Brett van Zuiden

Three paths to a first job in Product Management

Getting a first job as a product manager can feel like a catch-22: most companies will only hire product managers with prior product management experience. If you want to be a product manager, there are three paths that I’ve seen: landing an Associate PM role at a big tech company, joining a company in a “product adjacent” role, or taking a “generalist” position at a small startup.

Associate/Rotational PM at Big Tech

Many big tech companies have entry-level Product Manager training programs (here’s a list); it’s a shame that they are typically limited to new university and business-school graduates, because this is the pathway that I recommend most if it’s available to you. Even if you’d prefer to spend your career in startups or aren’t thrilled about Big Tech, if you really want to become a PM, I recommend putting in a few years in an APM program. You’ll get solid training, an extensive network of other PMs that you can hire/partner/get jobs from later in your career, and a stamp on your resume that will allow you to get subsequent PM jobs. It’s also the most direct and guaranteed path.

Joining a company in a “product adjacent” role

If you can get a job in a position that works closely alongside product managers, you can – hopefully, eventually – transition into a product manager position. Common entry-level “product adjacent” roles are customer support, customer success, data/business analyst, and marketing.

Most of the product managers I know got their start through this path, but it requires patience, some luck, and a lot of hard work. Essentially, you have to be great at your role for 1-2 years, offer to take on extra work that a PM would normally do (e.g. coordinate a launch, run user research, write a spec for a new feature), and then wait until an entry-level PM role opens up. For more details on this approach, see this Quora answer.

It’s worth noting that this pathway is the reason why most companies will not hire people into PM roles who don’t have prior experience: if a company is willing to invest in training a new PM, it makes more sense to give the opportunity to someone internally who they know is talented and already has customer context.

Taking a “generalist” position at a small startup

Most startups with fewer than 15 people have a cofounder who does PM tasks rather than having a dedicated product manager. By joining a startup like this, you can start taking over more and more of the PM responsibilities as the company grows and the cofounders become increasingly occupied with other work, until the company eventually formalizes your role as the product manager. This was how I got my start, but requires getting lucky: you have to find a startup that’s still small enough to not have product managers but will grow to the point where they need one.

As product bootcamps become more established they may open up new pathways, but I suspect that those graduates will feed into APM programs or small startups, or help people in product-adjacent roles bolster their skills for an internal transfer. There are enough talented people that want to transfer internally into product management that most companies will continue to promote from within rather than hiring entry-level PMs externally.