We are now on the second part of this five-part series of short articles, where I am sharing my favorite strategies for anyone looking to transition to product management, irrespective of their previous area of focus. As mentioned in the first article, I genuinely believe product is one the most exciting places to be at right now, and I hope my learnings can enable more people from diverse backgrounds to consider this as a potential career path.
#2 Highlight your biggest “sells” on your resume
There’s never a bad time to feel good about ourselves, and that’s exactly what this article is aimed at. In this section, I have listed the various ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ skills that you can leverage to position yourself as a potentially amazing PM.
A couple of notes as we begin. First, the purpose of this list is to help you identify a few instances from your past background that can serve as great sells on your resume, interviews or general networking calls. Note that this list does not get into details of how to develop any of these skills (we will cover that area in future articles), but rather to give you a few ‘Aha’ moments when you see an area that you are already familiar with and can highlight.
Second, while tangible skills serve as a great basis to screen candidates because these are easier to measure, its the intangible skills that are harder to learn and take time to develop. These are also the primary skill sets that organizations focus on while making key leadership decisions. For example, when Jeff Bezos was asked about the main factor he looks at when he chooses leaders at Amazon, his answer was not smartness or IQ, but the rather the ability to ‘be right most of the time’, which is demonstrated by a ‘history of hard decisions taken by the individual that ended up being right’.
The point I am trying to convey is that even if you at first glance, you don’t see a lot of tangible skills that you currently have, don’t let that scare you because you can systematically plan to learn them before/ during the job. What really matters at this point is if you believe you possess the right elements to develop the intangible skills needed to be a great PM, and you are all set.
Keeping these tips in mind, let’s dive in!
- Data Sciences and/or Analytics: Most product managers actively work with huge, often unstructured sets of data to derive actionable insights. For example- product managers often evaluate big sets of customer feedback to identify tangible improvement areas. The most common tools PMs use include SQL and Excel-VBA, while others may use R/ Minitab or other statistical tools to perform advanced analysis such as regression modelling. PMs who work closer to ML or other data sciences teams have an even greater level of technical understanding of popular big data techniques such as Natural Language Processing, Sentiment Analysis etc.
If you have worked on any of these areas either in part or full time, they would serve as useful skills in your PM journey. Out of these, I consider knowing Excel and SQL a relatively low barrier to entry in displaying comfort with data to recruiters, and w3schools offers this great course to breeze through some SQL basics.
- Marketing: As a PM, you ultimately want to build products that sell. To achieve this, you would work independently or in collaboration with research teams and PMMs to identify the hottest market trends and the best ways to position a new product release. Therefore, any past experience where you have conducted marketing/ customer research, designed user-facing campaigns, handled digital marketing analytics or designed go-to-market plans, are huge advantages to have to display a creative and results-oriented marketing bent of mind.
- Software Management: Without a doubt, if you have a background of being a programmer or managing software-intensive projects, it will empower you to add more value with with engineering teams as a product manager. Most PMs aren’t expected to write codes themselves (unless its very core to the nature of the product) because companies have highly skilled dedicated developers for that purpose. That said, if a PM comes from a programming background or displays understanding how general systems such as version control (like Github) work, that’s a super useful skill to have in order to have more productive conversations with engineers, estimate project timelines and anticipate/ resolve bottlenecks.
- Project Management: The ability to manage cross-functional groups is one of the biggest portions of any PM’s job. Some of the most common project management tools used by PMs include Jira and Smartsheet, and the most common frameworks are Agile (Scrum/Kanban) as well as Lean. A handful of people also get certified in these areas, but even if you have some good hands-on experience, its great to highlight that.
A call out here is that a lot of people (including me) have prior experience in managing projects that are more operations-heavy than software- heavy and therefore might not have had exposure to these methods. In that case, I would focus on highlighting the scale of the projects I handled, the diversity of internal/external teams that I led and the quantifiable results I produced.
- Customer Engagement: Customer empathy is core to any product a PM builds, and is a tricky skill to display on your resume. Some ways to do this include (a) Framing results in a way that they are more customer-centric, i,e, highlighting the impact your work had for the final customers/users (b) Highlighting those portions of your work where you had direct customer engagement. Note that customers, in this context can include both external or internal users or clients.
- Design: Someone really smart at my current job told me that PM and design go hand in hand, and I couldn’t agree more. Any familiarity with UX/UI designs is great to have because it lets you produce the most functional, appealing, intuitive products. Note that here, I would emphasize upon the user-understanding portions of design more than the technical component, for the purposes of a PM application (not that the latter is any less important, obviously).
- Business Strategy: Every PM has to maintain the right balance of strategic and tactical thinking on their job. If you have a history of being involved in strategic planning and implementation on your job, that is a must have you want to capture. This includes identifying market needs by conducting industry and competitor analysis, financial modelling to determine business outcomes, and GTM strategy planning. There are huge sections of consultants and strategy professionals that switch to product management every year and bring this great array of strategic thinking into the domain.
- Relevant Industry Experience: This one is more specific to the firm that you are applying to. If you can display affinity to the firm’s mission or product in the form of any past jobs/ internship/ projects you have experienced, it makes sense to shape them out. For example- If you are applying to a tech-real estate firm and have worked in a tech-hospitality project in the past, you can figure out common areas (such as renovations) that you may have experienced, that will enable you to ramp up quickly if you join the firm.
By definition, the challenge with intangible skills is that they are hard to capture. However, these are some of the most common skills that PMs require and that you will see pop up in most job descriptions. A stronger narrative of how these skills flow together has been covered in my first article.
- Entrepreneurial, or self-starter drive
- Cross-functional team collaboration
- Ability to influence people at multiple levels and get buy-ins
- Ownership in leading end-to-end products
- Scrappiness and the ability to generate maximum results in resource constrained environments
- Big picture, analytical thinking
- Communication & presentation skills
- Customer empathy
You would have realized that that this is an extremely diverse of skills that not many people have as a unit (please don’t imagine that you need to have all, or even most of these skills), but most people have in parts. This reinforces the idea that there’s a place for driven individuals from almost all walks of life to start adding value as a PM, right from day one. So keep working towards that goal, as you have already got a lot working for you!
Up Next: #3 Create a target list of companies