How do you get a Product Management position without experience?

There’s been A LOT of posts about this topic outside of the career threads, so I thought I’d try to put together my thoughts to some of the general questions I’ve been seeing on this sub (and in an effort to observe DRY methodology).

Before I get into it

As a disclaimer, these are just my opinions and there are a wealth of differing opinions from other PMs on this sub.

There are many types of Product Managers. PMs exist at CPGs, luxury brands, pharmaceuticals, etc. However, what I’ll be covering is Product Management in Tech, specifically software tech.

Why Product Management?

The first question that you’ll often ask as a PM is “Why”. So I’ll ask the same, “Why Product Management”?

You don’t need to have a story that goes “I’ve wanted to be a Product Manager since I was 3 years old, as I’ve been an admirer of [Company X] and [Y product] since.” But you do need a coherent story to tell. Sure your story will be used for recruiters, hiring managers, and other interviewers about why you’re interested in the position. But more importantly, you need to have a story for yourself. Why are you going to subject yourself to this potentially long and arduous path of trying to get into Product Management?

Skills Needed

IMHO, the most important skills that a PM needs are as follows:

  • Primary: Empathy, adaptability, soft leadership, and communication
  • Secondary: Prioritization, identifying customer needs, understanding product frameworks, and deciphering data

Paths to Product Management

This is not an exhaustive list (or even an exclusive one), but I hope this will address the most common paths people have been asking about.

I will, however, caveat my suggestions with the statement that there are many paths into product management

Current Students

Undergraduates

The difficulty of undergrad is the lack of work experience, but the great thing is that there’s a well established pipeline into a bunch of other tech roles:

  • Associate Product Manager (APM) internship programs - Google, Meta, LinkedIn, Salesforce, etc. have direct pipelines open to undergraduates. Though I have heard that these programs are extremely competitive.
  • Product Adjacent positions (Larger Company) - I will repeat this suggestion multiple times in this post, but there are many positions that interact with the product organization and are also involved with product development process that can help you transition into a PM role.
    • Directly in Product Process
      • Software engineering (SWE)
      • Quality engineers / quality assurance (QE/QA)
      • UX/UI Design
      • Product Owner (PO)
      • Business Analyst (BA)
      • Product Marketing Manager (PMM)
    • Indirectly in Product Process
      • Customer success / experience (CSM/CX)
      • Sales
      • Business or strategy operations
  • Founder/CEO - While you may fail, building and launching a product will provide valuable product experience

Highlight the following skills:

  • Leadership - Give examples of when you were a driver of an initiative (clubs, student council, Greek life, project teams, etc.)
  • Collaboration - Anything where you had to work as a team (clubs, projects, etc.)
  • Product expertise - Showcase anything you’ve done to launch something (project, side hustle, customer discovery, etc.)
  • Technical knowledge (if any) - Showcase your technical knowledge (coding languages, projects/portfolio, etc.)

MBAs

This is likely one of the most well trod paths into Product Management:

  • Product Manager (PM) internship programs - Schools have direct pipelines into Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Adobe, VMWare, etc.
  • Product Adjacent positions (Larger Company) - See description above
  • PM at a Pre-Seed Startup - Many early startups wish they could get PMs from Google, but due to the low pay/prestige are often willing to hire smart individuals with transferable skills into product positions
  • Product Adjacent positions (Series A+ Startup) - See description above, but product adjacent positions at startups that have raised at least their Series A are great places to land given the internal mobility and fluidity of roles
  • Founder/CEO - See description above

I would also recommend going to Reddit Channel r/MBA to read up on advice from prospective, current, and graduated MBA students.

Working in a Product Adjacent Position

Congrats! You already have one foot in the door, so I won’t go into too much detail as paths into product will be differ based on your company.

My advice here is to network, network, network! Try to see if you can help take on any product related tasks off a PM’s plate, look for mentors, shadow PMs, look for internal opportunities, and potentially speak with your manager about a career progression plan that will eventually move you into Product. Many of my company’s current PMs came from other parts of the org after having worked with the Product team in some capacity.

No Relevant Experience

“How do I get into Product Management with [no relevant experience]?” is arguably the most difficult (and most asked) path to take. And it’s one I have personal experience with as well.

I’m not going to lie, unless you get very lucky, this route is incredibly difficult. But it is possible with a lot of patience, hard work, and willingness to sacrifice short term pay.

