Transitioning from Project Manager to Product Manager Role

Daria Brylova

Oct 21, 2021 • 19 min read
from_project_manager_to_product_manager

For some, product management is a dream job. In fact, it’s common for project managers to make the move to product management.

According to the Product Management Festival’s survey from 2019, the transition from a project manager to a product manager position is the most commonly followed career path as 13.8% of respondents used to work as project managers before starting their career in product management.

I have recently transitioned from a Project Manager role into a Product Manager role. It was a long ride, but I am glad about the results and I am happy to share some of my reflections with you.

If you’re just starting out the product manager journey you might have a lot of questions like “How do I manage a team and communicate with stakeholders?”,”How do I create a product roadmap?”, “Do I need to have analytical skills?”, “How do I measure the growth of a product?”

These are all common and reasonable questions to have which is why I've created a guide that might help you enter the world of product management. The tips I share should also be handy to anyone, who is currently a project manager, but would like to take on more product-related duties on their plate.

In this blog I’ve outlined how to become a product manager in today’s business environment and the steps you can take to create great products.

Understand the product, company, strategy and goals

To succeed in a project management role you have to develop a full understanding of your company and the product. As a product manager your purpose is to maximize the potential of your product’s journey from development to delivery.

Product managers make many important decisions everyday. To a large extent, the lifecycle of a product and the product development process is dependent on these decisions.

You have to take ownership and responsibility to decide the direction of the product. It is easier to make these big decisions when you know the big picture and understand your company’s overall strategy.

Taking ownership requires you to commit to a product strategy that you understand and believe in. After all, the product should be the culmination of your company’s vision and, as product manager, you are speaking on behalf of the product. When you have a good understanding of the product, company, strategy and goals, your core responsibilities will be easier to fulfill.

For example, if you’re responsible for developing a landing page for a product and you want to be sure that it looks and feels right you need to have the company’s culture, or goals, and objectives at the forefront of your mind. And you need to know what the company wants to achieve with the landing page.

So, the first step to becoming a good product manager is to understand the context of your role and learn everything you can about the company, their goals, and the product in question.

Be ready to take ownership and develop your skills

The second step to becoming a great product manager is to develop your core competencies and prepare to take ownership of the product. As well as having relevant experience you must also have the necessary skills and know how to serve a key role.

Let’s start with some core competencies:

Communication

One of your core responsibilities as a product manager is to facilitate communication between team members and communicate with stakeholders. As such, it is vital that you are an effective communicator.

Clear communication will help team members work together, allow stakeholders to understand the progress of the product and will ensure the product is developing properly.

Part of communicating involves emotional intelligence. Every one of your team members and stakeholders will respond in different ways, so you need to have the social awareness to know how to tailor your communication to suit each individual.

In pandemic times, you must also be able to communicate well using online mediums such as email, messaging services and video conferencing services like Zoom or Skype.

Prioritization

As a product manager you may have a lot on your plate. An important part of the product management job is knowing which tasks should take priority and when to move from one phase to another.

Businesses hiring product managers look for individuals that know when to deploy their own problem solving skills and when they should delegate tasks to the product team. You will have to meet deadlines during the product life cycle, and good prioritization will make this process easier.

Product strategy and vision

The product development process is not set in stone. Each product will go through different stages at different times. If you want to become a product manager you need to have a cohesive and realistic product vision in mind. This may require a bit of imagination but more often than not it requires extensive planning and a good creative capacity.

Your product team will depend on you to guide them through the product life cycle towards an attainable goal. To develop a product vision you could use tools like Lean Canvas to help brainstorm your product and it’s journey. Any product vision should take into account your product team's capabilities, the customer needs and the real world use of your product.

At Netguru we usually use the OKR framework to support product strategy and to define how we want to achieve product goals. That framework also allows you to transparently communicate and set goals with your team and monitor progress.

That is why it's super important to be up to date with the company's strategy and vision (which I mentioned earlier in the blogpost), as goals of the product should be aligned and synchronised with the company's goals.

