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How did you first break into product management?
As an undergraduate at UPenn, I was originally planning to move into software engineering on graduation. However, following a conversation with a Microsoft recruiter, I was introduced to the idea of program management and ended up interning in program management at Microsoft the following summer, which I absolutely loved. So I decided to join Microsoft full time in a PM role upon leaving UPenn.
What advice do you have for folks out there who are maybe undergraduates, juniors or seniors who are looking to break into product management?
Many top employers are looking for computer science or engineering graduates to fill PM positions, and this is an excellent route into the role. They’re usually looking for a broad range of attributes, not solely an excellent GPA or top-tier school background—although these are certainly a boon.
First off, product management is very communication and leadership oriented. Employers will want to see strong skills in these areas to see evidence that you can communicate succinctly and clearly.
In terms of demonstrating leadership, look to your extracurricular activities. As an undergraduate, I participated in Model UN, where students create a mock UN Conference and debate societal issues like climate change. It ended up being a great way to practice debate and leadership in many ways.
How is the strategy here different for current MBA students? What do they need to get out of their schooling in order to break into those product management roles?
Basically, the strategy is similar. MBAs from technical and engineering backgrounds will have an edge, so if that’s not you, you should focus on evidencing your abilities to be technical in those interviews. This often ends up being the biggest challenge for MBA students with non-engineering undergraduate backgrounds.
There’s also your previous work experience, and how you present it. Interviewers want to see how that work experience has built foundational skills for product management, even without direct experience in the field.
Interviewers are looking for transferable structured thinking and critical analysis skills. Therefore, crafting a narrative around how your previous work experience lends itself towards a role in product management is a super important part of that interview process.
This dovetails nicely into the next way to break into product management: adjacent fields. Let's say, I'm an engineer or designer and I want to do some more product work while I'm at the company. How do I take on that product work or ask for it in the first place?
This is one of the most practical and realistic paths to product management roles, as opposed to breaking into a PM role directly.
The key thing is to work in a role that actually works closely with Product Managers, so you should try to find a way to work on a product-related project. If you’re in marketing, for example, aim to work in inbound marketing, where you work on getting feedback from customers to influence the product. This will likely be interfacing with the product team and product managers.
Lastly, find ways to take ownership of product management projects. Work on writing a piece of a spec or managing a small aspect of a project. Ultimately, this strategy works well when you're transferring roles within the same company because you have that built-in trust.
How should someone consider whether or not to start immediately in a product management role versus first developing skills in say, engineering, and then transferring into product later?
If you can get a product management role directly, you're going to be better served to do that. That said, the “adjacent role approach” is, frankly, one of the most realistic paths of getting into a product management role if you can’t directly break into the field. Don’t feel discouraged if you can't get the direct path.
You also mention paths to product management from being an entrepreneur or being an industry expert, how does this usually work?
You often see entrepreneurs move into a product management role after their startup. I think that's because often, as a founder CEO or founder CTO, you end up having a ton of product responsibility.
The challenge here is that entrepreneurs move so fast in startups, that they're often flying by the seat of their pants and not implementing best practices. When transitioning into product management, you'll want to evidence your ability to leverage rigor and process because that's something that companies may fear you might not have done as an entrepreneur.
The other path to product management is coming from significant domain expertise. Let me provide a couple of examples:
I know someone who recently completed their Masters in Education and was interested in working for an ed-tech company. She was able to parlay her educational experience into this ed-tech company as a PM because what they were really looking for was experts in education.
Despite not having product management skills, she brought so much domain expertise and had the foundational skills that they ended up hiring her as a product manager.
I've seen the same thing happen in medicine, where someone has an MD and is looking to transition to product management. They end up joining a health tech startup and bring that domain expertise to bear in that role of product management.
One last question: one of the most common questions we get at Exponent is whether or not a PM needs to be technical. What’s your take?
My perspective has always been that you want to be technical when going into a product management role - but there are many ways to evidence your technical ability without a four-year computer science undergrad program.
Just as a sculptor needs to be appropriately well versed in the material that they’re using to create great art, a product manager needs to be adept at the capabilities of technology, so then they can craft solutions and experiences that actually end up being useful and delightful for the customer.
This doesn't mean that they understand the nitty-gritty of how that technology works. But they can understand trade-offs between why doing something one way might actually be impactful versus not.
Some aspiring product managers ask me, “should I join a boot camp and learn software engineering?” I often don't advise that because you're never going to be the best at software engineering.
That's not the role you want. Instead, find ways to evidence your technical capabilities without going down the software engineering rabbit hole.
Listen and read the second of our two interview segments with Sachin here: How To Answer Product Management Interview Questions.
Learn more about Sachin Rekhi at his website.
Visit Exponent's PM Interview Course for more great product management interview prep.