From Your First Job to Your Last

Pragmatic Marketer Volume 10 Issue 1How do you get that first product manager job? I’m asked that all the time, as well as what the next few promotions look like.

Breaking into product management can be tough, since most hiring managers want someone with product-management experience, even for first-line jobs. We recently analyzed hiring criteria in 41 postings for U.S. product managers, and 76 percent of hiring managers asked for previous experience in a product-management role, averaging 3.3 years. And another 17 percent asked for extensive experience in related roles. Only two of the postings from big companies (IBM and HP) had openings that new college graduates could qualify for. Sure it’s unfair, but the challenge of getting that first job is a cold, hard reality.Once you do break into product management, however, you will be juggling a fascinating set of escalating responsibilities. Let’s take a look at how you can climb the product-management career ladder.

That First Job

So how do you get that first product management job? Your enthusiasm and good looks are not enough to get you in the door when competing against seasoned product managers. You need to find opportunities where your specific talents are highly valued.

Experience wasn’t the only qualification that hiring managers sought, so there is some hope for newbies. They called out cross-functional teamwork, executive and customer presentation skills and market-sensing abilities. Basically, they see product management as a contact sport—no staring at your shoes.     For education, 93 percent sought bachelor’s degrees, with 68 percent preferring a computer science/engineering focus. This may seem like overkill, but product managers who can’t hold their own with opinionated development teams are hobbled. Likewise, 32 percent wanted MBAs, so you clearly need to know how to build a credible business plan.

Ultimately, however, your best shot at moving into this new role is within your existing company. It’s much harder to change companies and roles at the same time. You already know a lot about your company’s products, market and technology, so here are some additional tips to get on the first rung of the product-management ladder:

  • Meet everyone on your current product-management team, and let them know that you’re interested.
  • Give good feedback on requirements, competitive threats, use cases and other artifacts they produce. Show that
  • you can straddle the business/technical fence.
  • Ask about personas.
  • Sit in on customer briefings (and DON’T SAY A WORD).
  • Ask to be a “back-up” product manager on a project: Do some of the research, competitive analysis and customer interviews. Starting with the grunt work will earn you respect and help you determine if this is a good fit.
  • And the TOCStudy your company’s product literature, pricing and competition.
  • If you have real customer interactions, share recommendations with the product management team on how to improve sales, open new markets, improve user experience or streamline support. (But assume that they have talked with lots of customers and have heard the same thing.) Give yourself 50 bonus points for each customer you can quote.
  • Go to a Product Camp (

In other words, volunteer to do some product management stuff. If you’re good, the team will want more of you.

If you’re looking outside of your current company, target your existing market. Companies sometimes hire into product management roles for experience or special domain knowledge. If you happen to be a whiz at logistics software (or chemical analytics or financial clearinghouses), check out companies that focus on supply chain (or gas chromatography or program trading). Managers in niche markets struggle to find candidates who are both experienced product folks and subject matter experts. Your market knowledge could replace some functional expertise.

Another thing to consider is stepping-stone roles. If you really, truly want to be a product manager and the other approaches I’ve described don’t work, think about jobs that get you closer to product management. Ask the product folks in your company where they started or which groups they hire from. For example, sales engineers and professional services folks sometimes make the jump to product management, since they combine great technical knowledge with hands-on sales and customer experience.

Up to Director

Eventually, you may want to take that next step toward the money, respect and sheer glory of becoming a director.

In my experience, the director role works on a different set of problems than individual product managers. They worry about the process of product management: building launch teams, balancing staff assignments, standardizing reporting, fostering cross-functional cooperation, setting product-line-level strategy and resource allocation. Directors encourage risk-taking and dismantle organizational roadblocks. They keep the trains running and the products flowing. A good director makes product-level decisions only to settle disputes or demonstrate techniques.     

Directors also focus on people issues: coaxing cooperation, aligning incentives, mentoring and cooling down egos. They relentlessly present product strategy and roadmaps to other departments to boost understanding of what product management does. The best directors provide informal people feedback to other directors. They look for underappreciated talent across the company, identify great contributors in other departments, encourage cooperation within teams and model good behavior for their peers.

Assuming you’re in a large enough organization to have “real directors,” you’re a promotion candidate if you’re already a seasoned professional with 4-plus years on a few different products, and you are the “go-to person” for competitive and technical info. You also make time for long-term planning and bits of mentoring and have been through the release cycle (and emotional roller coaster) several times. Other departments ask to work with you.

To show that you’re ready for the bigger role, start by devoting part of your energy toward being more “director-like.” Look for activities that both improve your management skills and make them more visible.

First, have a humble but unambiguous chat with your own director. “I really enjoy working for you, and am learning a lot. I think I’ll be ready soon to be a director if a slot opens up, so I want your advice. What’s your feedback on my skills, organizational style or areas of improvement? How do you see the staffing map changing over the next year?” Moving up requires your boss’s active support—or his empty chair. Don’t get caught sneaking around him for a promotion.

