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How can I get PM experience without being a PM first?
This is a classic conundrum for people trying to transition into the field. My very short answer: build the experiences you need.
I’m a HUGE proponent of this path. When I joined Facebook, it was rare to hire non-Ivy league graduates into PM roles. I feel the thing that set me apart was the number of skills and projects I had developed outside of university and internships. I want to share two ways that I used to build my experiences that helped me become a PM without a prior PM role.
Find PM scope in your current role
Launch side projects
Below, I’ll share how I did both of these and how you can expand your PM skillset regardless of your current role.
Quick aside: what are the skills you need?
Check out my Technical Guide for PMs to find what technical skills you need to develop. Next, try finding the PM archetype that you’d most likely want to land a role in. From there, take a look at actual job postings in that archetype. Determine the skill gap and build a map to building those skills.
🔍 Finding PM Scope
When I was doing Growth at a 20-person, B2B SaaS startup, I learned that I may want to become a product manager. But my job was mostly sales.
I decided to proactively find our power users, companies that loved our product.I reached out to them via email and interviewed 4 people to understand what they liked, hated and wanted to see in our product.
From here, I translated some of the common pain points they mentioned in the product (“the notifications are terrible”) into a product brief. I shared it with our CEO and together we worked with a designer to find how we can create this project.
This became bullet-point number #1 in my Facebook product manager resume ☺️.
You may be thinking, “Wow, what an open company culture. My company would never let me do that.” But here’s the thing: companies will let you do almost anything as long as you’re still doing well in your core responsibilities.
Here are some ideas to create PM experiences from various roles:
👍 Customer Success
Create a beta user program. This is a common model for testing new ideas with people who will give you honest feedback (here’s an example from Todoist). Find people or companies that would like to participate and offer them rewards (ex. discounts, swag). Once you’ve created the program, regularly run user interviews, ask for their feedback on new products and help the product team prioritize features based on your knowledge.
Create a one-year roadmap of the legal/privacy changes on the horizon that may affect the product. Be detailed in potential product mitigates that you think could be helpful. Share this with your product team and leadership. This is a great way to add value!
🧑🔬 Data Analyst
Use your data skills to analyze a user journey and make recommendations to the product team. For example, do a funnel analysis for your companies website, analyzing how many people arrive on the site, how many create an account, how many make a purchase etc. From here, identify easy fixes that the team can work on.
📽 Side Projects
If you want to learn skills that aren’t possible in your current job, consider a side project. These are small projects that you can ideally do in a weekend that help you try a new tool, practice a new skill or perhaps earn some extra cash.
Many of the skills that helped me enter the PM role stem from side projects:
UX Design: I became interested in UX Design after redesigning a website to land an internship. That summer, I focussed on more design projects in order to build a portfolio. I attended hackathons, worked on some ideas on the weekends and tried to shift my work scope to include more design. Less than a year later, I was doing an internship in UX design at Microsoft.
Python/SQL: My degree in economics exposed me to statistics so I wanted to try a role in data science. I did some online courses, built a small python application with Tkinter (a lightweight graphical interface library) and did a research project in an area of interest. This helped me get a role as an analyst at Tumblr.
Go-To-Market: I recorded and built an introduction to UX Design course. This taught me go-to-market, a skill that I later found out was essential to being a product manager.
At a glance, the best PM side projects involve building something and taking it to market. Here are some ways to build that experience
🔨 Use No-Code tools to build a product
This is likely the best avenue. No-code tools make it easy to build a product. I’d personally check out tutorials on NoCodeMba. In a few hours, you can build a Tinder clone or an upvote site like Product Hunt without coding. Once you’ve built a product, drive traffic, get users and respond to their feedback.
🧬 Data Science Project
Find a data set that’s interesting on Kaggle (a site with awesome, free datasets). Use Excel, SQL or Python to find interesting trends in the data. I did this exact process with a dataset from Spotify to answer a research question, Is faster music happier? As a bonus, I shared this project with a Research Scientist at Spotify and it helped me build a great relationship (while developing my skills).
🎨 Design Feedback
Find an app you love and identify changes to improve the user experience. This helps you build product sense and gives you something to share with a company you love. Check out Growth.Design or UserOnboard for great examples on doing constructive app critiques.
🛠 Working with technical teams
There are many communities that have sprung up (especially during the pandemic) to help people come together to build. One that I joined was called Side Prjct. Check it out to find a team to work on a project with you.
More Resources for Side Projects
PM Technical Guide: Books, courses and tools to learn more about data science, design and engineering.
Side Hustle Stack: a free resource to find side hustles and the resources you may need to get started
Profitable Business Ideas You Can Build With No-Code: inspiration and resources to start building no-code projects.
If you’re missing a skill, build it. This will help you grow in your current scope as a product manager or transition into the field. Do this by finding scope in your current role or by building a small side project.
Stretch your scope at work to touch the core responsibilities of a product manager. Make sure to keep crushing it in your current role!
Spend time building with no-code tools and taking projects to market.
🖼 Internet Things I’m Enjoying
🏦 DeFi and the Future of Finance: A research paper that highlights the history of finance and how decentralized finance (DeFi) solves some of the current limitations in our system.
👾 The Great Online Game: An interesting take by NotBoring on how we’re all playing an online game for clout, social value and standing.
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