29 March 2020  4 min read

How to Become a Product Manager with No Schooling

Product management is a dynamic field that requires a lot of tenacity and grit, but not necessarily an advanced degree like an MBA. To succeed as a PM, you’ll need to have an entrepreneurial spirit and a high level of emotional intelligence. The best PMs are confident in their abilities and willing to push the envelope in search of the next big thing. Though the road may be unconventional, the ingredients required for effective product management are the same.

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What is a product manager?

Product managers (PMs) are trendsetters. They define problems, solve them, and show consumers exactly how new and innovative approaches will improve their lives. 

Product management statistics by Pragmatic Marketing

“71% hold at least one professional certification in addition to their degree.”

“42% hold a master’s degree or higher”

“39% 35 to 44 years old”

“63% male”

“92% somewhat or very technical”

If there’s anything to take away from these statistics it’s that you should look into the certification and be somewhat technical.

What does a product manager do?

A product manager often wears many hats. The foundation of product management, however, is problem-solving. You're always looking to maximize value for those who consume your product and simultaneously earn money for your company.

Product managers work to meticulously define the scope of the problem that their product solves and provide the optimal solution. Determining the problem often includes copious amounts of research and connecting pieces of information in inventive ways.

Product managers are also responsible for deciding what to build and when to make it. They are tasked with competently guiding their teams as they communicate their vision, manage their development and successfully bring products to market. 

Product management often requires technical skills or at least the ability to coordinate it. They make the tough calls and guide the process of product development from the beginning through to the end.

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How can you become a product manager?

Like anything else, practice makes perfect. If you lack experience, expose yourself to situations where you can gain it. The more you hone your product development and project management skills, the more attractive you become to potential employers. Experience, including failures, will help you to navigate this fast-paced, cutting-edge field.

Looking to go to market with a product? Here’s my go-to-market strategy framework every product manager needs.

Step 1: Learn by doing—manage your own projects (can be self-directed)

One of the most effective ways to become a product manager is to make yourself into one. Define your problem, develop, build, and market your product. To guide your product development, conduct market research. Then, coordinate product development by yourself or with a team as you work to validate and implement solutions. Undertaking this process from conception to fulfillment will force you to think like a product manager, and, perhaps even more importantly, to act like one, too. 

Even if your product is ultimately unsuccessful, the experience of creating a product from start to finish will prepare you for a future as a PM by exposing you to the process. Taking that journey allows you to see which strategies work and will serve you well as you look to market other products. 

Managing your product can take many shapes. Start and build a side hustle or your own business. Whatever you decide to do, though, approach the problem clearly and document your journey.

Books and online courses about product management can be a great place to start, but you can't learn product management without hands-on experience. Successfully launching and managing your product will teach you to trust your intuition—an invaluable skill in this quick-moving industry, and help you develop your project management style.  Everything that you learn here, with your product, will be helpful to you as a PM.

Need help with product management? Schedule a FREE consultation today!

Step 2: Volunteer to work on projects

Intelligence and determination are vital to your success as a PM, but companies generally aren’t interested in hiring untested, entry-level PM’s. It’s that ubiquitous Catch-22 situation. 

There are a few ways to set yourself apart as a prime candidate for a PM position. The first is to be exceptionally good at what you're currently doing wherever you work. The fastest way to land a PM position is to transition from an alternate role in your company. 

Whenever a situation emerges, and you have the chance to lead the problem-solving process to solve a particular dilemma, seize the opportunity. If you lack the authority to craft and implement a solution in your current job, ask for permission to step outside of your station to come up with a solution. 

This approach requires you to navigate uncomfortable waters and show that you are capable of improving the situation. Communicating with teammates, troubleshooting and researching alternatives, and prioritizing solutions are the hallmark of a great PM. Volunteering to tackle a project is one of the best ways to hustle your way in by showing the level of sophistication that you can bring to a PM role.

If you are unable to find sufficient volunteer opportunities at work, try reaching out to a fledgling brand. Sign up for a product or service that you like and contact the CEO with suggestions. Volunteer to take on the PM role for free to highlight the value that you bring to the table. At the very least, you’ll gain valuable experience and connections. The startup firm may even be willing to take a chance on hiring you as someone who has invested in their product concept.

