Since becoming a product manager, I’ve received dozens of questions around how I made the transition and learned the product manager role is quite coveted.
These questions are quite similar to the questions I got about how I transition from a science degree to marketing but there’s a deeper issue underlying questions about product management: there’s no clear path into it.
The question people often ask is “how did you develop the skills to become a product manager without already having the job?”
The transition came in two parts.
First, I became very good at Googling things. I read and re-read articles about product management by great product managers, designers, engineers, investors, and executives. Long story short, I read a lot and worked a lot more. That’s not helpful so we won’t focus on that. I’ll provide resources at the end if you want to know the specific articles and books that helped me.
The second part is I realized my marketing skills were relevant to product management and would give me an edge if I wanted to move my career in that direction. So I focused on that.
Product management isn’t one set of defined skills. Product management is communication. Product management is being able to work as part of a team. Product management is managing stakeholders. Product management is being able to listen to and understand people and getting everyone aligned on the mission.
Yes, product management includes having a vision, digging into data, testing assumptions, and all that, but without the first set of skills, none of these skills matter.*
*Not everyone will agree with this. This is my non-exhaustive list of skills that I believe are required in product management.
Some will find that level of ambiguity frustrating. I saw it as an opportunity because it means there’s no one “right way” to be a great product manager and you can develop your own product management style.
If you want to make a leap from marketing to product management, you don’t need to shed your marketer-self and put on a new product management outfit.
Let’s dig into marketing skills that helped me, and hopefully you, evolve into a growth product manager.
One of my first roles at HubSpot was focused on content marketing and co-marketing. I pitched a new type of campaign and convinced my VP of marketing at the time to let me work on it as my main project. He approved and it was my first time working on a project that required managing and coordinating so many moving parts and people (26 speakers, 5 different marketing teams, 30 web pages, dozens of creative assets, etc.). Fortunately, it went well.
As my confidence grew, I pitched bigger, more difficult projects that required collaborating with more teams and partners outside the business. Some of these were focused on finding new customer acquisition channels. There was one point when I was working on four different projects, each with their own set of moving pieces.
Through that experience in marketing, I developed my own systems for managing multiple projects and keeping track of where they were using tools like Trello. Now I prefer Todoist and Notion for myself and Zenhub for my team. I’ll share some of these systems in a future post.
More importantly, by layering on more projects and loading up my cognitive capacity, I stretched how much I could handle at once. This prepared me for the project management required in product management.
I learned to juggle multiple deadlines, organize my work to hit those deadlines and work with multiple people at once.
As a product manager, these skills were helpful because I didn’t have to learn them while also juggling product management tasks.
In addition to managing projects, a product manager has to manage tradeoffs in building product, manage stakeholder requests, manage questions about business metrics, manage relationships with other teams, and more.
It’s a simplified view, but I’d describe the work of project management as the zoomed in view of the day-to-day tasks and deadlines while the work of product management is zoomed out and focused on the big picture strategy, vision, and collaboration.
Having strong project management skills made it easier for me to do the zoomed in work because it was second nature to me and this let me save my energy for the more difficult, zoomed out work.
As a marketer, I took on a lot of different types of projects.
Because of this, I learned to set up systems that let me do more work, more efficiently and more effectively. This took my project management to the next level because it was no longer just about managing my projects.
I learned to be smart about how I managed my time and energy by automating, delegating, teaching, and asking for help.
Systems and Automation
In marketing, I automated my work as much as I could. I created automated follow-up emails when I worked on partnerships. I created automated reminders for tasks to avoid dropping the ball. I used tools to reduce time on administrative work.
For the things I couldn’t automate, I built systems into my work. I created checklists to follow so I didn’t have to spend time or energy starting a project or task from scratch every time. I had monthly meetings with stakeholders to hold myself accountable to regularly communicate what I was working on and the results. And I, of course, created my own presentation templates for these meetings.
When it came to developing an operating system for communication, I learned that not all questions require or deserve a meeting. Many questions could be answered through a quick Slack or email and if it required additional explanation, a Loom recording generally sufficed.
When I found myself answering the same questions from the same people each month, I started sending out monthly updates which consisted of a slide deck with progress updates and a Loom video of myself walking through the deck. This kept everyone in the loop and reduced the number of one-off questions and meetings.
I still do the same things as a product manager.
This doesn’t mean I got other people to do my work for me. It means I delegated work that didn’t make sense for me to do because (1) someone else could do it ten times better and ten times faster than me and (2) they wanted to do it.
As a marketer, I built out a sales course with Coursera, but I didn’t create the course from scratch on my own. I interviewed our HubSpot’s awesome sales leaders and delegated the content creation to them.