I probably didn’t take the hardest path, but I definitely took an inefficient one. Below are that paths that in my opinion are more optimal to get into PM (read: far lower hit to your savings):

  • Product Adjacent positions (Larger Company or Series A+ Startup) - See description above Note that both these positions should pay you while you get experience and create the opportunity to transition

And below are paths that give you the opportunity to get into product, but will likely result in less pay for a few years:

  • APM/PM at a Pre-Seed Startup - See description above, but given the lack of relevant work experience or MBA, you will likely be taken advantage of and you’ll most likely end up working for a narcissistic CEO. However, this path will provide you with “relevant experience” and amazing war stories.
  • Product Adjacent positions (Pre-Seed Startup) - Like PM opporunities at a pre-seed startup, you’ll probably also be drastically underpaid for what you bring to the table. Like all startups, roles are fairly fluid and you will have opportunities to take on more product-related responsibilities.
  • Volunteer Organization - There are many organizations like “Code for [X]” that provide software for governments and other social good programs that have a need for volunteer PMs. From personal ancedotes, I do know of some volunteer PMs that were able to leverage their experiences into a full time PM position. But, I will say that even these volunteer roles have become very competitive in the past 2 or so years.
  • Founder/CEO - See description above
  • MBA - See MBA section, but this is a ~$200k investment, plus you will need to get into a target school for tech companies.

A note on your prior work experience:

  • Transferable skills from prior WE - Showcase what you’ve done and translate those skills into language matching the job description. For example: Worked with different departments = “Led cross-functional teams” or drove a project = “Ideated and executed major initiative, resulting in [X%] increase to [Metric]”. Sure everyone other than the recruiters know it’s a bunch of BS, but it’ll give you an opportunity to get in front of hiring managers and interviewers.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I get a PM position at a FAANG (including larger tech firms here) directly? If you don’t have any experience, it’s improbable, but I won’t say it’s impossible. If you have a very strong network, I’ve heard that it can be done.
  • Should I get a certification? If your purpose is to learn and you have the money to do so, then it is beneficial. However, if you’re using it to get a job in product, it’s unlikely significantly contribute to getting hired.
  • Should I go to Product School? No - full stop. IMO the ROI is horrible. Even if they can place candidates in “big-N” companies, the supply of candidates is far greater than the number of opportunities available.
  • Will I be the CEO of the product? No, the CEO or senior leadership is the CEO of the product. But, you can help influence direction.
  • Why are PM positions marked as entry level when they need 3+ experience? It’s a common problem for a lot of jobs. It could be anything from a bad LinkedIn scraper to a lazy hiring manager. Either way, Product Management does require some work experience primarily because EQ and communication abilities are important.
  • Corollary: Do you need the number of years of experience in the Job Description? Nope! There’s a lot of experience inflation in job descriptions. It was probably a tactic to try and weed out candidates who were applying to 3+ years experience positions with no experience. Go ahead and apply, there’s literally no downside.
  • How much do PMs make? Look at levels.fyi and Blind for reported numbers at various companies
  • How do I land an interview? Best bet is to go through your network - friends, alumni, local product groups, cold calling, etc. But please, please, please don’t stand in front of a company’s office. People at my work are still talking about that one student that held a cardboard sign in front of Google’s offices and posted about it in LinkedIn.
  • Do I need to know how to code to be a PM? No, but it helps. You should develop some understanding of the software development process. Knowledge of APIs and software archicture patterns are a plus.
  • Does it matter whether I go into B2B or B2C first? No. Product skillset is fairly transferable, other than specialized roles in Identity, Fraud, Trust & Safety, and Payments.
  • What if I just offer my time for free to product managers? Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Confidential company information and employment laws are two large reasons why. Also, it still falls on someone to train a volunteer.

Final Remarks

Product Management can be simultaneously fulfilling and frustrating. If you keep at it, you’ll get there. I wish all of you prospective candidates the best of luck!

I’ll also edit to include anything else I think of after posting.

13 Likes

I’ll add that you may already have an opportunity to start thinking and acting like a PM in a current non-PM role. This won’t apply to everyone but can be an option in product-adjacent roles. If you have the freedom to start and lead new projects (many roles, off the cuff - strategic roles, PjM, marketer in tech, data analyst,…), this may be an avenue for you.

Personal story - when I interviewed for an internal move to my first real PM role, the hiring manager told me that I was already a PM (despite my title) and gave me an offer for a higher level. That was all thanks to

  1. a longer project that I started and lead as pseudo-PM on my previous team, and
  2. me butting me way in to be a sidekick active stakeholder with one of our product teams.

Not saying that this is universally replicable but it can certainly help when networking internally.

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Nice writeup! Just want to share my experience. I got hired in a fintech Startup as a sales intern, worked for 2 years in sales, but did a lot of onboarding, built our onboarding process, CRM etc. I naturally fell in love with our product and got tons of knowledge on it.

After the 2 years, I was in CSM for a year, and then hired as the Product Manager, as I had gotten more knowledge from both the technical side and business side of our company and product.

So my takeaway is, gain knowledge of the product and what is moving in the markets, be curious and seek information. Then it’s just a matter of time.

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Fantastic writeup, as a junior, this is way too useful resource to learn. Really a great post! I’m sharing this with my friends :slight_smile:

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Great write up. I’d also add support roles. They often talk to customers. At some companies they are used as tester and often communicate with PMs.