Skills and competencies Description
Communication Facilitating communication between team members and with stakeholders
Prioritization

Knowing which tasks should take priority and when to move from one phase to another

Product strategy and vision Creating a cohesive and realistic product vision and product strategy

Managing a product roadmap

Putting up together a summary that outlines the vision, direction, priorities, and progress of a product over time
Research

Conducting and managing market research to ensure you are creating a product that fulfills customers' needs and rivals competitors

Managing a product roadmap

Along with having a vision for your product you also need to be able to manage each and every step during development. You need to have excellent organization and management skills in order to put together a product roadmap that is coherent, achievable and accessible to your product team.

During the product life cycle, product managers liaise with software developers, marketing, the sales team, the engineering team and project managers. In designing your product roadmap you will have to consider the needs of all these departments as well as the needs of your stakeholders and potential customers.

Research

If you want to become a product manager you have to be able to conduct insightful and efficient research. At the beginning of the product development process you will need to conduct and manage market research to ensure you are creating a product that fulfills a need and rivals competitors.

Every feature you come up with requires research, benchmarking, competitor analysis, and a lot of conceptual thinking. You need to make sure features are well designed and give you an advantage over your competitors.

As a product manager your direct duty is to make sure the product and revenue are growing. If the product doesn’t succeed it will be on your shoulders. As strange as it sounds, you have to be the product’s best friend, parent, and advocate. You should learn everything about the product. Start with users - know who they are, what their problems are, how they resolve them at this moment.

Get to know the market, understand how it works. Remember that if the product operates in a different country - the market can behave in a completely different way. Australian fin-tech users may have a different set of behaviors to European fin-tech users such as different payment methods and technologies.

Don’t make assumptions. Find out their actual needs and ensure your product addresses them.

Know your stakeholders

If you want to become a product manager you need to know who your stakeholders are and what they want. The vast majority of your decisions will be influenced by how they might impact key stakeholders. So it is important that you know how they behave, their expectations for the product and how best to communicate with them.

Product development is never a solo performance. In the majority of companies, there are a number of people interested in the product’s growth and shape. Be aware their vision won’t always be aligned with yours.

You may find that there are people who want to achieve different goals with your piece of work, but they won’t necessarily want to share it with you openly. Therefore, try to learn and understand other stakeholders’ perspectives, step into their shoes and treat them with empathy. Otherwise, it will bring you a lot of frustration.

Communicating with stakeholders and appeasing them will sometimes be one of the most challenging parts of your job. Sometimes you might hear answers you don’t like or opinions you disagree with. At such times you have to use your negotiation and data orientation skills to come to an agreeable and effective decision.

Cost vs value

As we mentioned earlier, one of the most important duties for product managers is knowing what is important and what can wait: prioritization.

As product manager you have the power to decide which feature is going to be developed. When your resources are limited these decisions are crucial and very difficult to make. The difficulty of such decisions increases when there is a huge demand from the users and pressure from the market to deliver everything.

So how do you make these decisions and ensure you are striking the right balance between cost and value?

As a product manager you need to be able to calculate how much it costs to develop a certain feature and what the return on investment (ROI) is. This will help you make informed decisions.

Here are some ideas of how you can quantify the value that a product can bring and the costs it can generate:

  • Figure out how much it costs to develop a feature in your project. Calculate how much one day of the team costs, multiply it by estimated days for feature development. Include costs such as marketing companies, ads, user testing and deployment.
  • Figure out the way to put numeric sense to the demand aspect. Do users mention that the feature is critical for them during their user interviews? Do you know if they are willing to pay for it? Do competitors offer similar features? Treat YES as 1, and NO as 0, sum it up and you will see the demand.
  • Then calculate how much revenue the feature can bring in the long term / short term.

Ultimately, weighing up cost vs value is an ongoing process. It will change as your product strategy evolves and as you develop a go-to-market strategy. If you believe a product manager role is somewhere in your future career path then you should definitely gain some experience with cost/value calculations.

