So you want to be a product manager? Make yourself the product
Founder and CEO of Product School, Carlos Gonzalez de Villaumbrosia shares the fundamental rubric for next-generation PMs: what it takes to become one and the table stakes for your first day on the job.
On the edge of North Beach in San Francisco, there’s a basement below the pixel-pushers at Imgur. Some (me) may argue this is the real OG of the city: back in 1851, this was the the original Ghiradelli chocolate factory. Today, like so many hip places in San Francisco with its exposed brick still intact, this spot is a coworking haven for entrepreneurial meetups and early stage startups. It’s also where Carlos Gonzalez de Villaumbrosia, founder and chief executive officer of Product School , teaches the next generation of product managers.
While The Lean Startup, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, and Hooked should be in every aspiring PM’s Kindle, Carlos is one of the few to formalize this career training with an eight-week part-time product management course held in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and New York. Riding the wave of coding and technical programs like General Assembly and Hack Reactor, Product School is the destination for those committed to honing the requisite skills and making a diagonal leap in their career, but as Carlos laid out, “not everybody can be a product manager in the same way not everybody can be a software engineer or a startup founder.”
As one of the most desired careers in tech, how to become a PM is still shrouded in some mystery. “There was no formal path to learning how to make product, so I created Product School to teach others how to become product managers,” said Carlos.
Here, he breaks down the steps necessary to get the job, as well as shares what your team will expect from you on Day One as a new product manager.
But first, you should know: The competition is steep.
You often see large companies home grow PMs when software engineers have a feature or idea that bridges their work from writing code to developing product. But generally speaking, tech companies cultivate future PMs via highly selective rotational programs that have a “throw ’em in the deep end” philosophy, giving green PMs a lot of responsibility, owning features, products, and important projects with millions of users.
For example, Google’s Associate Product Manager Program was created by Marissa Mayer when she was an executive at Google. The goal was to train fresh college engineering grads interested in becoming product managers. Then, Marissa created a similar program at Yahoo when she moved in as CEO. While Google’s APM program acceptance numbers aren’t public, it’s been reported that the general acceptance rate for full-time jobs at Google are about 1 out of 130 (.77%), while according to Don Dodge, Google’s Developer Advocate, it’s half of one percent.
“Getting a job as a product manager is more competitive than getting a job as a software engineer. The average ratio of product managers to software engineers at a technology company is one to 10. Moreover, the job applicants to product management positions are not just existing product managers but also aspiring product managers from diverse backgrounds such as software engineering, management consulting, online marketing or user experience design,” said Carlos.
So what should prospective PMs do to rise above the competition and get their dream job? According to its manifesto, Product School recommends any aspiring PM to get meta:
Make yourself the product.
Product management exists at the intersection of software engineering, design and business. The next generation of product managers, self-taught or otherwise, must build, measure, test, and iterate on their own skills in each discipline in order to succeed.
So before you apply for your first position, here are four things Carlos recommends that every applicant do:
1. You have to build something, but it doesn’t need to be picture perfect. “Similar to designers who have a portfolio to showcase, an aspiring PM needs to prove his or her curiosity and expertise. Create a prototype. A personal website. Something to prove that you can do the work and have the necessary skills.”
Those who know how to code have a definite leg up in the process, but if you don’t have a technical background, there are multiple prototyping, conferencing, user testing tools, live chats, and platforms to build websites without coding or programming knowledge. “It’s more about understanding and having the right mindset to adapt to whatever tools your team needs to use,” Carlos said. However, every PM has the shared characteristic of being an incredibly fast learner; whatever your subject matter expertise, you need to make stuff and present it to the world.
2. Claim your domain. PMs have to care about the product they manage, and that typically happens when he or she understands the market, its customers, its problems and what needs to change to serve future users.
“Let’s say you were a marketing manager for an e-commerce platform. You can use that expertise to apply for another e-commerce platform but as a product manager.” Being a product manager requires deep industry knowledge, and it’s incredibly difficult to jump from the e-commerce world to build products in something else, like SaaS or healthcare.
Still, there’s a demonstrative benefit of leveraging your background for deeper business acumen.
For example, early in his career, Carlos found his niche in the ed-tech space; he was a lead instructor at General Assembly, responsible for curating the course content and teaching product management in San Francisco, and before that, Carlos founded FLOQQ, the biggest marketplace for online video courses in Latin America. Within the narrative of his expertise, Product School was a logical next step.
