Ask The Expert: Is There a 'Gateway' Job or Path to Product Management?
I’m looking to “break into” product management–and have a degree in engineering, several years of product design experience, an MBA and several years of management consulting experience for a high-tech firm, but I have no direct “product manager” experience. I’d love to know if there is a “gateway” job or path that you could recommend.
Product management is often hard to break into. Potential employers want to hire someone who already knows their products and their markets, and they don’t want to re-deploy an existing employee. The result, no one fits their impossible requirements. My best hire was a sales engineer (SE) who had some domain knowledge and the ability to learn our products and markets. He was stuck in his career; he couldn’t get promoted internally because he was the company’s best SE. This would be my advice to a hiring manager: to look for product managers within the company’s SE ranks.
Most product managers come to the job via a technical job from within the company, usually sales engineering, professional services, development, sometimes tech support or documentation. Leveraging your technical skills, you could possibly get into the right company via the SE ranks or via professional services—or you might also be able to get into a company through user interface design or QA and then move into product management.
Don’t kid yourself: product management in a technology company is a technical job. We have to be able to understand the choices that Development gives us and know when their designs are under- or over-engineered. Of course, we also have to understand the domain and the company’s target markets.
As for the next ladder, the “straight path” for product managers is to move into a product line management or director position over Product Management, then to VP of marketing with Product Management and Marketing Communications. The ultimate destination is COO. Product management gives one incredible experience across all organizations in the company. In fact, one statistic reported that almost half of the CEO/COOs in technology are former product managers.
There are some alternate career paths that we see. A move into:
- Sales, selling the products that we know so well
- Product Marketing, taking existing products to market
- Development management, often in the role of product architect, designing user interaction and leading development teams.
- Project management, defining standard procedures and templates for use on all products—creating a “playbook” for product managers so that new people don’t have to create their own set of tools. Pragmatic Institute® offers a base set of templates in our classes to assist in this effort.
The Pragmatic Institute Framework identifies the activities that we see product managers doing. Using this framework for self-assessment, identify which activities you think you can do well and that you would enjoy doing. How well does your skill set fit the activities in the framework?
Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot, admitted that he didn’t really have a career plan; instead, he just took on jobs that he thought would be interesting and fun. Likewise in technology—as you move though the organization, see what types of work you really enjoy (and which ones you don’t). And when you’ve found a job you love, keep doing it. If you love what you’re doing, you’ll never work a day in your life.
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