Gayle Laakmann McDowell is the founder / CEO of CareerCup.com and the author of three books: Cracking the PM Interview: How to Land a Product Manager Job in Technology (just released December 2013), Cracking the Coding Interview (Amazon.com’s #1 best-selling interview book), and The Google Resume. She has worked for Google, Microsoft, and Apple and served on Google’s hiring committee. She holds a BSE and MSE in Computer Science from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the Wharton School.
Although most product managers won’t code, a computer science degree is often required for a product management role. This puts developers in an excellent position to jump to a PM role – if they play their cards right.Why companies want PMs who can code
PMs who can code are often better respected by developers. They’re more likely to be able to understand what’s hard and easy, and less likely to make unreasonable demands of a developer. Moreover, technical PMs are often able to form stronger working relationships with developers than a less technical PM. They can even dive in to get some minor technical work done when necessary, freeing up the developers to take on more of the bigger challenges.Be a Well-Rounded PM
You’ve got the technical skills, but that’s not enough. You’ll need to also acquire:
- Customer Focus: Reflect on the prior products you’ve worked on. What were the key customer scenarios? How did your product fit into their life? What root goals or desires did it appear to? You need to get in the practice of asking these sorts of questions.
- Strategic Thinking: While developers often try to tame people’s expectations about what’s feasible, PMs often need to do the opposite. Start thinking about products you’ve worked with – or just ones you use. What would you improve about them? It’s okay to go a little crazy here.
- Persuasion Skills: Persuading people isn’t about fighting the most for your idea. Rather, it’s about understanding how to influence different types of people. You need to leverage both data and “charisma” – both of these are powerful influencers. Your goal is not to manipulate people. It’s to understand other people’s perspective and help them understand yours.
It’d be nice if people would just offer you the chance to PM, but those opportunities tend to go to those with actual PM experience. So how do you get PM experience when no one’s willing to give it to you? You create it.
- Spec something for your team: Offer to take a bit of work off your PM’s plate by spec’ing a feature for her. People love being looked up to; ask your PM for guidance. Let her show you the ropes.
- Create a side project: If you can find the time outside of work, do a project of your own. Pay a lot of attention to creating a great experience for the user. This will be something to show off to future employers.
- Take on leadership roles: Be a leader where you can. This might be being a tech lead. Or maybe it’s leading a group at your community theatre. Lots of things can show leadership!
Even something like maintaining a blog can show relevant skills, like written communication skills. And if you blog about customer experiences, then that’s extra relevant.Transitioning
Once you’ve started to develop the right skills to be a PM, how do you actually make the jump? Many PMs find opportunities by doing the following:
- Look for openings at your company: By transitioning at your current company, you’ll at least be “proven” in certain ways. Your team likes you, approves of your technical skills, and hopefully your leadership skills too.
- Leverage your specialized knowledge: If you have knowledge about a particular niche, it can help to leverage that. For example, if you’ve been a developer on security products, you might be a strong candidate for a PM in another security product. When it’s harder for a company to find PMs with specific skillset, they’re more likely to consider hiring someone without PM experience who has the other skills they need.
- Get an MBA: An MBA is controversial sometimes and probably not a great investment if your only goal is to land a PM position. It takes two years and lots of money. However, the top companies do actively recruit product managers from the top MBA programs. Having development skills on top of that will make you an especially strong candidate.
Not a developer? That’s okay. PMs come from a diverse set of backgrounds. Some came from being a designer. Some came from finance. Some used to be consultants. Some went to great universities, and a few never went to college at all.
Wherever you’re coming from, the key is to think about where you are and what you need. What PM-like skills do you have? What skills do you need? How can you acquire those? How can you prove that you’ve acquired them?
And then, of course, you actually have to do well in the interview.
Check out the just-released book, Cracking the PM Interview: How to Land a Product Manager Job in Technology, to learn more.