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Want to Get Into Product Management? Consider Product-Adjacent Roles

Description

Start your product management career by developing these key skills

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Product Management
Created
Jan 23, 2023 6:41 AM
Updated
Feb 5, 2023 8:40 PM

One of the most desirable roles in the tech industry is product management (PM). As the main advocate for the customer, the product manager is there to ensure smooth execution at every stage of the product or feature lifecycle. More senior-level PMs are involved in defining roadmaps and strategy for a business unit or a whole organization.

While the PM role is most prevalent in software companies, it is permeating hardware and non-tech businesses as well. Today’s customers demand a lot, so it’s important to have someone who is in touch with the voice of the customer who also has influence across teams.

For those looking to build their career as a product manager, this article provides guidance for building product skills in adjacent roles, increasing your ability to be a strong PM over the long term.

PM is not an entry-level role

As someone who has worked in product as well as a number of adjacent roles, I have noticed that the strongest product managers—those with the best product intuition—rarely started out in product directly. Instead, they somehow worked around product for a significant amount of time before explicitly having the PM title. Their backgrounds include a range of experiences from other roles—engineering, finance, design, sales, and more—and often multiple industries.

Very few companies offer entry-level product management roles. The two exceptions are PM intern roles, usually reserved for MBA candidates, and associate PM roles, only offered by a small number of big tech companies (who, coincidentally, have hiring freezes at the time of this writing).

There is no college degree to become a PM. While useful PM courses exist from the likes of Reforge, these are targeted at those already established in their careers looking to improve their product intuition. A number of people who want to get into product management pursue an MBA degree, which can be useful for developing business intuition, but it is by no means the only way to become a PM. And people usually work at least a few years before getting accepted into an MBA program.

In some ways, the PM role is a “management” position—it’s right there in the title—even though many aspects of PM are more closely related to process management as an individual contributor than people management as a manager. As PMs increase in seniority, their area of responsibility will generally expand from working on smaller features to working on larger product areas, focusing more on strategy, and managing individual contributors or teams of teams.

Finally, PM is highly competitive. Numbers vary by company, but as a rule of thumb, you can expect to find 1 PM for every 3-10 engineers.

In summary, it’s difficult to become a product manager without prior experience within the same company or industry.

Non-technical vs. technical PMs

To day-to-day activities of a product manager tend to involve:

  • Talking to customers or analyzing product requests
  • Gathering requirements based on product requests and internal resources
  • Communicating with cross-functional stakeholders
  • Executing on specific aspects of the roadmap to bring a feature/product from concept stage to launch and iteration
  • Enabling internal stakeholders on the specifics of new and upcoming launches

Different companies will have different expectations for their PMs. Some PMs will be relatively non-technical and much more focused on optimizing the user experience, while others will be less close to the customer and work more heavily with development teams. This will largely depend on how much the company relies on adjacent (often sales) roles for talking to customers and how much industry-specific technical knowledge is required to be a strong PM.

Product vs. program vs. project management

The product management role should not be confused with the similar-sounding, but quite different, roles of project management and program management. There are some transferrable skills between these other roles and product management, but I believe there are other adjacent roles that are more relevant.

Program management is generally focused on the execution of internal initiatives to meet company objectives, as opposed to focusing on specific features or products. Some tech companies, notably Microsoft, have blurred the lines between program and product management, but we’ll stick with the generally-accepted understanding of product management. In my opinion, program management is good for understanding organizational dynamics, but it’s a bit too far removed from product development and go-to-market activities for aspiring PMs.

Some businesses treat product managers, especially those early in their careers, more like project managers. Essentially, the business is more concerned with time/resource allocation and the execution of a tightly-defined goal than the ongoing development, launch, and iteration of a product or feature so that it truly resonates with customers. Both roles are important in the product development process, but they are distinct.

While I believe PMs should participate in Objectives and Key Results, companies that conflate project and product management are generally not great places to grow as a PM. Why? Because critical customer development steps get deprioritized when there is too much pressure to achieve short-term results. Unreasonable demands to grow massively early on in the development cycle cause PMs tend to get frustrated and leave, meaning there is limited opportunity for mentorship from more senior PMs, and the cycle continues.

Skills PMs should develop

This list is not exhaustive, but I believe great product managers will have developed many of the following skills before starting as a PM:

  • Talking to customers and understanding implicit needs, behavior, and preferred messaging
  • Working cross-functionally with other teams
  • Presenting concepts visually and concisely
  • Familiarity with technical architecture and concepts
  • Familiarity with engineering development cycles
  • Willingness to get hands dirty with UI, engineering, etc. and learn on the fly
  • A working knowledge of product/UI/UX design
  • Understanding economics and pricing
  • Understanding product roadmaps and strategy

Consider product-adjacent roles

There are a number of product-adjacent roles that will help you develop many of the product skills listed above. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Some of these roles have a technical barrier to entry, while others don’t. Start somewhere that complements your existing skillset and interests, and hop around if necessary.