As a product manager, I used to run the sprint planning meetings and after a couple meetings, I realized it was really inefficient. I noticed most of the meeting was me asking my tech lead, Mario, for updates on what we’re working on and our priorities for the week. Mario would relay back to me what the engineering team was working on. Now, Mario runs those meetings focused on the day-to-day and sprint-by-sprint work and it’s much more efficient.
It’s not that I didn’t want to run those meetings. It’s that I saw I made things inefficient. Now that I don’t have ot prepare for or run those sprint planning meetings, I have more time to focus on the higher-level strategy, planning, and connecting the dots to move the team forward.
As a marketer, I was really curious about data and ended up learning tools like Amplitude and Google Analytics. However, other marketers weren’t as familiar so I ended up fielding data questions. This wasn’t scalable. So I took these opportunities as teaching opportunities to help others get what they needed.
As a product manager I oversee a lot of growth experiments, but I can’t write or review all our experiment documents. So I proactively take time to help my team skill up in growth experimentation and thinking through hypotheses.
This means the team will be able to write solid experiment documents and also review and give feedback on each others’ documents.
Asking for Help
This is simple, I learned to ask for help. There’s only so much one person can do and sometimes there’s no way to automate things. Ask for help.
As you think about your work, look for where you can automate, delegate, or ask for help.
Resources that helped with this:
Through my marketing career, I learned that empathy is required to do the job itself and to be a good team member.
As a marketer, yes I needed to practice empathy to write copy and understand what prospects and users want.
As a product manager, yes I need to practice empathy to understand my users to solve their challenges and meet their needs.
I also needed to practice empathy when working and communicating with my team and everyone I work with.
Its importance is multiplied in product management because the job requires working with so many different people with different backgrounds, different skill sets, different personalities, and so on.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who said something that upset you but didn’t realize he had upset you? It’s annoying, right? It feels like that person doesn’t understand you.
The most important lesson I’ve learned in empathy is if I don’t feel I truly understand where someone is coming from, the best thing I can say is be honest and say “I don’t think I get it. Please help me understand.”
I found that the people who best demonstrate empathy are podcast hosts. Michael Barbaro from the New York Times’ The Daily when he’s interviewing someone on a very tough, personal topic. You can feel him feeling their emotions. Stacey Vanek Smith when she’s interviewing folks for NPR’s The Indicator.
Reading fiction has also been found to improve empathy. Check out my reading list below for some recommendations.
Listen to more story-based podcasts and read fiction to learn more empathy.
Curiosity in the Data
If I were to pinpoint one trait that helped me become a growth product manager, it was deep curiosity about the why.
As a marketer, I spent hours looking at and manipulating datasets and Googling spreadsheet formulas to answer questions I was curious about but were not important to my role.
I didn’t have to spend hours doing those analyses but I was curious and I had to scratch that itch or it would bother me.
I wasn’t just happy to see that traffic was growing. I had to ask why. Did we also see similar growth at the same time last year? Was it seasonality?
If we were getting more traffic, did that mean we were getting more leads? If we were, was the increase in leads simple due to increase volume of traffic or was that traffic converting better? Worse?
What’s the average close rate for leads from organic traffic? What’s the average sales price? How much revenue does that translate to? I’d end up asking around for those numbers even though it wasn’t expected of me.
As both product manager and marketer, I dug through Amplitude, Google Analytics, and Looker, and tried to make sense of it all by hacking formulas in Google Sheets.
I’m not a data analyst, but I’ve developed a familiarity and comfort with data through that curiosity and lots of Google searches.
As a product manager, this comfort with data means I can do my own analyses if our analysts are all tied up. I might need help locating or pulling the data, but I’m comfortable manipulating datasets and finding answers on my own.
As a marketer, I looked at traffic and conversion data. As a product manager, I look at product usage conversion data.
As a marketer, I asked how we can grow traffic and generate signups. As a product manager, I ask how we can improve signup conversion and product engagement.
As a marketer, you’re hopefully looking at numbers often and whether it be site traffic, paid ad performance, or conversion rates, spreadsheets shouldn’t be foreign to you.
The data sources and challenges change in product management, but the skills to analyze data and make data-informed decisions are the same.
If you want to develop an edge and move into a product management role, be curious about the numbers at a deeper level.
- Everything a product manager needs to know about analytics
- A list of Google Sheets functions
- 5 questions to ask when approaching digital analytics data
As I grew in my career, the importance of communication became more obvious. The most influential people at HubSpot were able to clearly communicate ideas and boil down complex ideas down to digestible concepts.
I improved my communication style by observing others and trial and error as I tested out new communication techniques.
As a marketer, I learned that C-suite and VP-level folks didn’t need or want the same level of detail about my projects as other individual contributors I was working with. So I tailored how I communicated depending on who I spoke with.
As a product manager, the way I communicate my team’s work to an exec is different from how I’d explain it when collaborating with another PM.
