicated to the practice of product management.
Master the Art of Influence
Great project managers have a mix of technical understanding (while still staying current) and soft skills. "One of the soft skills that is really important is listening, which sounds cliché, but it’s really the one you’ll use the most as a project manager," Gannon says. "Concise communication is crucial when working with lots of different teams, so making sure that you’ve heard correctly, and everyone is on the same page will save everyone time."
From his perspective, product management is a role of facilitation through influence: “Don't expect that product management is leadership with authority.”
To thrive as a product manager, he believes it’s a good idea to read stories about a diverse range of startups, not just ones that are within your specific interests. “Your job will require you to be working with various different people, so knowing what is going on throughout different industries will help you brainstorm new and creative ideas,” he adds.
Bauer says even if you’re not an engineer or don’t have a product manager title, there are other ways to get involved in the hands-on process of building a product. There are low-code and no-code options, for example, and endless teams are looking for extra hands to help build their product.
“Many people at Amplitude have joined the product team from other roles and have gone on to become some of our most successful product leaders,” he explains. “Identify the skill set you bring to the product team, offer your support, and start building.”
And Don’t Forget These Skills: Strategic Thinking, UX, Analytics, and Product Expertise
Bauer says he believes every product manager needs to be able to juggle four imperative skills: strategic thinking, product and tech expertise, user experience, and analytics.
“While the most traditional background of a product leader is product and tech expertise, today PMs need a deep understanding of user experience and analytics,” he says. “I started my career as an econometrician, what today you would call a data scientist.”
From his perspective, understanding the customer experience, what metrics define success, and how to best track those metrics are all critical to launching a successful product. “All of this requires strategic thinking,” he says. “As a product leader, you’re both the representative for the customer and the business.”
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