  • Think about how development staff should be allocated across products. Kick it around with your director.
  • Up-level some of your competitive analysis from individual widgets to market positioning.
  • Take on some cross-functional projects or task forces. That might sound yucky, but it’s how directors get things done. You’ll be freeing your director from one more committee and boosting your visibility.
  • Identify your best non-product-management coworkers, and thank their bosses.
  • Start mentoring someone in a junior role. You’ll learn a lot, improve the team and show that you’re management material.

In essence, directors of product management wrestle with different issues than individual product managers. If you want to become a director, find ways to demonstrate those next-level-up skills. There are a few caveats, however. For one, the promotional funnel for director-level jobs is very narrow. Slots rarely come open, and there are probably five candidates for each director position. You might need to watch for other organizations that need leadership.

Also, there is little difference in work content between senior product managers and directors at some companies. Instead, it’s mostly about respect and money and who negotiated a better hire-on package. Figure out who is making the decisions, and have a frank discussion about how to show your worthiness.

Up to Vice President

Product groups vary widely and are not always rationally designed. In my opinion, line product managers fundamentally look after individual products or services: shepherding the short-term development efforts and long-term strategy work to keep a 3-12 month roadmap that’s coherent. Directors look after the business of product management, providing some order, structure and process to a chaotic situation. And the vice president of product management functions as senior staffer or consigliere to the rest of the executive team—making sure that the company as a whole is building, shipping and supporting the right products.

The vice president is essentially the product manager of the organization itself and its internal people and processes. The vice president of product management should be an honest broker at the executive level who represents product, market and company success, rather than any one specific function—thinking more broadly than engineering, marketing, sales or support. They are the folks most likely to say, “Yes, but the right thing for our long-term business and the markets we serve is …” 

Executives know that product management has a very small staff and budget vs. engineering, marketing and sales, so the vice-president role has some implied neutrality in the great budgetary and reorganization battles that tear companies apart. Without being accused of empire building, vice presidents of product management get to ask, “How should we be organized for success?” Ideally, the CEO (or business unit manager) wants their unbiased opinion.

Product-management vice presidents live cross-functionally, with ideas for improvements that are nondenominational. They build up peer credibility with “Jesse in QA is doing a terrific job” and the occasional “Gordon is creating problems in marketing that we need to solve.” They understand what each functional group does, praise in public, and privately raise issues with department heads. They also sweat the business’ overall success. Are we missing key segments, being outflanked by new competitors or stuck in an old business model? What are the important (cross-product) decisions that will drive longer-term revenue?

They are part of the corporate strategy team (if it exists), providing real-world customer input and the urgency of current-quarter sales quotas. They bring product managers in as subject matter experts to reduce buzzword bloat and keep strategy relevant.

All of that boils down to the fact that this is not a command position, but an executive-level influencer role.  A vice president of product management shapes how work gets done, rather than making individual product decisions. In other words, he works broad structural and human issues to enable delivery of great products. Business focus trumps personal politics.

If I’ve just described what you’re already doing at the director level, you’re due for a promotion. (Forward this article to your boss.) Otherwise, make the most of the shape of your current organization to gain traction:

  • Vice presidents of product management are mostly found in the largest organizations. If you’re a director at such a place, help your current boss succeed and loyally follow on up the ladder.
  • At medium-sized companies, directors work for engineering, marketing or the CEO/business unit manager. With only a handful of product managers to manage, justifying a bigger title (and salary and options) is tough. Vice president opportunities may be found laterally in other functional groups: customer support, sales, engineering or new business units.
  • At startups, cash burn is much more important than job title. During your hiring process, offer to take less money in return for a vice-president title (and a bit more stock). It’s a great trade, whether you stay a long time or parlay this into a role elsewhere.
  • Consider that the power roles at your company may be in engineering and sales (B2B) or marketing (B2C). Think about stepping into a wider role and learning some new skills.

Note that being vice president of product management takes a heap of humility and patience. You’ll never be singled out as the reason for your company’s success. It’s the pride of your kid in the school play or your protégées going to the hot new startup—not the big ego trip.

Vice presidents of product management have a unique, strategic, cross-functional role—and need a rare mix of talents and personality. They bring cohesion and coordination to the top of the company, allowing product managers to drive individually successful products. You should take your own measure before setting that as your next job goal. And then think big, because you’ll next become a CMO or CEO candidate.

Where Does That Leave Your Career?

Product management is an odd mix of technical, market and organizational skills. It’s not a “book-learning” role, so real experience under fire is what hiring managers want at every level. Consider your fit for what companies are searching for, and find a path to your next product management position—whether it’s your first or your last.

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