Step 3: Build up your confidence

Person in a formal suit drinking coffee at a brown table

Product management requires an innate sense, which is why schooling isn't a requirement. The best teacher is experience.

As previously mentioned, many founders initially take on the work of a PM for their product. Successful entrepreneurs share many of the same traits and skills as a quality PM, so traditional schooling may even hamper the unconventional ways of thinking that are necessary to thrive in new arenas. 

The only education that you need is the one that prepares you to perform the functions of a PM. Thankfully, you can acquire that skill set by continuing to solve problems within your organization or a startup firm. As you perform, expect to take on more challenging and complex tasks to show you are capable of expanding to fill the role and handle whatever comes next. 

Document your process to build a portfolio of product management experience. Don’t shy away from work that you are not yet equipped to tackle. Trust that you can handle it; then show up and make it work like PMs do every single day. 

Proving yourself to others is just as important as proving your capability to yourself. Since product management is such a dynamic field, you often have to trust yourself, relying on your gut. Putting yourself in positions that require you to exercise that skill set is foundational in your ability to succeed.

Step 4: Apply for a product manager position

Now Hiring Sign Outside on a Sunny Day

Volunteering to solve problems of increasing complexity creates a body of work and experience for you to draw from as you apply for a PM position. Whether you plan to transition within your current company or seek a role at another firm, you will benefit from the track record that you’ve established. 

Being able to talk about your experience confidently and what you've been able to achieve will help you land the job. Emphasize the passion and diligence that you’ve displayed in tackling each issue that you've been allowed to resolve.

Ideally, you've gained the trust and admiration of the individuals that you've worked with the inside of your organization. That will speak to your ability to lead, communicate, and coordinate the problem-solving process involving other parties.

These experiences bring you a helpful perspective but are only as valuable as you are able to measure, quantify and package key results for your internal stakeholders. Together, these components are the result of continually identifying, defining, and solving problems.  

What skills do you need to become a product manager?

To become an effective product manager, you need to move nimbly through each phase of product management. You should be adept at troubleshooting a product from every angle. The best PMs also have high levels of emotional intelligence, allowing them to connect with customers and relate to their development teams.

Skill 1 - Self-awareness

A good PM must always remain objective. Having a strong sense of self-awareness ultimately protects the product and ensures that the consumer will receive the best experience possible. 

PMs are often super-users of their products—after all, a PM is essentially a product's champion, so they will undoubtedly have an opinion on the direction that product development should take. Still, the remaining objective delivers the best product to the user without bias or interference from the PM that might compromise that objective. Removing personal preference inspires confidence in your ability to lead and produce an optimal solution.

Skill 2 - Relationship management

A PM is responsible for many stages of a product's development. At every step, a PM must inspire investment in the product and into their vision for it. Successfully managing relationships with designers, engineers, and other internal stakeholders smooth the development process and may make all of the difference quickly overcoming obstacles like obtaining additional funding or implementing a quick fix.

Forming authentic and trustworthy connections with product users is essential too. Fostering a robust and inclusive relationship with your client base will yield more effective products and set the stage for sustained future engagement.

Skill 3 - Technical Knowledge

The level of technical skill required for managing a product will largely depend on the product. While you may not need the coding skills to design an app yourself, for example, it is essential that you have enough technical knowledge to communicate what you want to your designer and intelligently discuss your customers' needs.

The most important skill set of a PM, however, is mastery of core competencies. By knowing how to effectively research problems, look for solutions, and communicate with your team, you can surmount many of the obstacles that relate to technical skills.

Skill 4 - Leadership and social awareness

The tenets of social awareness are empathy, organizational awareness, and service. Successful PMs know how to work with people to articulate a vision and then get people to buy into that vision.

Relating to customers will ensure that a product suits their needs, and an excellent product manager can get to the heart of that. From there, knowing how your company works enables you to construct the best product.

Still, social awareness is only as helpful as these people are willing to follow you. Establishing yourself as a leader who is ready to make the tough, objective calls to produce and manage the best product will earn you the respect you need to make that happen.


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