Product management is becoming an increasingly in-demand profession, but unlike law or medicine, there is not a very clear pathway to becoming a product manager. Even among tech roles, product management continues to have unclear entry points: software engineers can study computer science, marketers can get a degree in marketing, and there are increasingly more training programs to break into product design.
The ambiguity and variety between product management roles can make it hard to figure out if and how to go into product management. But it also means that there are a ton of diverse product leaders from many different backgrounds who have paved the way.
- Greg Emerson, former Executive Director of Product at The Atlantic, started out in the Peace Corps, was a freelance journalist, moved up into editing digital publications, and then discovered product management.
- Dee Sahni, former VP of Product at Figment, started out as a software engineer for over 10 years at companies such as Google and Microsoft.
- Ciara Peter started out as a product designer, moving up the ranks to Senior Director of Product Design at Salesforce before she had her first “official” product management title: VP of Product at Betterworks.
All 10 of the product experts that contributed to this article have had similar stories, and are here to share their thoughts on how and why they made the switch to product management. So let’s get into it!
Meet The Contributors
- Barron Ernst - Barron has spent over 17 years in product management, focused on B2C businesses in the US and abroad. He has built products that spanned the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia, including Zenly, Booking, Showmax, Quicken, and IMVU.
- Bruno Bergher - Bruno is a software person focused on bringing people together to consistently build great products. He's built teams in companies large and small, with a continuous focus on collaboration and craftsmanship.
- Ciara Peter- Ciara is best known for creating amazing experiences for business products at scale. Ciara is the VP of Product at Robin, where she leads the product strategy, design, and data organizations building the future of hybrid work technology.
- Dee Sahni- Dee was most recently VP of Product at Figment. Previously, she was GM at Clutter and built their Moving business from 0-1 to scale. Dee led Clutter to profitability as Head of Monetization and was Tastemade’s Head of Data Science.
- Ely Lerner - Ely is an EIR at Reforge and an advisor for startups transitioning from traction to hypergrowth. Previously he was Head of Consumer Product at Chime, Head of Product at Eat24, and Product Leader/GM at Yelp.
- Greg Emerson - As a former Product lead at The Atlantic, HuffPost and WSJ, Greg Emerson has devoted his career to helping media companies navigate digital transition to build sustainable businesses.
- Jon Fan - Jon is the Chief Product Officer at Envoy. A former Box, IBM, and Benchling leader, Jon has spent years building products for startups, enterprises, and every size company in between.
- Saleem Malkana - Saleem is an Executive in Residence at Reforge. He is the former VP Product for NBC News, MSNBC, and other brands that together reach 120M+ users monthly. Previously, Saleem led Product at AMC Networks’ DTC startup and has worked at Amazon, MTV, and the CIA.
- Tara Wellington - Tara is on a mission to help small businesses thrive. Small businesses have been a connective tissue throughout Tara's product career - from GoDaddy to PandaDoc and now at Bill.com, where she leads their CX platform
- Will Rocklin- Willis the former Head of Product at Safara, a Sequoia-backed seed-stage startup. Prior, he worked on products used by millions at Square and YouTube. In his spare time, Will is a stand-up comedian and writer.
Want to become a product manager? Do the work first
There are two categories of people looking to get into product management: those who are already working in a different function and those who are not working yet.
If you are not yet working, you have a couple of options according to Barron Ernst, who made the jump straight from university into product management.
- Find a company with a training program. Some companies (such as Shopify, Intuit, and Google) have entry-level programs to develop a pipeline of product managers. However, these types of programs are infrequent and competitive.
- Join an early-stage startup. In an early-state role, you can contribute quickly and elevate yourself into an associate product manager position. This is the more likely path, and it is essential to remember that there are infinite paths to product management.
If you are already working but in a different industry, function, or role, then the advice from our experts is pretty consistent: The best way to become a product manager is to do the work.
“The product manager role is a job that is generally best learned by doing, so the more you're able to start doing some product-management-type things in your current role, or on the side, the better.” – Ely Lerner
There are two reasons you want to start doing product management work in your current role. First, it helps you understand if you are truly interested in the role before making the jump. And second, it gives hiring managers data points on your past experience in the product management space.
“Managers have the same performance evaluations that you do. They want to make good, smart decisions… and taking huge risks on unknown candidates is not common practice. Demonstrating your value before applying to the role can make it easier for a manager to take a chance on you.”
– Tara Wellington
How do you gain experience as a product manager when you don’t already have a product management role?
“You can think about it like basketball: if you want a rebound, it helps to get near the basket.”
– Will Rocklin
Some of the product leaders we spoke to took on more product manager-like responsibilities while working alongside product managers, while others tried to intentionally build relationships with the product team in order to learn directly from them.
For example, while Will Rocklin was in an operations role at Google, he was responsible for liaising between the sales and YouTube product teams. He spent a lot of time getting to know the team, watching how product managers operate, and learning from them. Later, he was able to use his reputation, relationships, and learnings to pitch a small project that the product managers approved for him to run. When Will was ready for his next role he became a Product Manager at Square.
