Breaking into product management, the unconventional wayFeatured

Product management in tech is a hot career choice and a difficult profession to succeed in. With lots of people looking to join, many guides are available online. There has traditionally been a rule book to crack the PM role, and then there are people who break in via an unconventional path. Believing I am the latter, I would love to share my story.

I am Priyanka, Associate Product Manager at Atlan (a B2B SaaS startup) and I want to tell you my story, including the bits I wish I knew before I made it in. Hope it helps!

My journey, my story

I graduated in 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic with a low-paying job offer from a small marketing agency which they later rescinded due to covid. I was still figuring out a career path for myself but I also needed a job. So I started looking for data analyst roles since I knew a bit of data science from college.

After 4 months of crazy job hunting and failing multiple interviews, I landed an internship offer from Airbnb. It wasn't exactly a data science role, but a multi-dimensional one – I was part of the sales team but also worked around people in data. I did some BI and account management, spoke to some amazing Airbnb hosts, and learned a lot about the travel business.

During my time there, as I onboarded hosts on the Airbnb platform and helped them manage their business, I started understanding how and why the platform was built in a certain way and how that mapped to user behaviour. I also started discussing ideas on how we could improve the product experience with my team and that’s when I realised I had become interested in product management.

Like anyone, I read the basics on the internet on how to get a PM role. I didn't have an MBA, nor a 2-year software engineering experience which at that time were the most repeated keywords in most PM JDs. I kept getting rejected by traditional companies so I gravitated toward the next available option - startups. India's startup ecosystem was stirring things up and I thought to give it a try. I applied to some well-known Indian startups but even there the competition was cutthroat. Then I got into Atlan, my current company. I joined them as an intern in a small team of 70 people.

I expressed my interest in product management to my manager and he suggested I start getting involved with the product team. I started reaching out to people in the team and shadowed one of them on a small project. I used to work with my manager to answer support tickets by the day, and with the rest of my time, I would discuss problem statements and ask questions on various product slack channels.

For a few months, I kept suggesting enhancements, reporting hundreds of bugs, and spending time with designers and PMs learning from them. I used my air time with customers to collect insights that would be relevant for the product team which I shared with the PMs from time to time. Eventually, as I built trust, I picked up a couple of more projects like product and API documentation which helped me understand the product further in depth. Four months out, I was offered to join the product team full-time.

Things I wish I knew before I broke into Product

  • Startups are a great place for all kinds of career transitions: I recently got to know that mine wasn't a special case. A lot of people break into product management by joining an early-stage startup. Execution and ownership are rewarded in startups and you get to build things from the ground up. Most startups don't have hard and fast requirements for roles so you have more chances of breaking in.
  • Do the job to get the job: Any kind of job you wish to transition into, stop reading about it and start doing it - in your current company in your current role or even without one. Don't wait for the day you become a PM - become a PM in your head today. Do the things a PM does. Talk to the people in your current company in your dream role, and ask what they do and what skills they have. Do the same. If possible, shadow them on a small project.
  • Customer tickets are the goldmine of problem statements: The best PMs learn about their customers through their pain points - by reading support tickets. If you are interviewing for a role, find their common unanswered community discussions. Support tickets highlight a clear picture of where your customers are struggling and give you a ton of stuff to improve on your product - a good starting point for any aspiring PM to understand customers, problems, and the product.
  • Be prepared, in-depth: Gather enough knowledge about the product of the company you are applying for, about their industry, their competitors, and what problems they are solving. If you can hands-on try the product and write a product breakdown doc for it - nothing like it.
  • Go out and talk about it: Use social media as your leverage. Talk, post, write PRDs, break down products, and share ideas. Find and follow people, cold email them, and join communities. Collect your practice work online on a portal - website, etc. This will form your portfolio and give you great practice for your interviews.

This was what helped me in my journey of "Cracking the PM interview". I hope you can employ some of these and land the job of your dreams!

Really helpful @priyankathakran! Thanks for sharing your story! Do you do some/any of the developing yourself or are you on the fu ctinal end "translating" user needs for the developers?
@sarahclarke I wasn't required to code but I did do some development because I wanted to get hands-on with the product and tech stack, I did help with API documentation which required some level of coding, which was also not very complex, however it's not a necessity to have to code. Rather understanding how the technologies work in the product is most essential
What were the challenges you faced in your early days? When you engaged your dev team? When you engaged customers/biz stakeholders?
Great question, I did feel overwhelmed because I had to suddenly align too many people while I was trying to make decisions daily on design and engineering. I believe I was trying to do it all by myself and got pretty stressed - best way is to start asking for as much help from your teammates, get reviews and feedback and tag team along whenever you feel doubtful about how to handle a situation.
really helpful @priyankathakran Some of the things you mentioned resonates and it' wha ti have been doing. Want to get better at documenting my learning and journey on social media.
That's amazing! Keep going! I can understand it can be time consuming to document learnings and keep sharing them, but trust me it'll pay off well!