As a marketer, I learned that some people wanted to collaborate on projects and share ideas in different ways. So I started asking people about their working styles, how they prefer to collaborate, and the best way to communicate with them.
As a product manager, the way I explain and collaborate on ideas with my tech lead is different than with my designer and is different than with folks on the marketing team.
These communication skills I developed as a marketer came handy when I moved into product management and had to communicate my team’s goals and work to various stakeholders at different levels of leadership.
The most valuable experience that improved my communication was public speaking.
and pushing myself to do more public speaking about marketing and product management.
I learned to package up complex concepts into easy-to-follow presentations. I learned to tell stories to keep an audience engaged.
I learned to slow down my speaking and realized those additional milliseconds gave my brain time to find the right words. And if I couldn’t find the right words, I got comfortable pausing. I learned discomfort with silence.
This all contributed to stronger communication skills as a product manager.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
- HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence
- Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
I didn’t practice storytelling much in my day-to-day as a marketer. Instead, I developed this skill as a public speaker.
I learned that for a presentation to be easy-to-follow, it needed to follow a similar arc as a story. A beginning, middle, and end with an intro, a challenge, a success, and a conclusion.
As a product manager, storytelling takes a front seat when you have to pitch leadership for resources and to get your team excited about the project.
At the end of the day, the goal of storytelling is to convince someone of something, even if only for them to believe the story is real. This requires a combination of skills in communication, empathy, and data.
When I pitched my first big marketing project to my VP of Marketing, I knew that HubSpot’s Sales product was new and we wanted to drive more users to it. So my pitch was focused on how the project would help with that. I knew what was important to him and told a story that related the project I was pitching to what was important to him.
Similarly, in product, let’s say I’m pitching a VP of Product on why we should not build a new product and instead improve our existing product. I might tell a story that goes something like this:
- We know that 30% of our customers are using this feature. We can see that usage of that feature has grown 10% month over month. We also know that feature has the highest number of support tickets every month and found an increase in usage of that feature correlates with an increase in related support tickets. We estimate that each support ticket costs about $50 to resolve. That means we’re spending about $30,000 worth of our support team’s time responding to these support tickets each month and that dollar number grows each month.
- Let’s assume we decide to not fix that product and we instead build a new product. As support tickets grow over the next 12 months, we expect to spend over $300,000 of our support team’s time addressing those issues.
- By putting a full-time engineer to work on the bugs and issues found in that part of the product for then next year, instead of spending over $300,000 to fix the issues, we estimate we’ll spend 6-12 months of that engineer’s salary on fixing those problems, we’ll reduce support tickets for that feature by 80%, and our support team can focus on other, more challenging issues.
Because the story is laid out and the reasoning is logical and backed by data in the form of dollar numbers, it’s tough for a VP of Product who’s thinking about both budget and product quality to argue that it’s not worth doing.
You need to get people to believe in your ideas if you want to move your career forward to take on new roles and projects. You do this through storytelling.
- Master the Art of Storytelling With These Tips from Pixar, IDEO and More from First Round Review
- Storytelling That Moves People on the Harvard Business Review
- Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling on MasterClass
- “Do You Talk Funny?” a workshop given by David Nihill
- If all else fails, watch standup comedy on Netflix
When is your transition going to happen?
The thought of moving into product management was initially a bit overwhelming because focused on all the things I would have to learn. Then I shifted my focus to the skills I had already developed as a marketer.
So think about your marketing career to date and the skills you’ve developed. Think about the projects you’ve worked on and how you can develop the skills above. Think about upcoming projects you’re excited for and the challenges you’ll face that will stretch your capabilities.
In addition to learning, reading, and doing the work to understand the product manager mindset and develop those skills, there’s another piece of all of this that helps with the transition.
Connect with people. Talk to friends about the desire for a career change. Build your support network. Speak to other product managers. Find mentors who can help you think about your career and product management.
You’re well on your way to a career in product management.
Resources for learning about product management
- Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager from a16z
- The Modern Day Good Product Manager/Bad Product from Hemal Shah
- Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule from Paul Graham
- How to Work with from Julie Zhuo
- How to Work with Engineers from Julie Zhuo
- How to Work with Designers from Julie Zhuo
- What to expect from PMs from Julie Zhuo
- What to expect from PMs, part 2 from Julie Zhuo
- What Designers can Learn from Product Managers from Julie Zhuo
- The Agony and Ecstasy of Building with Data from Julie Zhuo
- The Only Thing that Matters – The Pmarca Guide to Startups
- Product Magazine from First Round Review
- Ruthless Prioritization from Brandon Chu and his Blackbox of Product Management
- Lessons Learned Scaling Airbnb 100X from Jonathan Golden
- How I Survived Insane Hypergrowth at Airbnb from Jonathan Golden
- What distinguishes the Top 1% of product managers from the Top 10%? From Ian McAllister