Admission: I have a deep fascination -- or, more accurately, -- obsession, with Andy Weir's famous book and now movie, The Martian. Ask the people who know me best and they can attest to the fact that I'm either talking about, reading, or watching this gem in some capacity every week.

If you're wondering where this is going and how it relates to becoming a product manager, I'm getting there.

I began to ask myself why I was so drawn to this particular story.

Was it the storyline? The main character, Mark Watney, and his determination, brilliant mind, and self-deprecating humor? The scientific precision required to survive? The fine line between life and death? The notion of pioneering space?

It was all of those things, but I think it was the final scene that hit it home for me. Watney, having recently returned from Mars and now teaching a class at NASA, recounts how he survived the perils of space, to a group of aspiring astronauts:

"That's all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem … and you solve the next one … and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home."

In these words came the realization that what I was so drawn to about The Martian was the persistent problem-solving. Watney, a self-proclaimed space pirate, was providing a how-to guide on how to become a product manager. But also, who doesn't love a good space story?

What Is a Product Manager?

Put simply, a Product Manager (PM) decides what products and software to build next and helps manage research, design, testing, and go-to-market strategy. While there are many other responsibilities of a PM, deciding what to build and in what order is the key function of a Product Manager. There are two main considerations to be made in the prioritization of what's built; likelihood of maximizing customer value as well as business impact.

In practice, this means a Product Manager needs to identify customer pains or challenges that the business seeks to solve. Then, Product Managers work with design and development teams to validate and implement solutions, and ultimately launch a product to the market.

Depending on the organization, it is often up to the Product Manager to prioritize which problems need to be solved most urgently, and to validate customer challenges as problems that are worth dedicating the time and resources to solving now or in the future.

How to Become a Product Manager

Becoming a product manager can be a bit of a catch-22 -- because most PM roles require prior experience as a product manager. However, opportunities that offer valuable preparation and that strengthen your candidacy for a PM role can be found even if you don't work in Product yet.

Take a hint from Mark Watney: Keep solving problem after problem -- no title necessary. That's what I did to become a PM at HubSpot. Here's my best advice for tackling problems that will prepare you for product management.

1. Find a project you can own end-to-end.

Back in 2015, I was eager to become a PM -- just like you. I was attracted to the role because the impact that I could potentially have on the business appealed to me. I was working as a customer support rep at HubSpot, and I had decided to take a product management course at General Assembly. As part of my final project for the General Assembly class, I had to pick a problem and go through the exercise of validating potential solutions to bring to market.

After presenting the problem and solution, I linked up with a fellow classmate to actually pursue the problem I had researched and uncovered: managing your monthly digital subscriptions (like Spotify, Netflix, etc.) from a single app on your phone.

Three months later, our iOS app, SubscriptMe, was born, and promised to help consumers manage their subscriptions, keep track of trials, and find top-rated services by other users.

As part of the process in building the app, I conducted user and market research, I designed and tested prototypes, and I partnered with a developer to build an iOS app to bring a solution to market. To be clear, I didn't actually code the app myself -- I outsourced the engineering work and focused on making sure SubscriptMe was solving a real problem. Having a technical background isn't required to bring a product to market or to be a product manager.

After 18 months, I stopped working on the app after failing to find a viable business model. While I didn't have the commercial success I had hoped for, or the title of Product Manager yet, I had done all the things that a PM would do to validate problems and solutions.

Key Takeaway: You don't have to build a mobile app to get the experience that I am talking about here. Start a side hustle. Build a business. Work on a problem set that affords you the opportunity to try things and fail. It's all helpful learnings on your path to becoming a product manager.

2. Volunteer to solve problems as a side project at work.

Whether you work at a startup or a large corporation, companies empower their employees to solve the hairiest problems. If you're not in a position where you have the autonomy or time to work on problems that fall outside your core job function, keep digging until you find one you and your manager believe is worth solving.

By this time, I had moved from a support rep to an implementation specialist, helping sales teams onboard to HubSpot's CRM. At the time, we were migrating from one billing system to another, and the transition was causing a ton of customer pain around account and billing accessibility. I asked my manager if she would be willing to let me tackle the issue we were experiencing, and with her support, I went full force at solving the problem.

Every time the billing problem surfaced, I had my teammates send the customer my way. I would hop on a screen share and document the steps for how the customer got into a weird state. Then I would resolve the billing problem for the customer and pass along my findings to the team working on that particular set of products. Ultimately, we were able to mitigate the billing problem with an elegant solution that the product team released a few weeks later.

I learned a ton along the way -- how to triage, how to prioritize, how to liaise with various teams. But, at the end of it, I still hadn't become a PM. Again, like Watney, it was time to move onto the next problem.

Key Takeaway: Diagnose, or ask your teammates or manager, about a challenge they're facing, and take on researching, experimenting with, and executing on a solution you yourself own, in addition to your daily work.

3. Build a track record of tackling tough problems, conducting research, and leading cross-functional collaboration.

My manager now had faith in me to tackle another problem: helping really small businesses get started with HubSpot through a self-service onboarding model.

The challenge was getting a customer segment notoriously difficult to onboard and retain, to do so at scale and with little to no human resources. My role had become half program management, half implementation. I was spending time on the phone with customers to learn how I could scale a program that would onboard and train new teams without human touch. Then I was tasked with developing a complete onboarding program.

As part of my effort, I documented experiments on the company wiki, tracked engagement rates with my onboarding resources, and worked with internal stakeholders in product, sales, and support to create the program that still exists today. I worked on this program for close to a year and got a ton of exposure to other PMs in the organization. I was essentially acting like a product manager without some of their core responsibilities.

Key Takeaway: Keep track of the projects you're managing and experiments you're running, document your findings within your company's internal wiki or newsletter, and use those learnings to start networking conversations with your product organization. Alternately, if you're looking for a PM role outside your organization, document these things on a personal blog or your LinkedIn profile.

4. Apply for a job opening.

After spending a couple of years managing problems inside and outside of the workplace, I had created a body of work that I could point to and now had experiences to draw from.

All of the experiences I described above were pivotal in landing the job of a product manager. Here are some of the skills I acquired along the way that helped me demonstrate to my employer that I could do the job of a PM:

  • Learning how to tell a good story about the problem you are trying to solve
  • Understanding and practicing how to conduct user and market research
  • Having a comfort in talking with prospects or customers
  • Having subject matter expertise for the product role I was applying for
  • Demonstrating strong oral and written communication skills
  • Garnering buy-in and influence across multiple teams
  • Learning how to measure, analyze, and package key results for internal stakeholders

Notice that none of the skills I listed have any technical aspects. It was the collective experience of identifying and solving problems for a couple of years that was the key to me landing a job as a product manager.

Because of the relationships that I had built and the experience garnered along the way, I am proud to say I was hired as an Associate Product Manager for the HubSpot Sales Hub in early 2017 and have since progressed to become a Product Manager.

Key Takeaway: Apply for a Product Manager opening, and nail the interview by highlighting your experience and expertise identifying, diagnosing, and solving problems end-to-end, collaborating cross-functionally, and taking ownership of project successes and failures.

So, if you want to become a product manager, be like Mark Watney. Be a space pirate. Just begin. Solve one problem, and the next, and then the next. If you solve enough problems, then you'll become a product manager.

To learn more, read about technical product management next.

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Originally published Oct 26, 2018 8:00:00 AM, updated October 26 2018

Topics:

Product Management