Other experts we spoke to searched for a project where they could play the product manager role as a part of their current one. For example, as a product designer, Ciara Peters filled in many gaps when the product team didn’t have the capacity to staff a full-time product manager.
Additionally, Dee Sahni, early in her engineering career, took on a project that required internal interviews across campaign management, client services, and other engineering teams to really understand the problem space before diving into a solution.
Trying out a product management role without a formal transition is a great way to figure out if it’s something you really want to invest in over the next few years. These informal exercises will also help identify your strengths and the areas you might need to lean into a little more.
Feeling inspired? We are too. Throughout the rest of this post, we’ll share examples of how to move into a product manager role from other professions, including product design, engineering, and more. Let’s start with the former.
How product designers can become product managers
Product designers work frequently with product managers in order to bring a product or feature to life. Product design is not just a role to make things visually stunning; it is a critical part of building products users understand and love. In this role, designers often present directly to stakeholders as well.
This strong overlap with the product manager role can leave designers questioning if they should consider a formal move into product management. Bruno Bergher and Ciara Peter both started their careers as product designers before becoming product managers and have outlined some things you should consider if you want to change your career trajectory.
Strengths & opportunities for growth as a product designer
Because product management and product design are very focused on customer problems, there are several strengths product designers bring to the product management role. Product designers often excel in:
- User and competitive research
- Understanding customer pain points
While almost all designers conduct research to test hypotheses, those interested in becoming product managers will often have the opportunity to expand their research toolkit by diving into user feedback trends. They can also build up a competitive research muscle as a part of their role by using competitive research to gain inspiration on solution ideas.
“When designing or improving a product, it’s great to see side by side with competitors. It provides ideas on what (or what not) to do, and shows the designer can put their ego aside to acknowledge competitors may also have good ideas, which is an important skill as one moves into product management.”
– Ciara Peter
Product designers that enjoy stakeholder engagement and are strong in communication will also find those skills to be tremendously helpful as they move into a product manager role.
Although product designers can often have a strong foundation, there are a few challenges product designers might face:
- Imposter syndrome: Product designers might feel like they don’t have the right background to become product managers, but it’s important to realize there are a wide variety of important product management skills. Not every product manager has a strong business background, while others might not immediately understand the technical aspects of a product. Just remember that there are many skills needed to become a great product manager, and you probably already have a few.
- Scope and prioritization: Product designers also often have to learn how to narrow the scope and prioritize from a product management lens. While design often focuses on generating new ideas, the product team has to scope the focus down to what is necessary to get the job done, across different cross-functional partners. Being able to let go of things that are not critical can be a challenge for product designers who hold themselves to a high, holistic quality bar.
“Creating new ideas is the easy part for product designers. Scoping the work, making trade offs, and collaborating with engineers on the ultimate direction takes practice.”
– Ciara Peter
Is product management the right fit for a product designer?
Product designers are well positioned to be able to really ask themselves if they would enjoy product management before making the switch because of the high potential for overlap between the two roles. When reflecting back on different projects and aspects of the job, there are four questions you can ask yourself to see if you might prefer product management to product design.
1. Do you care more about the problem or the solution?
Product designers get to focus on building solutions, whereas product managers have to focus on the problem. Often, when building solutions, product designers uncover new or deeper problems. If that aspect of the job is exciting to you, then product management might be interesting as you’ll likely get to choose a problem space to focus on.
“One of the reasons I naturally moved from design to product was because I was always focusing on the underlying need to be solved and if that problem was indeed the right one to be solving.”
– Bruno Bergher
2. What do you enjoy more: creating things or organizing things?
A large part of a product manager’s job is organizing information, such as parsing data and breaking down tasks into smaller, digestible pieces for their coworkers. While there are some aspects to information organization in design, designers are usually generating “net new content.” If one of the biggest sources of energy from your product design role is the creative process, you might prefer to stay in product design.
“I realized that my favorite parts of the design process weren’t creating user flows or visual concepts, but actually prioritizing customer problems, finding the quickest MVP, and organizing information.”
— Ciara Peter
3. Do you have a broader interest in business?
While product designers are critical to delivering on certain business metrics, a product manageris tasked with optimizing and solving for business needs. There are always metrics attached to this role that a product manager constantly needs to be thinking about how to reach and optimize for. This also includes partnering with go-to-market functions such as pricing, packaging, sales, and customer success. If this is a motivating factor for you, becoming a product manager could be a good fit.
4. Do you prefer to explore options or focus on one?
In product design, you are often creating many options and ideas. The creation of those ideas helps the rest of the team visualize and react to what might be most important to the users, and help the team focus on the path forward. On the product management side, you are usually reacting to various inputs and helping choose which path to follow. If you really love diving deep into the best option rather than exploring all available options, you might enjoy product management.
Product designers are already close to the product development process, so they are well positioned to test out the role to see if it fits their skillset before trying to formally move into product management. And once they become product managers, product designers can be really strong at delivering high-quality products to the user.
