Recently I got a question from a sales person who wanted to become a product manager. As a product manager for several years, I had to think for a while before I could answer him - and the contents of that e-mail was morphed into this article.
What's Product Management?
The definition of a product manager is not a standard across different industries. In consumer products (FMCG), its called as brand manager, in manufacturing companies its called as product marketing manager, in IT industry the name of product manager is quite common.
Product manager is a unique role in all organizations and there is never a well defined career path to become a product manager - unlike a engineering manager, Account Manager etc.
To begin with, one needs to understand the role of product manager. Its part technical and part marketing, and product manager straddles both the worlds.
A product manager must have the necessary technical skills needed to develop the product, i.e., he needs to understand the technology needed in the domain to design & build the product. This implies deep technical skills: both domain knowledge & tools knowledge.
To illustrate this, start with a simple product and identify 3 improvements that can be done to the product. Then document this in technical terms - telling an engineer what needs to be done and how. If you can do that level of detail, then you will win respect from engineers.
Product manager needs to understand the market requirements of the present and in the future. One must have an innate knowledge of the industry, market trends, & business models for the product. Product manager must understand how customer use the product as on today and also determine what additional needs they will have in future.
Communication skills are vital for a product manager. As a product manager in software world, one must be able to " speak geek" - i.e, ability to talk to engineers in engineering terms to describe what the customer needs & give ideas/suggestions on how it should be done (leave the implementation details to engineers). On the other hand when speaking to customers, product managers must be able to speak in terms of Total cost of ownership, customer use case, customer value & benefits. Essentially, product manager must be able to sell the product to customers.
Landing the job
Having mastered these three essential skills, landing a product management job is not easy. One also needs some luck, network and faith. It will take several months of campaigning to transfer from marketing/technical role into product manager role. Many product managers I know have fallen into that role - because they had the skills, so plan to campaign for yourself.
Ideally, start off with a small company which is starting a product manager role, and when the role is just being defined, you have the best chance to make it. It is much easier in smaller companies than in a large one.
Product managers are unique - there is no set career path for product managers, so after getting into that role, you still need to grow by acquiring good project management skills, negotiations skills, having good business fundamentals, and technically well versed - and that sets you up for greater roles in leadership roles.