Product Manager Skills: The Best Way to Gain Experience?
People often ask how they can get more product manager experience, whether they’re current project managers who want to accelerate their career or non-product folks who want to land their first Product Management job.
This is a valid question, and the short answer is that experience is best gained by doing. You can try your hand at all kinds of product work, no matter what your current job title.
It’s true! There’s so much solid PM-like experience to be gained through independent activities, such as side projects and showing up to product management events, plus just listening to and learning from other people in the field.
Whether you’re already at a tech company or not, you can find a way to hone that PM instinct, showcase product skills, and present a portfolio of work at your next interview.
We’ll walk through each of these, but first, what is that PM instinct anyway?
As product managers, we don’t necessarily follow the data, and we’re not driven by pure numbers. We often have to follow our guts.
But this “gut feeling” is not woo-woo at all, it’s learned pattern recognition. Great product managers have developed a strong instinct based on the accumulation of so many different, tiny experiences that we’ve collected over the years. The more experiences that PMs absorb, the better product people they’ll be.
So, the question comes back to: How can you accumulate more of these experiences? How can you prove you’re developing a PM instinct, when you’re not yet in the role?
Now we’re ready to dig in.
4 ways to get Product Manager skills
1. Do your own side projects
In your spare time, take up some sort of hobby or project that allows you to tackle a small problem.
Examples of side projects you can try:
- No or low-code apps
- Household chore app for roommates or shared living
- Hobby tracking app
- An app that alerts you to a routine: When to water your plants? When to order the next coffee delivery? When to call your parents?
It doesn’t need to be a world-changing problem. It doesn’t have to be complicated. The key is to really think about it from a product manager point of view.
So, really think about it! Not in terms of the solution you want to build, but about what kind of problems are out there. Ask actual people, create a Typeform to get ideas or feedback. (You’ll have to do this as a PM anyway!)
Ultimately, your side project should do the following:
- Show that you’ve done some research.
- Show that you’ve understood a problem and how users work.
- Give you an opportunity to explain how you broke down the problem and reached your solution. Why did you make that thing? How did you get there?
In fact, what your side projects don’t have to do is function seamlessly or even solve the problem you set out to fix!
Your portfolio can include failures
If you’ve dabbled in projects and some have failed, that’s fine! That’s normal. Honestly, a bunch of them are going to be crap products that don’t work.
We can learn a lot through failure. The process is more important than the outcome.
As long as you can demonstrate your process, as well as what you’ve learned about the problem and why it’s hard to solve, that’s valuable. It gives you interesting insights that you can then take to an interview situation and into an actual PM role.
2. Working product-adjacent: Simulate a Product Manager
If you’re currently working in a product-adjacent team, such as support, sales, or marketing, you should have plenty of opportunity to gain PM experience in your current role.
Of course, you can ask to shadow the product team. But you likely already see some problems your customers are having (or that the product team is trying to solve), and you could start exploring these on your own.
This is how I got noticed as a potential PM and got my first leg on the product career ladder.
Now, I’m not saying you should go build a solution or step on your current product manager’s toes, just start thinking about how you’d break down the problem. Write down ways that you would look at solving it. And by “write down ways,” I mean literally pull out a bunch of Post-It notes and map out some flows.
This is what product managers do. And here’s what you can do in your current role:
- Spot problems and document them like a PM would
- Come up with ideas about how to conduct research
- Hypothesize and present potential solutions
You can take this to your internal product team, or even externally to an interview, and present it as product-type work that you’ve endeavored on your own.
3. Not product-adjacent: Join a support or success team
If you aren’t currently at a company where you work adjacent to a product team, you might have more questions about how to become a PM. One excellent entry point to the field is to begin in customer support or customer success.
By working in customer support or success, you gain all kinds of experience in talking to customers, troubleshooting issues, identifying problems, and – of course – learning a particular product inside and out. All of this can be easily parlayed into a product role!
In fact, I started out as a customer support rep. The IT team noticed that I was really good at talking to the customers and to the devs. My next role was as junior product manager.
That said, great product managers come from anywhere. You don’t need customer or tech experience to land a PM job or do well. I know former lawyers and real estate agents who are now successful PMs.
There’s no given path or set of paths. You just have to be able to ask the right questions.
4. Learn from other product people
The next best thing to first-hand experience is learning from others, hearing their stories so you can spot the patterns and apply them to your own situation. Believe me, you still learn a lot if somebody else tells you about how they tried something and it blew up in their face.
I didn’t know other product people until a few years into my product career. Thanks to Mind the Product, I’ve listened to hundreds or even thousands of product talks at this point.
Learning from other PMs is like an accelerator; it speeds up your development without you needing to go through every experience yourself. Product Management isn’t a hard skill, you don’t need a tangible apprenticeship. It’s mostly communication skills! You’re listening to people, you’re talking to your team and customers and trying to understand them.
So, by listening to and absorbing what other PMs have to say, you multiply your own experience and product manager skills.
Learn from product folks in the following ways:
I hope that gives you some inspiration for pursuing a new role in product or amping up your career. You can gain the right experience in many different ways.
Don’t ever let the fact that you’re not (yet) a product manager stop you from doing product management work.