What's the best way to break into the tech industry as a product manager?
There are different paths that each product manager takes, but the common ones I've seen are:
1. Joining a tech company as an Associate PM or an intern straight from college.
For college grads, I suggest starting by connecting with other product managers (e.g. via LinkedIn) to better understand what we do. There are great books available on this topic as well -- "Cracking PM Interview" is among my favorites. I also created a series of videos explaining tech jobs and what do I do in more detail - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsAz_arwNkiPobhi09VrMFg
2. Transition from other roles e.g. Engineering, Professional Services, Support.
This path is easier, as it assumes that you are already in a tech company and can make connections with internal PMs. Picking a PM as a mentor or just becoming a friend with one is a great place to start. I also need to point out that PMs sit at the intersection of Business, Technology, and UX (Customer) -- that is why engineers who transition to a PM team will have an advantage as they understand the technology much deeper. On the other hand, someone in Support who wants to become a PM brings a much deeper understanding of a customer.
Two ways. First sweet spot is to pick a mid-size startup (round B or C) that is growing. They need folks all the time, and they need folks who can roll up their sleeves and do things. The roles you join in does not matter as much - if you prove yourself as a doer, you can later transition into a different role, such as PM.
Second is to look at established product orgs that have an APM program (we do have one at Atlassian!) This path is more suitable for recent grads that are embarking on a career journey. If that is you, search for "APM programs" and read up on which ones resonate with you, and apply.
If you’re already working somewhere with a PM org, try to move into it. Getting a role at a new company as a first time PM is difficult. Most hiring managers want to see some product experience before making a hire. A lateral move within your company may not be as difficult as it seems. See if you can pick up a side project or do a 3-6 month rotation. Getting the experience will not only help you be considered & help you interview for external PM roles, but will also give you data points to truly understand if being a PM is the right move for you.
Another option is to look for companies who offer product internships (if you’re in school), or have associate product management (APM) roles. These programs are typically designed with support and mentorship to show you the ropes of becoming a PM.
I transitioned from journalism to product management earlier in my career, and although it’s not a straightforward path, it’s actually pretty common for PMs to join tech from other sectors. An Asana PM teammate of mine, Ari Janover, actually has the best articulation of how to make the transition that I’ve ever heard. He says there are three common paths:
- The Ninja: Join a small startup as another role and push to own PM work until you become a PM.
- The Expert: Apply for roles where the value of your specific knowledge trumps your lack of PM credentials. Think Engineers for technical products or a real estate agent for a real estate tool.
- The Hail Mary: Follow the few PM Apprenticeships that don’t require previous experience (learn more about AsanaUp ).
I followed the Expert path when starting out, and I’ve seen it work quite well in early-stage companies. One of the biggest challenges in starting in an early-stage company, though, is that you’re often the first or only PM, so although you have lots of things to learn, you may have fewer people to learn from. I spent a lot of time observing and learning from PMs at other companies and building up a group of folks I could exchange ideas and challenges with, and this is a practice I still find incredibly useful today.
I think the best way to break into the industry as a PM is to get after building tech products yourself. Personally, I left a well-paying job in the energy sector to work on a start-up with no reliable paycheck. Thinking back on that experience, it was crazy beneficial to learn how to work with designers & engineers to build a great product or feature. The act of building a product or feature is the best teacher.
I’m not advocating that you should quit your job and not get paid to build stuff like I did! There was a lot that wasn’t so awesome about that. 😅 But I definitely WOULD encourage everyone here to think about how you could do that in your spare time. What problems are you passionate about solving? What kind of product or feature could help you solve that problem? How could you bring that solution to life? How can you talk to prospective customers about it?
Even PM candidates that make wireframes or prototypes to show a product that solves a real problem have a leg up over most of the other candidates. I’ll take someone with drive, initiative and passion for the work 10 times out of 10.
In my opinion, it's best to land a customer-facing role (support, customer success, expert services, pre-sales/sales, etc.) and then try to make a lateral move into PM, at the same company if possible. That's because customer empathy -- or even more important than that, unique customer insights and a point of view about the customer and the market -- are the most critical skills I look for as a foundation for whether someone new to PM is likely going to succeed. While it's not impossible to start with a technical job like engineering and then move into PM, it's more difficult because there are fewer reusable skills (and frankly, there's an implicit bias in the industry that technical folks don't know how to talk or empathize with customers).