On the CEO/Founder - basically build some stuff. Can Be small but just address a problem. At least that’s what I’m doing.

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I’d add as a person who wants to be a product manager, you should consider writing content for sites or blogs. Create a blog, get a domain name, it’s easy and can be done on GitHub pages for $20.

Write reviews of the things you use, analyze new features, write about the things that interest you.

Writing is an essential skill and spring you have a portfolio of clear articulate product focused things will help bolster your case.

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Any way i can leverage project coordinator and finance operations (past two roles) into PM?
Also, what about Scrum Masters/Agile coaches or Project Managers? I think they could also have a shot to become a Product Manager if they have the right background/mindset with lots of transferable skills imo.

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Welcome to the Community @AngieGoodwin.

@CarlosDubois, A note on using your previous non-PM experience: apply to companies whose product is used by your previous profession, even if tangentially. Former teachers, apply to EdTech companies, former salespeople apply to companies like Gong and Salesloft etc.

Even if you’re using it as a stepping stone towards a PM role, tell the story of how you arrive with built in user empathy and domain knowledge so you’ll ramp up quicker.

Source: former recruiter, now a PM at an HR SaaS startup

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@MichaelYoffe, What a wonderful writeup! Thanks for taking the pain to pile it up in a single place.

Am new to this community and find it very useful. I’m just gonna also add: network, network, network!! Network your heart out!

Your job hunt should primarily be networking. Have a robust online presence. Be on tech Twitter, follow relevant FB groups, follow and connect with people and groups on LinkedIn, familiarize yourself with Product Hunt, and find other product organizations (mind the product, mentor Mash, women in product, etc.).

Make friends, ask people for coffee chats, add people on LinkedIn, get good at cold messaging/emailing people who work at organizations you like, recruiters, and people who have jobs you want. (Don’t ask for favors from strangers straight up, but ask them to share their expertise and show you are interested.)

In my experience, applying to job listings without a connection is a waste of time. You need a referral. Spending your time building your network so you have referrals is a better use of time. That referral usually gets you through to at least a screening interview, and then the rest relies on framing your experience as OP has outlined.

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First of all let me welcome the newcomers to this community. @Angie Goodwin and @AlbertChappel, a very warm welcome to this wonderful community. Please feel at home and do not hesitate to discuss and express your views on any topic.

@Albert, I totally agree with you.

I get so many random cold inbounds on LinkedIn. “Hey I’m really interested in breaking into a PM role at your company! Let’s connect and set up a call.”

Full stop do NOT do that. It’s super spammy. It also fails the first job of a product person: understand your customer’s pain points and cleanly communicate how you’ll solve them. Some rando asking me for some of my time (that I could be doing literally anything else) is not appealing.

What you should do is find people you already have a connection with and ask them to introduce you to specific people you want to learn from. If my friend/colleague/relative introduces you (with context!) then I have some signal on your legitimacy. You’re also providing me an opportunity to do our connection a favor and strengthen a relationship I already value.

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@NatashaMartin, Yes! Thank you for the welcoming and also thanks for explaining this process in more detail. This is more specific and what I was trying to get at.

Yeah, don’t spam people and that’s why I said “don’t ask for favors straight up.” Expand your network and find people through your network, it should be an exchange that benefits both parties.

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Welcome @AlbertChappel and @AngieGoodwin.

@MichaelYoffe, So if I work at a pre-seed startup, what do I do next, if I want to work at a bigger company? I am thinking the size of Airbnb. I have around 2-3 years of experience in the small company.

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Wow! A warm Welcome to the new member of the Community @AngieGoodwin and @AlbertChappel.

@HeatherKurtz, Network a ton and try to get into the system through referrals.

Otherwise, just grind applications and interviews. Once you have the experience, it tends to become a numbers game.

Also consider applying to a Series A or Series B startup, many funded startups do pay decently.

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@Michael, Ahh, networking. I see. Thanks a lot!

How should I handle the competences that I will need in a big company that I don’t have in a small one? Right now we just do what works well, and doesn’t necessarily use all the right tools or methods, as I imagine they do in a bigger company.

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@Heather, Once you get the offer, I wouldn’t worry about competencies. You usually get a 90 day grace period. So ask a lot of questions during that time. Besides, even PMs switching between jobs in big tech need time to onboard as processes differ even among, say Salesforce and Microsoft.

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Thank you @MichaelYoffe. That gives me more comfort. :+1:

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Welcome to @AngieGoodwin and @AlbertChappel.

Full Stop - the best way to get into product is internal transfer at your existing company. Show you can do the job and go get it. then you build from there.

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From my own experience it was way easier to get a PM job with only internships as experience. So, to anyone reading this I would recommend becoming more lucky and just apply to companies with products you believe in.

BTW Welcome @Angie and @Albert.