How to break into product

July 20, 2020 | 6 Minute Read

Breaking into any craft is hard. It becomes harder when the core expectations for the craftsperson don’t translate consistently across companies and geographies or when there is no formal education to prepare you. Product is one such craft.

If you are wondering about the what and how of breaking into product, these three folks have written the best guides available on the internet today:

  1. How to Get Into Product Management (And Thrive) by Lenny Rachitsky
  2. 5 Paths To Your First Product Manager Role by Sachin Rekhi
  3. Hacking your Product Career Ladder by Gibson Biddle
  4. Breaking Into Product Management — Starter Pack by Adam Waxman

In my opinion Lenny, Sachin, Gibson and Adam have collectively hit the nail on its head and I cannot do a better job at articulating the various routes leading to a career in product as well as skill set expectations for an early PM. However, after talking to some aspiring Product Managers recently, I have realized that all of these posts have some inherent assumptions baked in. All posts assume:

  1. the aspiring PM is located in a vibrant startup ecosystem such as the Bay Area
  2. that prevalent product mindset – amongst hiring managers – is open to the various proposed paths into product
  3. the local ecosystem has enough product opportunities for associate or junior pm (result of thriving tech ecosystem)
  4. there is an affordable learning opportunity which either promises some placement (Product School, Galvanize) or offer ISA (Lambda School)
  5. there are enough local companies with a technology arm and product team which someone can transition into and gain transferrable skills across other tech companies

Not all geographic locations provide the same set of opportunities such as the Bay Area and I am constantly getting these two questions from aspiring product managers:

  1. How do I get the required product experience without my first PM role?
  2. How do I make up for the lack of technical education/skills?

The short answers to the questions are:

  1. You don’t need a product role to get product experience
  2. Not all product roles require deep technical knowledge or engineering backgrounds

I further elaborate below.

1. Gaining product experience without being a PM

If we take a step back, building products in nothing more than envisioning a dream state of our world, figuring out a set of hypothesis that need to come true to get to this world while ensuring right order of operations, measure of success and de-risking at each stage.

-(insert graphic with cycle here)-

At every stage of our product development lifecycle we identify set of actions that will bring us closer to our desired world state, faster (aka impact) while using least resources and mitigating all known risks. We may succeed or fail based on a predefined measure of success. We record learnings and work on the next set of operations to validate the next hypothesis.

Building a company requires that you worry about runway (liquidation of your efforts with real money), team building and many other things. Building a product can be something you do for going through the motions of a full product development lifecycle or two. Lenny mentions building as the hardest part of his proposed strategies for breaking into product. In my humble opinion, it is true if you are looking to build a fully capitalized startup and taking it to success/failed states. This was also true when NoCode tools were still not as powerful as today.

If you are based outside the Bay Area, the easiest way to get product experience is to build something, small. Building products is less about the idea and more about the execution. Most importantly it is about doing research and finding problems that matter to people for them to care for a solution with their time, money or attention. NoCode tools can be used to develop e-commerce sites, web+mobile apps and so much more.

Once you have identified a problem, you need to define a success metric. Being able to identify the right metric is more important than magnitude at end of experiment. Segment University and Amplitude’s North Star framework are great places to learn more about metrics. You should log your reasoning for choosing your metric as a pre-mortem and later retro with learnings as part of post-mortem.

Once you’ve figured out the problem, solution, metrics and distribution channels to release your app, it is time to build. Again, you have a war chest of all these NoCode tools or if you have high conviction and spare $ you can get a freelance developer to help build your MVP.

A full-cycle or two building something from scratch and putting it in the hands of real users is better product building experience than seeking internships or learning in hypothetical classrooms where you don’t get to interact with practitioners. You never know, this test project might become something that generates a small yet decent MRR for you on the side.

2. Technical Chops for PM

The second question I keep hearing from aspiring product managers is around how much is enough technical skills. Everyone is looking for a checklist of topics they need to learn but unfortunately the reality is a bit more nuanced.

Before we dive into the answer, we need to take a step back and understand ‘why do PMs need to have some tech chops?’. The answer is two fold:

  1. to be able to hold meaningful conversations with their engineering counterparts
  2. (write this here)

Each vertical and product category has it’s own set of technical requirements. A developer focusing technical product will have a higher bar to tech chops than an ecommerce/DTC product in general. This not to say that one is inferior to other. The complexities of both products are very different where for the first you are more concerned about developer experience and ease of integration while you are worried about conversion funnels and frictionless purchase in the second. And both of these would be very different for a PM role managing a Voice driven product experience like Alexa.

However, there is a subset of technical skills that cuts through all/most of these domains and again, you don’t really need to goto Comp Sci grad school or bootcamp to learn this.

At a high level all product managers need to under how Internet works. This is a tricky question because if we start under 2-3 layers of abstractions we are talking about sockets versus ports in networking. I have found this to be a great introductory video for beginners.

Once we have understood, peeking through the great MDN documentation is a great way to get familiar with HTML, CSS and Javascript. Javascript is becoming the lingua franca of tech and it is always a good idea to spend sometime learning it. Eloquent Javascript is not only a great primer into Javascript and programming but also a great book to learn basics of computing.

Once we’re armed and aware of the above, it is good to put this knowledge to some use and complete a small course on fullstack development which exposes you to the client/server and SPA/API paradigms. All your JS knowledge comes handy here.

The last bit of technical knowledge that can become your super power as you grow into product is being able to work with data. The most directed tutorial I have found on this is by Mode Analytics.

The journey doesn’t end here but if you have gone through the above material and can speak to the product development process; congratulations! You are top 1% of aspiring product folks. I strongly believe that for you to be successful in product – or life – you need to be an extreme owner and infinite learner. This is the start of your product journey.

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