The No BS Guide to Product Management
Why it is sometimes confusing to read about product management and why I wrote this guide:
I actually wrote this guide in reaction to reading some other product management guides. I noticed that a lot of the guides I read were from pms at larger companies and didn’t actually have what I thought were the core pathways, skills, and experiences regarding product management. The guides did have a lot of tangential anecdotes, a lot of the typical hr-approved talking points of larger companies, and a lot of “check out this cool thing we did.” I tried to write this guide like something you’d hear after getting that Google pm drunk at a bar after the conference instead of hearing his talking points during the conference.
Writing product management guides is surprisingly hard for a couple of reasons. The first is that product management as a role varies more widely than other similar positions by company. A product manager at Facebook’s day to day may look completely different than a pm’s at a small startup. But even within different divisions of facebook, product managers may have completely different roles and responsibilities. It is just a position with a huge amount of variance.
The second reason it is hard to write about product management is the diverse set of backgrounds of the people that typically go into product management. There is no one path to becoming a product manager. Some pms start as developers, some come out of mba programs, some start as product interns and work their way up, some come from entrepreneurial backgrounds. I try to cover a lot of ground in this guide but invariably I will miss something. Feel free to let me know if your experience differs or if you think there’s something I should add to this guide.
The true art of the product manager:
My opinion of the true art of the product manager may not be a popular one but here it is: a product manager should be able to create the product in a microcosm. As in, through sheer power of will and skill, he should be able to bring a product from idea to profitability by himself. He never, ever will do this in practice. But he should be able to. The counterargument to this is that, since product managers always work with a team (UI, devs, marketing, etc.) that this is overkill. I think that the more skilled and knowledgeable you are in each discipline, the better you can interface with your counterparts and speak their language.
Marketing can be a good path in as long as you steer towards “product marketing” as much as possible. The path often looks something like this: Marketing Analyst to associate product marketing manager to product marketing manager to product manager. While in marketing, master google analytics or whatever analytics platform is being used (GA is preferable). Learn SEO in and out. Understand on-page SEO, backlinks, domain and page authority, and keywords. Master content marketing, outbound marketing, and growing social media presences.
Associate Product Manager:
This path is the most clear one. You start as an associate product manager basically doing what a product manager does but at a more junior level. Eventually, you are promoted to becoming a product manager. Not much more to say about that.
Product Management Internships:
This one you have to be careful about. This is not such a slam dunk as associate product manager. A lot of times only the best interns are asked back. Try to kill it in your limited time as an intern as much as possible. If you are not asked back for a full time position, you can always leverage your experience with other companies.
UI designer can be a path into product management. You master design tools like sketch and invision and get really really good at prototyping and mockups. In your role as a UI designer, try to take on larger and larger projects, and do more and more with each of them, so that you start to almost work in the function of a product manager.
Going from a developer to product manager is one of the more popular routes. As a developer, try to be as involved and knowledgeable in UI as much as possible to supplement your coding skills.
Getting an MBA to become a product manager is a bit overkill. It is expensive and has a sunk cost in regards to time. The skills don’t transfer over that great (in my opinion). I think this makes the most sense if you are currently a developer. Also the top MBA programs tend to have a disproportionately higher ROI than lesser programs. If you are going this route make sure it is one of the better programs.
If you are undergrad and still deciding a major, the best major to choose is computer science. Having technical skills is important for a pm. Second best would be something tangential to computer science like statistics or electrical engineering. Third best would be a difficult non-related technical major like physics or math. Fourth best would be a social science like communication or psychology or any type of “businessey” major.
Probably the least popular pathway, and the pathway I myself took into product management, is entrepreneurship. This path is actually probably the best way to learn the raw skills you need for product management because you often have no choice but to wear all the hats that you will need to wear as pm. This path is probably also the most difficult because it is very difficult to make a startup succeed. Failure is an option, but the better you do the more this will help you when looking for a product job. The likelihood of getting a product job with this type of experience scales linearly with the success of the startup you are a part up, the size of your role within the startup, and how good you are at framing your experience and telling your story. In terms of just pure, whole career learning this is my most recommended path.
SQL is an important skill to learn as a product manager. Not all the information you need will be available in analytics. A lot of the information will be in the database. If every time you have to look something up not in the analytics you have to go to a developer people will get irritated with you quickly. This is also a big one people ask in interviews. Keep in mind, you won’t be writing to databases but you will be doing lookups. The other, less popular, database technology you may want to learn is MongoDB.
A product manager needs some bravado, some flash. If you don’t have the UI designers looking over their shoulders nervously at you like you are about to put them out of a job, you need to work on your prototyping. You need to be a sketch and invision maestro. Not just passable but razzle dazzle, pull it out in a meeting and mock up the entire thing before everyone’s eyes while they talk about it, type of good.
You need to know exactly what users are doing. Out of everyone in the company, you should be the best at analytics. A good way to see if you really have a grasp on analytics is to solve almost detective cases. Someone made a project with X title. Who was that? Where did they come from? What marketing campaign? Were they a first time user or did they come back?
Being technical is valuable for a product manager. Some companies don’t even hire non-technical product managers. We wrote an exhaustive learn to code guide here: https://loopinput.com/the-heros-journey-of-coding/
Scrum bro. Learn the terminology. You should know what user stories, backlog, agile, and sprints are. You should also learn how to lead projects and expectation management on the customer side. The ability to lead projects comes with experience unfortunately, not many shortcuts there.
Product managers need to be able to talk and they need to be able to sell. I’m not really talking about selling products, I’m talking about selling products. What? I mean you probably aren’t going to be doing the job of the salesperson of selling specific products, but you will be selling the idea of products, either internally or to customers. Before a product is ever sold, it needs to be sold.