Learn how to measure

So you’ve created a product, shepherded it through the development process and finally delivered it to customers. But the big question remains: is your product successful?

The best way to evaluate whether your product is successful is to measure the growth. Measuring growth is a super-wide topic, but you can start with a few simple elements.

If you work on a brand new product that hasn’t been released yet you should definitely think about measuring tools. These kinds of tools can provide you with great insights for a relatively low cost and the majority of popular analytics tools are free, up to a certain level.

  • Start with easy things: measure number of users, retention, usage of different OS, screen resolutions, demographic.
  • If you work on a grown-up product that already has analytics implemented then you should ask for full access to the relevant tools, review the data available, revise and find a way to use the data in your decision-making process.
  • Don’t forget that from now on your performance as product manager = product’s performance. Make sure there are metrics that you can impact directly and also be sure to display the metrics that prove the value you are bringing to the project.

Early stage companies may not have as many resources in place to measure and track your product’s growth but, thankfully, today there are a host of low cost options available.

Polish your soft skills

As well as the core competencies there are a few other skills you should aim to develop. We wanted to highlight a few soft skills which we believe are vital to succeeding as a product manager.

Soft skills Description
Leadership skills Organizing and managing your team to reach common goals
Emotional intelligence Knowing how to empathize and communicate with your team members
Teamwork Working collaboratively with your team; using each members' individuals skills and providing constructive feedback

Leadership skills

Whether you are a senior product manager or a rookie product manager, you should work on your leadership skills. Being a great leader means getting the best out of your product team. You will have direct authority over a group so you need to learn how to use that authority most effectively.

Emotional intelligence

The product development process can take a long time. As well as developing your technical skills you should also take time to develop your emotional intelligence.

The best product managers know how to empathize and communicate with their team members. Emotional intelligence is important for every area of life and is something that all product managers should continually try to improve.

Teamwork

While product management jobs are often concerned with leadership you shouldn't forget that the manager is also part of the team. Lead by example. Teamwork should be an integral part of company culture and is a vital soft skill to develop if you want to become a product manager.

Where is the challenge?

Personally, the most challenging part was to switch from “how” to “why” mode. While working as a project manager, I was mostly focusing on execution and delivery aspects.

I think my mindset was constantly focusing on how to do something in the most efficient, transparent and quick way, but my new role requires me to always start with why - why do we do it? Why this feature? Why do we want to solve it in this way? Why do our users churn? Why design something in a certain way?

What is funny is that I still do have to execute and make sure we deliver according to strategy, but now it's mostly about taking a step back and collecting more puzzles into a picture, which is very interesting but also hard. The amount of context and different details sitting in my brain is much bigger now, and I sometimes find myself forgetting some of it (documenting & journaling help me a lot!).

The product manager career path

There is plenty to learn if you want to become a product manager. First and foremost, you should align your skillset with the position you are going for. Learning how to become a product manager can be a long process so it helps if you are willing to put in the work and you have a goal in mind.

As more financial, media, entertainment and tech companies look to meet their customers’ needs and grow in ever-evolving markets, more product manager roles will need to be filled by skilled, commitment, forward-thinking individuals.

A great product manager will be keen to understand the product, the company and the overall vision of the organization to which they belong. As you learn more about your user, and the market in which you operate, you will be able to develop a product that solves problems and fulfills customer needs.

Along the way it is important to be continually developing necessary skills. This means spending time on emotional intelligence as well as technical capabilities. This means polishing your leadership style and your social awareness, as well as developing a deep understanding of the market and undertaking specialized training.

Regardless of your prior experience, I believe that you can become a great product manager if you follow the tips and advice we’ve outlined above. You don’t need to have taken an MBA program or received a computer science degree to be a product manager. Everyone’s journey to becoming a product manager will be different and you’re bound to learn plenty along the way.

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Daria Brylova

Join us as a Product Manager    Support Netguru’s clients in developing a viable vision and strategy for their  products.   Learn more