As someone who has worked at multiple tech companies as a product manager (PM), I always get questions on how to get a product manager job or how a software engineer can transition into a product manager role. When I ask people why they are interested in product management, they usually give reasons related to good salaries, professional reputation, and how well they work with others. However, they will soon feel disappointed because their expectations may not align with what a product manager’s life actually looks like.
Is product management the ideal career for YOU? Is product management really as fancy as it sounds? Let me first debunk a few myths about product managers.
Myth 1 — Product managers don’t need to code.
Indeed, many product managers will not need to write a single line of code in their professional careers. Many applicants for product manager positions have not studied computer science or obtained a STEM degree. Naturally, product management is perceived as a shortcut to breaking into tech for folks without a tech background.
However, although coding is not a product manager’s job, a successful product manager must be familiar with best practices in software development. How do you design a scalable system? How do you create tests to validate your product? How do you ensure a smooth release? These questions must be answered with full confidence. As a product manager, if you lack experience or understanding knowledge, you may find it challenging to earn respect from your engineers and collaborate as one team.
For candidates without a technical background, I’d suggest spending at least a few weeks learning a popular programming language, such as HTML or Python, just to develop familiarity with the basics of how the internet works and what a “function” means. Read articles on how technical architectures are designed at large companies such as Google or Facebook. The end goal is having the ability to answer basic technical questions such as how API works in plain English or how you would design a database for a given software.
Myth 2 — I’m a people person. I could be a great product manager.
People commonly assume that someone who enjoys meeting and talking to people will be a good candidate for a product manager position. They have this assumption most likely because they see product managers working with many teams and always having meetings.
Granted, being a people person can help with communication, but effective communication for product managers involves much more than just talking. It also requires active listening, precise writing, and sometimes using certain skills to solve cross-team conflicts or handle difficult people.
Being loud does not equal being clear. You can practice clear communication by explaining complex technical concepts to your parents or friends, asking them to repeat what they’ve heard, and verifying whether it’s consistent with what you said. You can also write a blog and ask for feedback. The key here is to start practicing now.
Myth 3 — Product managers get to make a bigger impact than their peers.
Another myth about product managers is that their impact is more significant than that of their peers because product managers get to make big decisions. Engineers write code, and data scientists build data models, but product managers get to decide what products to build next year.
That’s only a facade. Although product managers are involved in many decision-making processes, they are usually not the person who makes the final call. There are many other stakeholders they have to consider, such as the heads of engineering and design. Furthermore, the process of aligning everyone can be frustrating.
Consider whether you agree with any of the myths above. If so, you may want to think twice before you apply for a product manager job. Make sure it’s not just the fancy title that attracts you. Careful reflection will help you avoid having regrets later in your career.
Here are the real questions to ask yourself before jumping on a call with a PM recruiter.
Are you okay with managing a product rather than managing a team?
The word manager can be misleading. Product managers are not traditional managers because they do not manage people. Instead, they manage products. At large corporations, product managers generally do not have any direct reports until they reach the director level. This may be concerning if you are interested in acquiring people management skills early in your career. While your peers may become junior managers in about five years, you may need ten years to get your first direct report.
Do you feel prouder of team achievements or your own achievements?
Some product managers may disagree with me on this one. In my opinion, the best product managers are almost invisible instead of being the most critical person in the room. Though individual contribution should be celebrated, especially when it comes to performance reviews or promotion cycles, a product manager should prioritize their team’s collective outcomes over their personal achievements. If you don’t feel comfortable making a compromise between recognition for your own achievement and that of your team, then product management might not be the ideal career for you.
Do you feel more fulfilled when solving concrete problems or abstract problems?
One way to attain fulfillment at work is by solving problems. Some problems are concrete, such as fixing a bug or acquiring a new customer. Some are more abstract and have no right or wrong answers. More often than not, product managers are responsible for solving abstract problems. For example, should we design a new product next year or in three years? There are usually pros and cons to either side of the decision. Teams must make a choice and move on, but once something goes wrong, unfortunately, the product manager is usually blamed. It’s an essential skill to find fulfillment in solving a problem where it’s hard to measure the impact because helping a team make complex decisions is already valuable in itself.
Do you feel more excited about convincing others or supporting their own ideas?
Product management can be particularly challenging if the product manager is required to collaborate with individuals who have very strong industry expertise or personalities. In that case, it is often difficult to align all team members on one product direction, especially if they have far more seniority than the product manager. If you were the product manager, would you let them pick the product direction since they are more experienced? One consequence would be that the team may end up with more than one product direction. Alternatively, would you have the courage to persuade them into alignment? This approach would require a lot of homework, obviously, but the key here is being able to convince others to agree with you even when you are not the most experienced person in the room.
Pursuing a product management career is much more than being drawn to a fancy job title or knowing how to run a scrum. Mental readiness is more critical. Product managers must be able to handle a higher level of emotional stress than their peers because their projects are not always intuitive and sometimes require dealing with a certain level of office politics. If possible, talk to a few product managers before you apply for a product manager job. Hear their real stories. Of course, don’t let them scare you. Candidates with full confidence will always perform better in interviews and later in their product careers.