Three steps to get your first Product Manager job

I’ve been reading some impressive stories about people who managed to land their dream PM or PMM internships and then jobs straight out of college. I’m happy for the people who manage to do this, but it is the exception, not the rule. 

If you didn’t manage to land a product management internship in an iconic company with a guarantee of a position down the road, don’t worry. 

Most PMs and PMMs take a less direct route. 

And the good news is that this more common route is less dependent on luck and more dependent on making smart career decisions within your control. 

The three steps are 

  1. Get a job

  2. Get a customer-facing product-oriented job

  3. Get a Product Manager or Product Marketing Manager job

Each step prepares for the next. 

(1) Get a job

The first step is to get a job, any job, but not in just any company. Target companies that have products and product managers/marketers. And importantly, companies where you can identify with the customer. 

Identifying with the customer means that you could imagine yourself as a customer. You understand why they would want this product and how they would use it. It would be best if you had something in common. If you are finishing a marketing degree, you know why a marketer needs Marketo or 6Sense. A computer science graduate understands why developers want Docker. An accounting or finance major cannot imagine a world without accounting applications or the financial core of ERP systems. 

An important detail is that you impose this customer empathy job requirement on yourself, even when it is not imposed on you by the hiring company. It is your responsibility to think about your career three steps out, not theirs. 

(2) Get a customer-facing product-oriented job 

The next step is to land a job that is all about the product and the customer. There are many of these jobs. Customer success, customer support, implementation consulting, technical sales. 

That’s why, while you are doing your first job, you become an expert in the product in your own time. At the same time, network with people in those customer-facing product-oriented roles, so they know you are a product enthusiast with a passion for customer success. Learn about these customer-facing roles.

You make yourself the obvious choice for the next opening in one of those teams. 

Step (2) is only possible because you carefully selected the company in Step (1). If you are a marketing graduate at Docker, or a CS graduate at Marketo, this step would be a leap. 

(3) Land a PM/PMM role 

You are in a product-oriented customer-facing role, a common hunting ground for PM/PMM positions. Product marketing and management teams need people who understand the product and the customer. 

There are two more things you need to do to make yourself the obvious candidate for the next PM/PMM job opening. 

Be an asset to the PM/PMM teams. PM/PMM teams are continually looking for feedback from “the field,” which is you. Product marketers create content and never hear feedback. Product managers are on the lookout for customers to test ideas. Become the voice of the field back into these organizations. Be visible, proactively helpful, best business buddies. 

Your remaining gap is knowledge of product management or marketing. Closing it becomes your next commitment. While doing a great job at your day job, you learn everything you can about product management and marketing. Use communities like PMM Hive as a resource. Let those teams know of your interest and look for mentors. 

At this point, you are a highly visible, proactive, helpful product expert with excellent customer knowledge. You are learning everything you can about product management or marketing. 

Who are they going to hire when the next position opens up? 

I can understand this indirect route to becoming a PM/PMM is frustratingly long for some people. But of all things, a career is a journey and not a destination.  

The indirect route has some advantages. 

  1. You will be a better PM/PMM. By the time you become a PM/PMM you will have product and customer experience. Your peers will respect you. Your decisions will be grounded in reality. You avoid ivory tower syndrome. PM/PMM greatness is within reach. 
  2. You may find another passion along the way. You might think of a customer-facing product-oriented role as a stepping stone but discover a great career that takes you in unexpected directions. 
  3. You are in control. By making thoughtful career choices and preparing for career transitions, you take a lot of the luck out of the process. 

I hope this helps and best of luck! 

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