Ask A Good Product Manager

Your product management questions answered

How can I become a product manager without any experience?

Posted on March 10, 2008 · 20 Comments

Question: How do I get experience in product management?

I am about to graduate college with a degree in Managerial Economics and am very interested in product management. However, I do not have technical experience. Would you have advice on the best way to gain experience? Many of the product management positions require prior experience.

Answer from Saeed Khan of On Product Management: Ah yes, the perennial question…How do I become a Product Manager? You didn’t indicate which industry you want to work in? In non-technology industries such as Consumer Packaged Goods or Finance, being a Product Manager is primarily a marketing and business function. Typically those kinds of companies (e.g. Proctor & Gamble) look to hire MBAs for such roles. If you want to work in one of those industries, go for your MBA or find another position (e.g. pricing or business analyst) that can move you in the direction of a Product Manager.

Now, if you want to be a Product Manager in a technology company, then it’s a bit different. While I have seen MBAs and business grads as PMs in software companies, that is typically not the norm. There is no well defined path to becoming a PM in a technology company. Technology PMs need domain knowledge, need a good technical background, and need to be able to drive a product through from conception to completion and into the market. It is a multi-disciplinary role, and one that can be both quite frustrating and very rewarding at the same time.

Many PMs I’ve met became PMs in their companies after working for at least a year or two as a Sales Engineer, or as Support Lead, or in Product Marketing, or some other role where they could pick up product, customer, market and technical knowledge.

My own transition to product management came after having spent quite a few years in various roles in software companies including programmer, consultant, trainer and customer support manager. The first company in which I became a product manager was in a market that was very similar to my previous company, and thus I had domain knowledge. Even then, it was a big learning experience to transition into Product Management.

So, the best way to become a Product Manager? Be a Product Manager. :-)

20 other answers so far ↓

  • Determined_Tobe_PM // Mar 17, 2008 at 8:04 am

    It looks like, without an MBA, that the easiest way to get an opportunity in Product Management is through a technology firm. However, this article would be much more helpful to me if it explained HOW. What kind of skills are they looking for? What kinds of non MBA coursework should I take, because I also do not come from a business background-I have soft marketing skills. I am looking into going back to school and taking a few courses, but at this stage in my career it is not the best strategy. I graduated a year ago and have a good job, but my dream is to go into Product Management/Marketing. Do I need accounting courses and CIS coursework? Or can I learn this on my own? If there are certain courses out there that would be beneficial to take what are they? Say there are two people who both have great work experience both in the marketing field, but don’t have any experience a product manager would have. What will set person A over person B to be the one hired for an entry-level Product Manager opportunity? These are the questions I am seeking. I’m in MarCom and I enjoy it, but I see myself in Product Management or Marketing. How can I leverage the skills I have in MarCom for a Product Management type position? That would have been more helpful not simply: “Be a Product Manager.”

  • Gopal Shenoy // Mar 18, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    Having hired product managers in my career, I have put together some key traits I was looking for in my hiring process – Check it out on my blog at http://productmanagementtips.com/2007/07/26/what-to-look-for-in-a-product-manager/

  • Derek Britton // Mar 25, 2008 at 11:47 am

    You could do a lot worse than get yourself “certified” through a widely recognized and certainly very thorough introductory training course provided by the guys at pragmaticmarketing.com – I think its called Practical Product Managment, or something similar. I don’t know anybody who didn’t think it was the best thing they did for their PM career.

    The other key facets I would seek are the sort of attributes you would expect to see in any senior or leadership position. The “technical expertise” side of things is only part of the job.
    - strong industry knowledge
    - strong customer knowledge
    - Project (yes, project) management skills (it is all about managing milestones, expectations, priorities and people)
    - company leadership credentials (experience, longevity, qualifications, professional accreditation)
    - some subject-matter expertise (in a tech’ company this is often given unnecessary weight in terms of skill requirements, so be warned)
    - strong comms skills, both in terms of quality and quantity. Just knowing stuff is useless unless you make it your mission to tell, validate, adjust, change, re-tell, etc. inside AND outside your company walls.

    BUT
    - don’t assume you have to BE the most technical person in the company. You just need to know who they are and tap that knowledge correctly.

    Hope this helps,

  • Saeed Khan // Mar 30, 2008 at 8:41 am

    Hey Determined…

    As I said in my post….”There is no well defined path to becoming a PM in a technology company. ”

    If you want to be a PM in your current company, go talk to the people who run PM and ask them how you could move into their department. Or ask the PMs themselves how they became PMs. That should give you what you need, and to be honest, if you do become a PM, that’s what you actually have to do in your job….i.e. talk to people, get data and make decisions.

