Learn product the hard way - a guide to breaking into product

Learn product the hard way - a guide to breaking into product

(adapted from a twitter thread)

How do I break into product? is a question I find myself answering frequently. It might be a good idea to read content on this topic written by folks much more experienced and smarter than me:

  1. How to Get Into Product Management (And Thrive) by Lenny Rachitsky
  2. 5 Paths To Your First Product Manager Role by Sachin Rekhi
  3. Hacking your Product Career Ladder by Gibson Biddle
  4. Breaking Into Product Management — Starter Pack by Adam Waxman

In my opinion Lenny, Sachin, Gibson and Adam have collectively hit the nail on its head and I cannot do a better job at articulating the various routes leading to a career in product as well as skillset expectations for an early PM.

I just felt some of these didn't apply to ecosystems outside the major startup hubs because they have:

  1. fewer opportunities i.e. non-existent APM programs
  2. nascent product culture (or ecosystem still understanding role) i.e. prevalence of myths like PM is CEO

Additionally, with the growth in NoCode solutions and market bias towards building, there seems no excuse not to.

The two questions I frequently get from aspiring product managers are:

  1. How do I get the required product experience for an early role?
  2. How to make up for the lack of my technical knowledge?

Quick and short answers to above:

  1. You don't need a product role to gain product experience
  2. Not all product roles need deep technical chops but there definitely exists a baseline

How do I get required product experience for an early role?

Before diving into specifics we need to understand the role. These veterans explain it really well:

Another important myth we need to bust is that the PM is NOT the CEO. The CEO role is a superset, as beyond product the CEO worries about funding, hiring, sales, et al.

With that out of the way, let's talk about getting product experience without that first role. I recommend two strategies:

  1. public product tear downs
  2. build something

Strategy one is lower lift where I suggest you do product teardowns. You can start by creating a SubStack where you post full-stack teardowns of products that interest you. By full-stack I mean you should include your best guess around: metrics, growth loops, engineering stack and maybe even write a mock PRD — I mean why not?

The second strategy is much more involved; and maybe controversial. Lenny's post says that building is the hardest path but I feel things have changed since. Building assumes focusing on things a CEO would do eg grow the company or fundraising. I am asking you to cheat. I am asking you to only focus on things a PM would have to do while building a product from 0→1. These are:

  1. Customer Discovery
  2. Vision, road mapping, scoping, prioritization
  3. Metrics, Analytics, Growth Loops

NoCode is making all the buzz in 2020. It removes all barriers for a non-technical person to build something tiny very easily. Building solo might not expose you to a situation where you will have to negotiate for resources/investment but if you are honest through out the process you will definitely be exposed to opportunities which will make you answer the hard questions of product building such as do we build x or y or both? — and gain that valuable execution experience.

Building is a hypothesis driven process. The set of operations/hypothesis in the right order is what we call prioritization and roadmapping. It is one of the most essential PM skills. Designers who code and Coders who design are highly valued. Being a PM who can build (prototype) will make you equally valuable and unique. It will also expose you to developer tools, web app internals and some (initially) scary constructs like API and JavaScript snippets.

Two great resources for learning about analytics and metrics are Segment University and North Star Playbook.

Building is the only permission-less way to get product experience. It has no pre-requisites. You can build something new like a Community for New Kitten Parents or go as far as replicating an existing product and tweaking it just enough to adapt it to a new niche. Remember, the idea is not to grow a $B company here. It is to get your hands dirty and learn the core PM skills (yellow boxes at bottom):

How to make up for the lack of technical knowledge?

The PM role requires you to have basic tech chops simply because you will be constantly working with engineers and need to be able to communicate effectively. Not all industries, teams, roles and products require the same proficiency. I have seen many aspiring product managers sign up for bootcamps hoping to fill the gap in their knowledge. While, it is not a bad idea, it is surely a painful and long-winded one/ Having said that, the ROI on learning to code can never be negative in this day and age. I am just asking you to consider if it is the most optimal path to a first product role.

In any case, beyond the basics, you should only focus on advancing technical chops once you have a solid grasp of analytics, product and execution foundations. You will always have engineering counterparts in the form of leads and engineering managers who can help with technical concepts, but they will rely on your 200% for all things core product.

The baseline technical knowledge you need as an entry level product manager is an understanding of how the following work: Internet, Computers and Full-stack Web Applications.

These are really deep topics so be careful of rabbit holes. I suggest the following resources:

  1. "How the Internet Works" playlist by Code.org
  2. Eloquent Javascript book which (imho) is the best introduction to computing, Javascript and web application development.

For what its worth, knowing Javascript will take you a long way even as a PM.

Anything and everything beyond these topics will vary by industry, role and types of products (or companies) you will work at.

For example the technical knowledge requirements for a PM managing an e-commerce product is very different from someone managing an AI/ML based product. The former asks for better understanding of martech stacks, APIs, A/B testing while the later cares for fundamental understanding of ML and statistics.

The technical knowledge requirements might also differ based on the nature of product role you end up in. From the previous post by Sachin, builder roles will need you to adapt to existing stacks and talk the talk, tuner roles are growth focused and require you to dive deeper into martech, seo, analytics, data and finally innovator roles really vary. Innovator roles can be deep tech or very UX focused. Your role will define your language. You can only frontload the knowledge so much.

I hope this helps answers your questions about breaking into product. Always happy to chat on twitter. Come say hi