Knowledge of relevant products and internet trends: Strong pms are plugged into software news. They adopt new products, learn about startups that fail and succeed, engage with frontier technologies, conduct market and user research, and read about rising consumer trends. Since new ideas often come from the collision of two old ideas, creative pms are constantly exposing themselves to new industries, concepts, and data on user preferences.
To improve, start engaging with the HackerNews and ProductHunt communities and become much more aware of tech news, trends, and hit products. Open a Twitter account and start following tech influencers and investors.
Talking to the customer:
Talking to the customer is about as sacred of an exercise as it gets in product management. If you don’t talk to customers you will be shunned and reviled. You need to get really, really good at listening to customers and getting information out of them. Get really good at reading between the lines of what they say and figuring out what they do and don’t want (not just what they say they do and don’t want). You are going to get a lot of headaches and noise from your customers as well, so get used to handling that. Everyone will have a couple nightmare customers, that is also part of the job. Sometimes your nightmare customers are your most valuable customers because they care the most and give you some of the most honest feedback.
Cracking the pm interview:
For just straight interview skills there is no better resource than our good friend cracking the pm interview. I don’t focus on pm interviews here because this book is that good, it covers it.
The other way to ace interviews is to do a lot of interviews. Like a lot. The more interviews you do, the more comfortable you will become, and you will fix your mistakes over time. You will also find yourself answering the same questions again and again.
Types of product management jobs
Product management Intern:
Glassdoor Salary $84,754
At the bottom of the product food chain is the intern. Interns are often temporary positions which may or may not be offered full time positions
Associate product manager:
Glassdoor Salary $126,565
Associate product manager is often the junior position to product manager. Often times these are full time jobs that do the same kind of work as a product manager, just with a reduced scope. The reason the salary is so close to product manager is that this position is popular at larger companies that pay more base salary than startups. Larger companies will often tier out their product teams more than startups, which may just have a couple product people with the title “Product Manager.”
Glassdoor Salary $74,160
Product analyst is similar to the associate product manager position. Often times this will be the alternative name for the position junior to a product manager. Sometimes a company will have both product analysts and associate product managers with analysts being junior to associates.
Glassdoor Salary $126,658
Product manager is the most common bread and butter position. Often times they will have at least a couple years experience.
Glassdoor Salary $102,633
Product owner is just an alternative name for product manager which is often used by startups. The lower salary is due to the popularity of the title with startups which tend to pay less base salary than larger companies.
Product Marketing Manager:
Glassdoor Salary $130,904
Product marketing manager is a similar position to product manager but with an orientation more towards marketing. Often larger companies distinguish between product managers and product marketing managers which is why the salary trends high.
Senior Product Manager:
Glassdoor Salary $126,565
Senior product manager is the more senior position to product manager, often given to product managers with more experience.
Director of Product:
Glassdoor Salary $126,565
Directors of product are often the first tier of senior management above senior product managers but below VPs (in the US). Some companies have directors as above VPs but that is more rare.
VP of Product:
Glassdoor Salary $188,958
VPs are usually the level below c-suite. They are usually senior to everyone except the CPO. Sometimes larger companies will distinguish between senior VPs and VPs.
Glassdoor Salary $190,870
The CPO or chief product officer is the highest product position possible. The only person senior to the CPO in general would be the CEO and sometimes the COO. This is the highest the product ladder gets without becoming a CEO yourself.
What I wish I knew before becoming a product manager
Assuming responsibility for the product:
One of the things you will soon learn as a product manager is that you are usually the go-to person for your products. If something breaks, people will often go to you first. If people have an idea, they will go to you first. This creates a huge volume of emails, phone calls, and texts that you will be bombarded with. Choosing what to prioritize and what to ignore becomes very important if you don’t want to spend all your time putting out fires and answering emails.
Meetings Meetings Meetings:
Another big thing you will soon notice is that people will try to schedule a ton of meetings with you. Since you are in between the different departments, each department will want you to sit in on their meetings so that you know what’s going on. Marketing, Dev, UI, Management, will all invite you to meetings. If you are not careful, you may spend all day listening to people talk and not actually get any work done.
Getting “stakeholder” approval:
This is another big pitfall. Often times you are supposed to get “stakeholder approval” from UI, devs, marketing etc. The problem is that each of these departments, and even the people within the departments, will have radical different opinions of where the product should go. These opinions are often incompatible. If you listen to every stakeholder, you will end up redoing the product design endless amounts of times and never actually fully please any of them.
You will spend sometimes months building a product as a labor of love. You will become very attached to the product. You will think the product is the greatest thing to have ever existed. Your product will be killed. Your product will fail sometimes. This will hurt.
Product management gives you a huge boost in terms of creative leeway. In terms of the ability to actually create, product management is unrivaled. You have less constraints than UI and dev in this way (their work often comes when the product is less nascent and so their work is more regimented).
You get to wear a lot of hats:
If you get bored doing the same thing a lot, product management is for you. With product management, you get to do some marketing, design, technical stuff (if you’re up to it), talking with customers, analytics, and on and on. If you are interested in something you have some of the most leeway in the entire company to pursue it. I’ve taken on the job design, coding, and marketing courses.
The pm culture of the company matters:
Finally, how you are treated as a product manager can range from rockstar to doormat depending on the company culture. Companies vary widely in how they treat their pms with some having a pm-friendly culture and some not. Checking this out thoroughly before accepting a pm position is important. If possible, try to peruse the company’s glassdoor and talk to some current or former pms that work there.