    If you want to read more, try reading the articles in this link. It’s a series I wrote entitled “How to be a GREAT Product Manager”:

    http://onproductmanagement.wordpress.com/category/other-categories/great-pm/

    Saeed

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  • David Locke // Aug 12, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    To Be, it seems that you are a marketer, so are you seeking a product marketing manager position, or a product manager position? The PMM job would be a promotion for you. The PM job is a completely different job.

    The software product manager usually does not have a product marketing manager working with them, so they do both jobs. The software product manager may or may not have a project manager working for them, so they do that job as well.

    If you really want to get the product manager job, get a masters degree in computer science, or a web programming degree somwhere else at the community college level. The two are not the same. And, CS and IEEEs tend to only want to work with CS and IEEEs. The same can be said of graphics artists (advertising types) only wanting to work with graphics artists (advertising types). The cultural barrier in hiring is real despite all things going SaaS.

    People like people like themselves, so if you want to work with them, you’ll have to be one of them.

    Marketers will have a harder time managing programmers. And, PM jobs are typically seen as promotions for programmers.

  • Avita // Sep 4, 2008 at 1:59 am

    I really want to become a product manager. But have done my B.A and will certainly complete my MBA in International business.
    Please guide me what is the next step once i finish my MBA.

  • Experience, IT and Surveys « On Product Management // Dec 23, 2008 at 7:57 pm

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  • Roger L. Cauvin // Dec 28, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    The very premise that domain or industry knowledge is a prerequisite for being a good product manager is misguided. A good product manager is someone who knows how to learn about an industry and market, not necessarily someone who relies on prior experience in a domain. Prior domain knowledge is often a crutch, and it’s very unfortunate that many companies require it when hiring a product manager.

  • Nikita // Mar 29, 2009 at 8:30 am

    I have been in the IT industry for the last 9 years. I have worked for the most part as a Documentation Specialist or what they also call Technical Writer. I’d like to move into product management. In terms of soft skills, decision making skills, personality and communication skills , i have it all. BUt i dont have the technical background to be a product manager. This is a core problem i am facing, since im bored of technical writing and would like to move into more people-facing and decisions making roles. What i would likee to know is, whether i can do anything to address this problem, and move into product management, or whether i can attend a useful industry specific course or training program that would catapult me into this role.
    If we could identify that, i think it would be a really useful answer and many people would benefit from it.

  • Richard // May 3, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    I am in the same boat as Nikita. Although, I have now also done some Program Management. How do you get a Product Management role if you’ve never been a Product Manager???

  • Christina // Sep 6, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    I am with Nikita and Richard. I was a software developer for 4 years and now am a business systems analyst in my IT organization.

    I am also starting my MBA and will be specializing in Marketing. I want to shift my career in that direction – to blend my technical background with a career in Marketing (still not sure what aspect of it)

    I have been contemplating on switching jobs. I am being recruited by other companies including a technical staffing corporation where I would be an account manager – i.e – a sales position. Since I have no concrete marketing (or sales) experience I am seriously considering taking such a position.

    Can anyone offer me advice on whether this is a good stepping stone towards a career in Marketing?

  • Amith KM // Oct 26, 2009 at 9:58 am

    dear friend , am an MBA graduate from one of the reputed college from bangalore.. i also have diploma pharmacy background. am presently working in sales as a medical representative have work experience of 14 months… i want to be a product manager for any pharmaceutical products … can i have any chance for getting in to the product management team..

  • sunil k thakur // Feb 8, 2010 at 7:24 am

    Dear Sir

    i m a postgraduate in biotechnology and also pursued my MBA in marketing from an reputed institute. currently i m working as a product specialist in pharmalink a multinational pharmaceutical company base in Singapore. i do have a total experience of 6 months in marketing . i wanna be a product manager cud u suggest me the way hw i can achieve this position.
    With Regards
    Sunil K Thakur

  • kikelomo Olanrewaju // Apr 7, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    you are a life saver

  • TAMANNA // Nov 9, 2011 at 10:34 am

    I have done my graduation from bba stream and now pursuing mba in marketing. I want to work as a product manager but i don’t know how could i reach that post. please suggest what can i do.

