So, You Want to Be a PM, but You Aren’t Technical. Read This.
Five concrete steps to land your first product management gig.
You just found out about this amazing career called “product management.” You’ve heard that PMs wear multiple hats, develop leadership and communication skills, and of course, use silly jargon. At this point, you’re sold on the role. But… you don’t have a technical background.
Can you be a product manager?
If you’re currently working in consulting, business, finance, marketing, or really any other non-technical industry or field, it’s definitely possible to break into product management. To be a successful candidate, you’ll need to show your recruiter that you’re serious about product management, passionate about technology, and skilled in leadership and communication.
Here’s a shortlist of my recommendations on concrete steps to position yourself as a prime product management candidate.
Generally, you can apply to PM gigs with a resume, and based on a “resume screen,” the recruiter will move you on to the interview stage. This blog post helps with getting past the resume screen to the interview. (successfully interviewing is a whole different ball game).
1. Learn About Technology
First and foremost, familiarize yourself with the tech industry and product management. Here are some suggestions:
- Read. Check out this Quora answer for a fairly comprehensive list of books, and check out major tech blogs like The Verge and Hackernoon. Start to develop opinions about technologies. What are some of the products you love? Some you hate? Why?
- Attend hackathons. Yes, you can attend hackathons even as a non-technical person! Pitch the final product, and help your team define the product vision. Hackathons are the way I first got exposed to tech. You can find hackathons on Devpost or MLH.
- Build a small tech project, like making your own website! You don’t need to know how to code, you can use a website like Squarespace or WordPress. Instructables also has tons of fun tech hacks. Just start somewhere.
The awesome thing about blogging is that anyone can do it. Start on Medium, and write about a passion of yours related to product management. The goal here is to refine your product sensibilities and develop opinions about products you’ve used. Here are a few article ideas to get you started:
- Write about an experience about building a personal tech product (For example, if you build a personal website).
- Analyze how to fix a product’s bug. You can check out two of my blog posts for Instagram and Chase Bank.
- Write an essay on a tech product. For example, should you tip your Uber or Lyft driver?
3. Tailor your resume
The first stage of successful product management interviewing is getting past the resume screen.
Your resume should highlight these skills :
- Comfort or experience with technology. What aspects of your work relate to technology?
- Communication. How have you communicated with cross-functional teams or executive-level management?
- Ability to execute on projects. Can you set deadlines and lead teams to complete tasks in a timely manner?
- Vision and leadership. How have you set the vision for your team’s goals and direction?
The following are some skills that you can add that might play to your specific strengths. None of the below are required, but are nice-to-have.
- Data Analysis. Do you know SQL? Do you know how data informs product decisions?
- User Studies. Have you collected data for qualitative or quantitative research ? Do you know how to use this feedback to inform decisions?
- Market Research. Do you have a solid understanding of industries related to technology? Do you know how to conduct market research?
- Design. How does your design experience relate to product launches?
- …Many more. This isn’t a complete list. Customize your list of skills based on your background, and based on the type of product management role you’re applying for.
You’d be incredibly surprised by the power of just making a few connections in the industry — these mentors and colleagues can accelerate your path to product management. Heck, 85% of jobs are filled by networking. Whenever possible, get a referral to the company you’re applying for. Often, this helps you skip the resume screen.
Here are some simple networking ideas to start:
- Join product management Meetups around the world.
- Join and be active in online product management communities, such as HH Product Management on Facebook or Mind The Product on Slack.
- Follow your favorite companies and recruiters on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.
- Don’t be afraid to cold email product managers you find on LinkedIn or through a blog. Most of them would love to offer a few pieces of advice, especially when through a personal connection.
The most important piece of advice I can give you: hustle.
It’s always possible to break into a new industry, but it takes grit, determination, and motivation. This list is incomplete — think of your own strategies or tactics for demonstrating that you’re a desirable and qualified product management candidate.
Depending on your background, it may be challenging, but it’s not outside your reach to become a product manager.
What matters more, interviews or experience?
Once you’re past the resume screen, your effectiveness as an interviewee matters far more than your background. Check out my other article about the perfect structure for every PM interview article.
Some companies require technical background, can I apply there?
Companies like Google are known for requiring a technical background. You can try to apply and frame your resume in a way that still demonstrates technical ability. If that’s not possible, try to target other companies that hire non-technical PMs (like Facebook’s RPM program), and then consider switching into PM roles that require technical background.
Should I get an MBA?
Short answer: you don’t need an MBA to land a PM gig. It’s more important to have relevant product experience than to have an MBA. It can certainly help, but it’s definitely not a requirement.
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