So, you’re a project manager interested in transitioning to a product management career. You’re not alone. We speak with a lot of project managers looking to make this leap, often for similar reasons. Many tell us they’d like to move into a more strategic role, or to have a greater impact in their company. And most say bringing products to market looks exciting.
We couldn’t agree more. At ProductPlan, we think those are just some of the many reasons a product management career can be so rewarding. That’s why we encourage anyone interested in doing so to pursue a career as a product manager, whatever their professional background is.
The good news for you is that, as a project manager, you already have some of the experience and skills needed to become a product manager. But the two roles are very different. Making the transition will require you learn many skills you might not have acquired in your project management career.
In this article we’ll help you:
- Ask yourself the key questions to determine if becoming a product manager is the right move for your career.
- Get a better understanding of the similarities and differences between these two roles.
- Develop a strategic plan for beginning your transition to a product management career.
Do you really want to be a product manager?
If so, you’ll want to make sure you can honestly answer yes to most of these questions.
1. Will I be comfortable delegating the day-to-day logistical tasks of product development to someone else?
As a project manager, you can dig into the details of a complex project and manage it day-to-day. Many project managers tell us they enjoy, even love, that process. They get to work closely with a cross-functional team, track a big to-do list, and move items from the “in progress” to the “completed” column. That can be extremely satisfying.
As a product manager, though, your role will be high-level and strategic. You will need to spend most of your time on big-picture issues: researching your market, brainstorming product ideas, and presenting plans to stakeholders. Though your priorities will shift, you’ll still be able to use your favorite project management tools.
That can be rewarding as well. But it means you will need to hand off your high-level product roadmap and let a project manager translate those strategic epics and themes into a tactical action plan. This means you could be giving up a lot of the satisfaction you have today checking off tasks as complete, and getting a tangible sense every day of making progress.
2. Do I want to be the person held publicly responsible for my product’s successes… and failures?
You’ve probably heard product managers described as the “CEO of the product.” That can be great. It allows for a lot of creative and strategic freedom. But it can also be risky, because CEOs often take the blame for their companies’ biggest missteps and failures.
In fact, it’s worth keeping in mind another common term for product managers: “One throat to choke.”
3. Am I ready for the difficult work of acquiring several new complex skills?
If you’re an experienced project manager, you probably already have several key traits needed to be successful as a product manager. We’ll discuss those below. But product managers must also be skilled in a number of different areas: persuasiveness, research, data analysis, and strategic vision, to name just a few.
The question is, if your current skill set does not translate directly to these basic demands of a product manager, will you be willing to take on the challenge of developing them?
The skills common to project management and product management
If you’re still reading, we’ll assume you answered yes to at least two of the questions above. So you really are interested in making this transition. The good news is that, as the tech staffing company Triumph Strategic Consulting explains, there is plenty of skill overlap between project management and product management.
That means you’ve likely developed and demonstrated some key product management skills as a project manager. Here are a few examples.
- Both project managers and product managers need to be strong communicators, making sure everyone on your team understands both their own role and the big-picture goals.
- As a project manager or product manager, you need to be skilled at pulling together cross-functional teams from across your company and helping them work as a cohesive unit.
- For either position, you need to develop an ability to see the bigger picture (of the project or product), so you’re able to sense obstacles or opportunities in advance and adjust accordingly.
- Project managers and product managers both need to be skilled at managing project scope, to ensure the initiative doesn’t veer off-track or waste resources.
The skill gap between project management and product management
Of course, the product management and project management roles are different in several ways. Here are few examples of product management traits you might not yet have developed as a project manager.
- Whereas product managers are primarily focused outward (on markets, users, competitors), project managers are focused inward (on coordinating internal resources, monitoring deadlines, and tracking tasks).
- Project managers need to become skilled at keeping track of every detail and to-do item needed to complete a complex initiative; product managers must keep their focus high-level and strategic.
- Project managers tend to measure success by how closely they’re able to complete a project based on the agreed-upon plan. Deviating from that plan is typically considered a setback. Successful product managers, by contrast, need to be flexible and adaptable to meet the changing demands of users or the market.
- Product managers are skilled at telling a company what to build and why; project managers are skilled at figuring out how to build it.
How to make the transition to product management
If the added strategic responsibility — and accountability — of the product management role still sounds appealing, your next question will be: How do I make the move?
Here are some great suggestions on how to transition into product management:
Step 1: Work directly on products.
As a project manager, we’re guessing you’ve spent at least some time overseeing product development initiatives. If that’s the case, then congratulations. You’ve already gathered some experience and developed some familiarity with the product development process. If you haven’t yet, then our advice is to ask for projects that involve oversight of projects relating to your company’s products.
Step 2: Study up on product management.
This is the fun part. Learn about becoming a product manager by studying the best product management content out there.
Our own ProductPlan blog covers every product management topic you can imagine. From agile methods to navigating your product management career, our site contains valuable and actionable insight. Here are a few essential reads:
- 10 Must Read Books for Product Managers
- 8 Blogs Product Managers Should Bookmark Immediately
- What is the Product Management Career Path?
Step 3: Ask the experts.
Talk to friends and colleagues in product management. Ask their thoughts about the career: what they love about it, what they hate about it, what they wished they knew when they were just starting.
At the same time, if you can find them, try to interview product leaders: VPs of product management, product management directors, etc. These people can tell you both what it’s like to be a product manager and also what they look for in a product manager. That’s just as valuable to learn if you’re planning to start looking for your first product management job.
Step 4: Build your story.
Let’s say you’re ready to start looking for a job as a product manager (or a junior product manager, or associate product manager). You’ll want to tweak your resume to reflect how your background and work history positions you well for this new role. And, just as important, you’ll want to be ready with answers for the questions you’re certain to hear:
“Why do you want to become a product manager?”
Perhaps your answer to this could be that you’d like a more direct role in your company’s strategic planning. Or that you like the idea of working with users, learning how to solve industry problems, etc.
“What professional experience do you have that has prepared you for a product management role?”
If your project management experience involved overseeing product development projects, that’s great. That means you have experience working with product managers and an understanding of how a product makes it from the roadmap to the market.
Your story will need to reflect your own unique background, skills, and strengths. The point is, figure out how to position your background and skills as assets — even in your first product management job.
Step 5: Get out there and interview.
Once you’ve completed all the steps above, you should be ready to start going after product management jobs.
Now, it’s time to start looking at open positions and setting up interviews. Before you schedule your first, though, please review our post on what every product management candidate should do in a job interview.
As a project manager, you should expect your transition to a product management role to involve a learning curve. After all, these roles have very different objectives. The skills needed for each position can vary significantly.
But in some ways, your role has already prepared you for a lot of the responsibilities facing product managers. You’re a strong communicator. You’ve learned how to spot and react to threats. And you’ve become skilled at building chemistry among teams that don’t usually work together. Those are talents that give you a real advantage as you start your product management career.
So if you’re really serious about making this transition, follow the steps we’ve listed above. Get yourself ready to show how valuable you’ll be as a new product manager, and start interviewing for that first job.