  • Manoj Varughese // Feb 28, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    I just received an offer of FTTx -Telecom Project Manager even without having prior experience in any kind of management to run a firm. The employer was just interested in the profile, as to me, having completed Masters of Science in Communications Engineering from UK and research work. In a telecom infrastructure as big as this, it really requires specialists in the industry. I would say its a humungous challenge for a newbie like me.

  • Aaron Theodore // Apr 5, 2012 at 9:19 pm

    There is great advice on this forum already, so instead I’ll share my story of how I became a Product Manager.
    In June 2002 I was hired as an artist at a start-up in California called In-Three Inc. These guys had built a piece of software that allowed an artist to quickly cut out images in video sequences and generate a stereo pair with believable shaping and depth (AKA: Stereo Conversion). My job was to use the software, get really good at it, and convert video sequences from popular movies into amazing 3D sequences.
    I did get quite good at using their software and I showed much interest in providing user feedback to the software team. I quickly learned to verbalize my software requests so as not to be shunned by the engineers. I remained an artist for two and a half years before I was offered an opportunity to run a Quality Assurance team (my idea) to test new releases of the software before it was released to all of the artists. The Engineering team at the time was run by the lead programmer and the software requirements all came directly from the CEO at that time. Now remember, this was a startup company with few employees which I believe to be the key ingredient in all of this.

    Flash forward to 2007. It was time for a new software application, something cutting edge. We just got a new CEO and I had been working with the software engineers for a few years now as a QA manager with a small software testing team. The new boss wanted me to work closely with the engineers to help design the new software application by providing them with all of my crazy ideas as well as collecting all of the ideas from the artists that would eventually use this new software.
    I did the best I could. I held meetings with artists and wrote down all of the ideas they had. I had put together a fairly clear vision for how the software should work, but I was getting a lot of push back from the lead engineer, who thought the artists were wrong and wanted to design it his way.
    This particular confrontation is what eventually lead to the requirement of a new role. Someone who had final say in how the software should be designed. In the past it was the old CEO who didn’t work there anymore. So the boss mad me a Product Manager. He told the entire software engineering team that they need to listen and follow my design plan. That I would provide vision and guidance for the project. Boom Amazing.
    And that was when I was truly allowed to become completely and utterly obsessed with the design of our new software. We ended up making a great product called Intrigue. A cutting edge 2D/3D animation program similar to a Photoshop/Maya hybrid. It has been used to convert sequences from popular films such as Alice in Wonderland, Smurfs and Transformers 3. Since then our company was bought out by a larger VFX company, DDMG. They bought our technology because it’s the best, and I was offered the opportunity to continue working with them at the same capacity. So I’ve been a Product Manager for 5 yrs now. The way I do my job is simple. I make sure the client is getting what they want. Meaning the artists have the software tools they need to do their job. The engineers are guided by the feature requests and bug reports that come in. We still have a small test team to assure that each new version is working correctly. I make Gannt charts for the team so we know where we’re always at. We document everything, and we meet weekly to ensure good communication. I have yet been given the opportunity to take a product to market, but I hope one day that with my experience I’ll get that chance.

    I hoped you liked my story,

    Aaron Theodore
    Product Manager

  • Richard Lin // Apr 24, 2013 at 10:03 am

    I just wanted to give some kudo’s to Aaron’s comment. Although everyone takes a different path into Product Management. Aaron definitely shows that being in the right place at the right time, plus having key qualities of a PM will help with breaking into Product Management. It is great hearing stories of those who come from non-technical stepping into Product Management.

    Ultimately, when it comes down to it a Product Manager needs:

    1. Product knowledge – knowing the product intimately and owning it (“My job was to use the software, get really good at it”)

    2. Provide data – relevant customer requirements (I showed much interest in providing user feedback to the software team)

    3. Product Vision – (I held meetings with artists and wrote down all of the ideas they had. I had put together a fairly clear vision for how the software)

    4. Technical aptitude – Being able to speak to an engineer without sounding like an idiot (I quickly learned to verbalize my software requests so as not to be shunned by the engineers.)

    5. Understand the customer – (The way I do my job is simple. I make sure the client is getting what they want. Meaning the artists have the software tools they need to do their job.)

    I also had the opportunity to step into an Product Manager role in the high tech industry out of college coming from a non-technical background (majored in Economics and Communication). If anyone is interested in finding out my story, visit http://www.buildshiphustle.com

    Cheers,
    Richard
    Brocade – Product Manager

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    […] How can I become a product manager without any experience?Saeed Khan of On Product Management shares his views on how to get into product management. […]

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