3. You don’t need to start a company. Just put in a user request to your favorite app. According to Carlos, most product managers early in their career won’t build something from scratch at a company. Rather, they’ll likely be building upon pre-existing products. So, aspiring product managers can practice their skills by finding the cracks in a product they love or running thought experiments on how to make something better.
“When we first created the curriculum at Product School, we were teaching students how to build a product from zero to one. But we learned the biggest challenge at Product School was taking input from a number of sources and teaching students how to grow a pre-existing product.”
For anyone on this career path, it’s important to learn how to build on the shoulders of giants, rather than having an ego of the same size. It’s a familiar archetype to see a former founder turn to product management, but it “isn’t necessary that you fail at building a business and then ask for a job” in product, said Carlos. The entrepreneurial mindset is imperative for high performance, but the job description doesn’t have to include “familiar with the Sand Hill circuit.”
4. Non-hackers may be happy to know: High-performing PMs can be just half-decent coders.
“I built Product School as a solution to a problem I had eight years ago. I started my career as a software engineer, and I was not the fastest or cheapest coder out there. I liked coding, but I didn’t love it. Really, I liked to connect the technical aspect of software to how to make money, and I started my work as a product manager without even realizing it.”
You should be competent enough to build the baseline of the product, and then you can get help from there. “In the beginning, I always built the first version of the website or the mobile app and then I started hiring my classmates.” As the business grew, Carlos hired more engineers to take on what was beyond his expertise.
“You need to feel confident having a conversation with your engineering team at every level. It’s analogous to going to a mechanic; you need to know where all the parts are and how everything works.”
While you don’t need to be able to hack into the Pentagon in order to be a PM, “you will have 10x more job opportunities if you know how to code,” said Carlos.
To date, 30% of Product School’s graduates get PM positions within three months, and at the tail end of the program, students get help to prepare their resumes and LinkedIn profiles, practice mock interviews, and connect with companies that are actively hiring junior product managers.
As a prospective candidate, the numbers may feel stacked against you when you reach your interview date. But it’s important to note that some of the best PMs aren’t merely the ones with the most prestigious credentials on paper. What differentiates them from the rest aren’t technical abilities, per se, but rather nuanced communication skills, high emotional intelligence, good judgement and insatiable curiosity. Becoming a Product Manager is about adapting to a certain mindset that tech companies have come to expect from all of their high performing employees.
While these three universal truths about product management will be clutch to know during your interview, they will also prove to be imperative for your first day on the job.
You’ll live in data (and love it):
Diving into the data is imperative for figuring out what to prioritize and deciding what to build next. To understand your users, you will likely want to conduct a number of interviews to get qualitative insights. While interviews are helpful for getting anecdotal feedback and cultural context, they can’t be the only source of information a PM relies on.
Measuring and collecting quantitative data based on user behavior gives you a more objective source of truth. When you track events, you’re able to understand how a group of users reacts to changes, so you can address those bigger questions around churn, retention, and engagement.
“Data gives you the evidence necessary to double down on what you were building so you know you’re going in the right direction.” It also helps you prove that the solution you are trying to build matters. Be sure to only prioritize what’s urgent and important before you jump into a programming language or specific tool.
Here’s a hypothetical to explain the importance of working with qualitative and quantitative data:
Let’s say you’re the PM for a global gaming app that has certain “pay to play” features, and you’re trying to make it easier for users everywhere to pay in the app.
During user interviews, you heard American users are very accustomed to connecting their credit card to their smartphones or using PayPal as a preferred way of payment. However, many South Americans don’t have credit cards and prefer to pay in cash, while in Europe, users do have credit cards but PayPal is still not the preferred way to go.
These anecdotes can be red flags for a PM, but they aren’t enough to deploy engineering resources. Rather, hearing something like this should inspire you to investigate further.
At this juncture, you would dive into the data to see if these stories were unique complaints or testimony to a larger, systemic issue. Collecting and analyzing quantitative data from user behavior is so crucial because you’re able to cross-check and substantiate claims, as well as provide a team with the hard facts on why they are building out a certain feature.
So, as a PM, if you followed up with the quantitative data to learn that 78% of your European users dropped from “paying to play” (most likely because there wasn’t the preferred payment option), then you would likely categorize this is a hot priority because it greatly influences engagement and revenue. From here, you’d would drill down to learn, maybe, the pre-dominant operating systems in Europe. Knowing this information would help you prioritize whether your engineers should iterate on the Android or iOS app first.
