Breaking into product management straight out of college is challenging. I’ve noticed that there's a lot of confusion on building the relevant skills for the job. Should students focus on honing their technical skills? Or should they take a mixture of classes across psychology, business, and engineering? What kinds of clubs and organizations are best to get involved in? Here’s my guide on how to best position yourself for a product management job in college. I’ve broken my suggestions down to both the distinct hard and soft skills required to be a great product lead.
Why it’s Important: Good PMs have a strong technical background, which allows them to work well will engineering teams. They know how to credibly push back on engineering team’s estimates and determine whether a project is under or over-scoped. Furthermore, they can identify performance bugs and technical constraints without depending on others. Technical PMs can speak on behalf of engineering to other teams like sales, marketing and legal. In essence, technical skills help the PM become more productive and valuable to their engineering counterparts.
How to develop
Classes: In order to build the relevant technical skills in college, I recommend aspiring product managers to take some combination of the following classes: Operating Systems, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Networks, Systems Programming, Databases, and Networks. These classes will help provide a foundation to talk intelligently about a product’s architecture and contribute during engineering discussions.
Projects/Hackathons: Spend some time working on side projects whether it be a new website or a mobile app. Working on such projects can help understand what are the various parts that go into building a product from the front end to the back end. Hackathons are great places to work on side projects! There’s lots of mentorship and resources offered at these events.
Why it’s important: Writing skills are important since PMs need to write concise emails and constantly adjust their style based on the involved stakeholders. Good PMs know how communicating to marketing requires a different approach from interacting with the engineering team. PMs also need to write PRDs (product requirement documents) that communicate the specifications of their product to various stakeholders. Strong writing skills help a PM get their message across more effectively.
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School News Paper/Publications: Joining your school publication is a great opportunity to hone your writing skills. In such a club, you receive regular feedback from experienced writers, which helps accelerate your skill development. Furthermore, you also have opportunities to write to vastly different target audiences. These situations force you to think about varying your style based on the intended reader.
Blogging: Another good approach to build strong writing skills is blogging regularly on a weekly or monthly basis. I recommend finding someone experienced to offer feedback on your work. This process is useful in learning how to communicate more succinctly and understanding key areas of improvement. You can consider guest blogging for Exponent as a starting point.
Why it’s important: Strong design sense is one of the most important skills for a product manager. Good PMs work effectively with designers in defining new features and creating aesthetic UIs. They care deeply about the user’s pain points and can figure out how to make the appropriate changes to address them. They can generate wireframes upon request to communicate their ideas without depending on the design team. Top PMs also deliver informative and visually appealing presentations to different stakeholders. In all these situations, having a strong design sense and user empathy can go a long way.
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Critiquing Products: A good approach to building strong design skills is to critique products you use regularly. Spend some thinking about the following questions the next time you use a product:
Tinkering with Tools: I recommend spending some time wire-framing using tools like Balsamiq or Sketch. Then show your work to friends to get feedback on your design sense. Hackathons are great places to work on these skills!
Why it’s important: Top PMs spend time constantly learning about changes in the market and building domain knowledge. They learn about new startups, play with new products, conduct user studies/market research, understand the competitive landscape and read about consumer trends. This research helps PMs them more informed product vision as they have a deeper understanding of their relevant domain. Researching also helps PMs define more compelling features as they can foresee changes in the market or in user behavior ahead of others.
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Tech News: Spend some time every day looking through tech news sources like Stratechery and Hacker News. These sites are great for gaining an understanding of broader market dynamics and general tech trends.
Newsletters and Blogs: Subscribe to the newsletters of renowned venture capitalists like Fred Wilson and Andrew Chen. Also, follow some blogs like our very own PM Lesson’s. These sources are great to get perspectives from experienced folks about new startups and emerging technologies.
Product Hunt: Spend some time digging through Product Hunt or subscribe to their weekly newsletter. This is a great way to discover new products and hear what users have to say about them.
Why It’s Important: Strong PMs are persuasive and can influence others to buy into their vision. They know how to resolve disagreements in teams without creating feelings of hostility. They can create alignment among different stakeholder groups towards a single north star. In short, PMs should have strong persuasion skills to lead with influence as they have no direct authority over others on their team.
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Work on Group Projects: I recommend students spend some time taking classes that have a huge project focus. Working in such projects forces you to hone skills around conflict resolution, persuasion and creating alignment.
Books: There are a lot of great books that provide useful principles for persuasion and communication. Here are some of my favorites:
Take Public Speaking Classes: If your college offers public speaking or communication classes, I highly recommend taking them. These classes force you to get out of your comfort zone and deal with situations you might otherwise find uncomfortable. In short, they are a great way to accelerate your learning for communication skills.
Why it’s important: Successful PMs have strong leadership skills and are able to manage complex projects. They know how to align the team around a timeline and can keep members motivated till the end. Good PMs also ensure information is routed effectively across different teams (e.g engineering, sales, marketing, legal, etc.). They can also overcome roadblocks and deal with resource constraints effectively.
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Leadership roles in Clubs: I highly recommend getting involved in leadership roles in organizations on campus. These roles force you to organize groups of people on large projects. You will learn how to motivate others and also develop a strong execution sense.
Project Based Classes: Project-based classes are an excellent approach to building leadership skills. You might be placed in a situation where one member is not putting in as much effort as the others. How might you deal with this? These issues arise all the time in professional settings and such classes help familiarize yourself with them in college.
Books: There are a lot of great books about leading teams. Here are some of my favorites:
Clearly, there’s a broad array of skills that you can develop in college to break into product management. The above list has a lot of suggestions, but it’s ok to focus on some subset of the mentioned skills. No single PM is excellent in all of these dimensions and most great product leaders are usually strong in a few areas but weak in others. I hope this list serves as a useful guide in helping you structure your college experience to prepare yourself for a product role.
Visit Exponent's PM Interview Course for more great product management interview prep.