One Path into Product Management

My first product gig was like Lyft, but for grounded aircraft engines. If a flying machine needed a spare part, then our solution helped locate the nearest optimal warehouse for it. That was a decade ago, when I kicked off my career with GE. At the time, product management hadn’t made it to the tech glossary. Now, I teach product management at General Assembly‘s New York campus — the class that I wish had existed when I started my job.

If you have clinked coffee cups with more than two product managers, then you may have noticed that their career paths were likely very different. The message is that there are many pathways into this profession, and yours doesn’t have to resemble that of anyone else.

Below, I’ve proposed just one way to break into it. And when you cross the finishing line of this project, you will have practiced a skill that underpins the design of breakthrough products: to build a deep understanding of a user’s needs and motivations:

Find Your Passion
Pick an area of passion or prior experience –- media, finance, fitness, etc.

Research a Company
Within this domain, select a company that you imagine working for. Figure out who their current or prospective users are.

Interview Users
And now it gets real: you have to interview these people. Your goal is to understand how, when, why, and where they use the product or service offered by this company. Along the way, you may also gain insight into how it could be better.

You’re likely to wrangle with two common frustrations: where to find interviewees, and how to ask the right questions. When you do, dive into these interview guidelines from Ideo’s Design Kit. I recommend that you aim for 10 interviews, and constrain yourself to no longer than 3 weeks for this exercise.

Ready, Set, Send Those Emails
You can take everything you’ll learn on this assignment and pen a compelling cover letter not only to the company that you are pining to work with, but to their competitors as well. I would find it hard to ignore an email that opened with the following line: “Hi Natasha, I’ve had a chance to speak with your target audience and would love an opportunity to share my findings.”

Admittedly, the task of pitching to people whom you don’t know is tough. Often, my students have found their dream jobs in product management, only to not apply. They were too afraid to sound like phonies, or relinquish control by sounding “ignorant.” In some cases, they wanted the job so badly that the thought of rejection was too much. The solution, then, is to devise an approach that nudges you past your inaction.

So here is your itinerary for this adventure.

Allocate a chunk of time each day to cast those emails into the unknown. When the reminder from your calendar pops up, snap into action. Use the following stretch of time solely to apply for jobs, send cover letters, or seek informational meetings with product managers. The key is to work according to the schedule you’ve tailored — hopefully, you’ll find that the rhythm of your routine impels you to act, whether you feel like it or not.

Also a couple journalists shared lessons they learned from sending 1000 cold emails and you can check them out here.

Don’t be discouraged by a rejection. It doesn’t mean, “No.” It just means, “Reframe — and retry elsewhere.”

A version of this post first appeared on AHA!

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