First, a business school-style matrix of the roles:

Least Technical
Somewhat Technical
Most Technical
Least Customer-Facing
• Product Operations
• Engineer
Somewhat Customer-Facing
• Product Marketing Manager
• Growth Marketer
• Product Designer
Most Customer-Facing
• Account Executive • Sales Development Representative • Customer Success Manager
• Value Engineer
• Solutions Engineer • Solutions Architect • Support Engineer • Developer Evangelist

Brief descriptions of these roles and how they relate to product management:

Role Title
Job Description
Relevance to PM
Account Executive
The salesperson responsible for moving each account from qualification and discovery to close. The primary point of contact in the pre-sales context. Does not have to be technical, but it helps.
Talking to customers and understanding implicit needs and behavior. Presenting concepts visually and concisely. Understanding economics and pricing.
Customer Success Manager
Ensures customers are meeting their objectives with the solution as implemented. Helps with onboarding new users, communicating new functionality, and kicking off renewal and upsell conversations. Often the customer’s main point of contact when not in a sales cycle.
Talking to customers and understanding implicit needs and behavior. Presenting concepts visually and concisely.
Developer Evangelist
Communicates product functionality and new features to external developers and non-technical stakeholders. May be responsible for organizing hackathons and managing technical marketing, such as engineering blogs.
Talking to customers and understanding implicit needs and behavior. Familiarity with technical architecture and concepts. Willingness to get hands dirty with UI, engineering, etc. and learn on the fly.
Engineer
Responsible for translating product requirements into a finished product or feature, either by writing code or designing hardware.
Familiarity with engineering development cycles. Familiarity with technical architecture and concepts. Willingness to get hands dirty with UI, engineering, etc. and learn on the fly.
Growth Marketer
Runs performance marketing campaigns, usually on digital channels. Takes an experimental approach to improve performance.
Understanding customer behavior and preferred messaging. Willingness to get hands dirty with UI, engineering, etc. and learn on the fly.
Product Designer (UI/UX/Interaction Designer)
Translates product requirements into the look and feel of the final product. May involve customer research, brainstorming, storyboarding, wireframing, visual design, and 3D modeling. This role may overlap with product management at some companies.
Talking to customers and understanding implicit needs, behavior, and preferred messaging. Working cross-functionally with other teams. Presenting concepts visually and concisely. A working knowledge of product/UI/UX design. Understanding product roadmaps and strategy. Willingness to get hands dirty with UI, engineering, etc. and learn on the fly.
Product Marketing Manager
Develops and manages the go-to-market activities for a product, including performing market research, crafting messaging, defining pricing, developing sales and marketing collateral, and generating marketing campaigns.
Talking to customers and understanding implicit needs, behavior, and preferred messaging. Working cross-functionally with other teams. Presenting concepts visually and concisely. Understanding product roadmaps and strategy.
Product Operations
Responsible for supporting the product team with data, processes, and communication with other teams. Fields product requests, supports requests with data, and helps the product team with execution.
Working cross-functionally with other teams. Familiarity with engineering development cycles. Understanding product roadmaps and strategy.
Sales Development Representative
The first point of contact in outbound sales, and often also inbound sales. Responsible for outreach, initial conversations, and initial qualification before handing over the opportunity to the account executive.
Talking to customers and understanding implicit needs and behavior. Presenting concepts visually and concisely.
Solutions Architect
The post-sales counterpart to the solutions engineer. Once the sale has closed, the solutions architect manages and assists with technical implementation, usually by advising engineers on the client’s team. May have some ongoing support responsibilities when the customer is not in a renewal or upsell process.
Talking to customers and understanding implicit needs and behavior. Familiarity with technical architecture and concepts. Presenting concepts visually and concisely. Willingness to get hands dirty with UI, engineering, etc. and learn on the fly.
Solutions Engineer (Sales Engineer or Solutions Consultant)
The technical counterpart to the account executive in the pre-sales context. Typically manages discovery, product demos, proofs-of-concept (POCs), and packaging a solution for the post-sales team to implement.
Talking to customers and understanding implicit needs and behavior. Familiarity with technical architecture and concepts. Presenting concepts visually and concisely. Willingness to get hands dirty with UI, engineering, etc. and learn on the fly.
Support Engineer
Handles technical support requests for existing customers.
Talking to customers and understanding implicit needs and behavior. Familiarity with technical architecture and concepts. Willingness to get hands dirty with UI, engineering, etc. and learn on the fly.
Value Engineer
The business counterpart to the account executive and solutions engineer. Usually brought into sales opportunities when there are budget concerns, the value engineer helps ensure the solution efficiently meets client needs and helps frame the solution in terms of overall value instead of cost.
Talking to customers and understanding implicit needs and behavior. Understanding economics and pricing.

Hopefully this gives you an idea of some adjacent roles to start developing your skillset. Perhaps you are already in one of these roles. In that case, consider whether you need to round out your skillset with another adjacent role or if it is time to make the switch into product.

Be a PM, even without the title

My challenge to you: become a product manager without explicitly having the title. PMs typically do not have direct authority over other teams anyway, so you can leverage your product-adjacent position to have more influence on the outcome of the product.

Figure out how to work with the product team, now matter which role you are in:

  • Become a subject matter expert by communicating new feature launches, roadmaps, etc. from product to your team.
  • Try the product for yourself. Identify what you like and don’t like. Practice identifying requirements, and write a product spec for a new feature.
  • Research and summarize the trends you are hearing from customers or in industry publications.
  • Submit product requests (product gaps) when customers want something the product does not provide.
  • Be the voice of the customer: advocate for the customer and relay information in customers’ own words.
  • Study technical architectures and probe around about why decisions were made. Identify areas to improve the existing stack and ways to leverage the existing architecture for additional functionality.