How engineers can become product managers
Like product designers, engineers frequently interact with product management in their day-to-day work. But there is not as much natural overlap between the roles engineers and product managers play during the product development process. That doesn’t mean that engineers can’t make excellent product managers if it’s a role that interests them.
Jon Fan, Saleem Malkana, Dee Sahni, and Ely Lerner all were engineers at the beginning of their careers before leveraging their technical background to move into product management
Strengths & opportunities for growth as engineers
Engineers are very familiar with what is technically feasible while developing a product, how long different approaches can take, and the impact of technical debt. As a result, it is no surprise that engineers have a huge advantage when it comes to technical parts of product management.
A deep technical understanding of a product can lead to better requirements, a better understanding of the effort and time needed for certain projects, and stronger relationships with their engineering counterparts.
“Knowing what is technically achievable leads to stronger roadmaps with a higher success rate. Having a lot of empathy for engineers, from being one myself, has helped me build strong engineering relationships. This has resulted in me working with the most motivated, inspired engineers who feel heard and go above and beyond.”
– Dee Sahni
However, there are some skill gaps that might arise when moving from engineering to product management:
- Frequent context switching: Product managers have to context switch frequently, which can be very different from an engineer who is able to focus on a particular technical challenge for hours, if not days, at a time. This will take a bit of time to adjust to.
- Framing problems and understanding customer needs: By the time an engineer is very involved in a product development process, the problem is very well defined and there’s a clear solution on the table. As a result, many engineers haven’t had the opportunity to practice interviewing customers, exploring problems, and framing them with product designers. Instead, they’ve been on the receiving end of customer insights such as user stories.
“Early on, the hardest part of the product management role for me was learning how to frame and story-tell to customers.”
– Jon Fan
Is product management the right fit for an engineer?
Beyond some general skills questions such as comfort with project management and stakeholder engagement, there are three fundamental questions that engineers should consider.
1. Do you like exploring what to build or how to build it?
Engineers are often working on the challenge of figuring out the best way to build something, given a set of constraints. In product management, however, the focus shifts to identifying what to build. It is important to figure out if you actually enjoy exploring the best way to build a solution, not just executing it. For example, consider an engineer at Audible, an app that lets you listen to books. If over the course of a few projects that engineer notices what users really seem to care about is listening to snippets of the book outside of the Audible app, that can be a sign that engineer is interested in what to build. Not just how to build it.
“I was an engineering manager at a small startup where we really didn't have a PM function. I found that I most enjoyed the time I spent working with customers to figure out what to build.”
– Jon Fan
2. Do you have ideas for solutions to help improve users' lives in creative ways?
As an engineer, if you find yourself brainstorming solutions instead of just thinking about the best way to execute a particular solution, you might be interested in a product management role. If we continue with the Audible engineer example, that engineer might realize building a way to listen to snippets outside of the application is what it seems like users are asking for, but there is more there. This insight could push the engineer into thinking about a feature that can create Twitter threads based on those snippets.
3. What level of altitude do you prefer to work at: zoomed in, or zoomed out?
Engineers can often become very specialized or are often working on a very specific solution to a problem. They don’t always have to spend time considering the overarching business context or impact. Some engineers really enjoy the ability to focus but others find themselves asking questions about the business and how a particular piece of their work connects to the greater good. If you’re in the second group, you might enjoy that a product manager is going to be constantly thinking about ideas in that greater context.
“Before being a product manager, I literally worked on the nuts and bolts of a spacecraft. I found that I wanted to really zoom out and understand the larger scale impact of the work we're doing.”
– Saleem Malkana
Like product designers, engineers are already a part of the product development process so they can easily work with the product manager and the leadership team to get more involved. Some ideas on how to start testing if you like the product manager role include joining customer calls, participating in the problem definition phase of a project, or spinning up minimal viable products to help de-risk new projects.
Connecting your current skills to product management skills
Besides product design and engineering, product managers come from many different backgrounds. The most impactful thing you can do to set yourself up for future success is to identify the strengths you will bring to the table based on your background and invest in improving the skills that all product managers need.
For example, Greg Emerson started out as a Peace Corps volunteer and then moved into digital media, eventually becoming an editorial leader before moving into the product space.
“Sustainable development is all about assessing local needs and partnering with all stakeholders to find efficient and sustainable solutions. This mentality helped develop my deep empathy for ‘the customer.’ As an editorial leader, the goal is to get as much of the audience engaged in your content as possible. As a product lead, it's similar: getting as much as your total accessible market engaged with your product as possible.”
– Greg Emerson
Additionally, as a Chief Product Officer, Jon Fan has hired very different types of people into product manager roles, and sees the different strengths they bring. He noticed that management consultants or people coming out of MBA programs are well-versed in connecting the product direction to strategic impact. While customer success managers and sales account executives that move into product management have a strong ability to connect the product to the market.
As you can see, there are a lot of different ways to become a product manager. Our experts agree: There isn’t a “best” way or path to get into product management. Instead, understanding the skills you can lean on and creating opportunities to test out if you like product management before making a drastic career change is a great place to start.
If you’d like to learn more about the role of a product manager or how you can improve your product management skills, check out Reforge’s Mastering Product Management program.