From Carlos’s perspective and in examples like this one, blending qualitative and quantitative data is table stakes; savvy product managers know it’s never one or the other.
Find the metric that matters (and do something about it):
Determining the right KPI goes beyond talking MAUs (monthly active users): “It depends on the type and stage of the product in order to define what that one number everyone should care about [is]. What’s the goal of the company? Are you a company that’s just starting off and you want to capture contact information? You’re probably looking at activation metrics or acquisition metrics.”
For Product School, Carlos knew there were a number of factors to consider. “Students come, they learn, and then, hopefully, they get jobs, so the one KPI for us is the number of students that get employed after our program.” (That’s the “30% of graduates get PM jobs in three months” number, and growing that number is a key measure of the success of Product School’s “product”.)
“Another KPI we care about is their overall satisfaction with the program. We look to Net Performance Score (NPS) to measure how likely they are to recommend Product School to their friends.” This feedback is critical to the progress of Product School; the team iterates on the curriculum with each class to make sure students are getting the latest tools and market trends.
If you want to survive, you need to master time (and energy) management.
And that goes for yours and everyone else’s. Time is a finite resource, and so in your old life as an engineer or designer, say, you probably tried hard to never squander your time with operational requests. Instead, you focused for long periods of time on a few projects. But don’t be surprised when the definition of “work” is markedly different when you transition from individual contributor to product manager.
“Before product management, your day goes from 20% communication to 80% development. However, as a PM, if you’re communicating 100% of the time, then you’re doing your job right. You need to be a good translator amongst everyone, feel comfortable understanding the motivations of your engineers and designers, and support them along the way.” Carlos added with a smile, “Then, there’s the extra 20% on top of what’s left to do.”
So start organizing your work as a series of 30-minute blocks — today. And be strict about it. Vanity meetings are out the window. Don’t spend an hour in a meeting when all the team needs is 15 minutes to regroup and set priorities. Time management, whether it’s sprint-by-sprint or crossing the finish line with a product launch, is vital because being the metaphorical train conductor for your team isn’t solely about punctuality, but creating a sense of urgency that begets success.
But as Carlos clarified, “Building a great product isn’t enough for your product to be successful.” The next generation of product managers will learn that there are invisible forces that contribute to your app’s current circumstances (a la Hidden Markov). The market is dynamic. Technology is ever evolving. Your competitors are advancing. Your users, whether digital natives or not, have very high expectations and will never settle. Understanding those factors and applying those insights to your solution or go-to-market strategy will help control the fate of your product. “Because at the end of the day, you are really responsible for the bad things, and then when there’s a success, you’ll have to give the praise to your team,” said Carlos. Perhaps it’s tough to hear that a PM career comes with inevitable pitfalls, but if you think the rewards far outweigh the risks, then you’re in the right place.
But remember, there is a fine line: Keep your enthusiasm high without burning out.
Product management is a fast-paced, complicated, exhilarating and rewarding career though it isn’t for the faint of heart. You need to be ready for the ride but keep the resolve to stay focused on what matters.
Until a PM is in the weeds, he or she may not realize that despite the market research, data, A/B testing, and all the tools at his or her fingertips, there’s still a lot of nuance to the role. How do you know you’ve made the right choice? According to Carlos, your job is to synthesize different sources of information, delineate which input matters the most and qualify what idea will have the biggest impact on the product, all the while keeping honest to metrics. After building, measuring, testing, and iterating, it’s your job to be confident that you’ve laid the best runway for your team and product’s progress.
Decision fatigue may become chronic (and be the philosophy behind the Silicon Valley uniform of jeans, black t-shirt, and sneakers), but it’s also an incredible honor to be the point person who ushers a solution into the world. As the voice of the customer, interpreter of the data, and shepherd for your engineers and designers, when you’re CEO of the product, the buck stops with you — a sentiment that brings immense pride to any PM.
Actually, there may not be a better gig out there for tech and business hybrids. It’s an exceptional way to make a living: to energize (and learn from) some of the smartest and most creative people in the world, to help each other overcome limitations, to solve problems (no matter how big or small), to invent stuff, and then, finally, to orchestrate all these moving parts, turning an idea into something people use every single day. It’s satisfying to know, as a product manager, that when you leave the office, or that hip coworking space with exposed brick, your work never really ends. It lives on. Probably on someone’s phone or laptop making their life or business easier or far more delightful.