Product management is one of Silicon Valley’s most impactful and highest paying jobs — and you don’t have to have a computer science degree to add it to your resumé.
Whether your work experience is in engineering, business, sales or marketing, product management can be the perfect next step for well-organized and strategic thinkers who want to have more say in the company’s overall product direction.
But it’s also a competitive field, and it’s no wonder why —according to Glassdoor, product management pays an average of $129,772 a year in San Francisco.
To give you a leg up, we talked to Slack’s Chief Product Officer April Underwood earlier this year about what she looks for when hiring a product manager.
In April, Underwood was promoted to chief product offer at Slack after 2.5 years with the company, most of which was spent working side-by-side with founding CEO Stewart Butterfield to oversee Slack’s product teams.
“The product is the beating heart of what we do here at Slack,” Underwood said. “People see the product and they want to use it, so I’ve got a big responsibility on my shoulders to extend that and make it even more valuable to them but also to protect why they loved it in the first place.”
Here’s what it takes to become a product manager at Slack.
Forget classes—the best product managers were good at their last job
Product management is a key role at any tech company. So-called PMs work across teams to decide the strategy, roadmap and design behind new engineering projects. They often work as a liaison between engineers and other teams to guide new product updates, all the way from the first brainstorms to the final launch day.
There are classes you can take on product management, but Underwood said that most people in the role built up a specific skill set in another department before deciding they want to have a more direct impact on the product.
“People always come from somewhere else to product,” Underwood said. “It’s a little like a not-glamorous version of acting. Breaking in is the hard part but once you’ve done it, you can do it over and over again.”
Product management doesn’t really have an entry-level position. Instead, PMs come from across engineering, sales and marketing teams. All that really matters is a desire have a direct impact on what product your company sends to customers.
“You got there because you were an engineer focused on the bigger picture and wanted to make the leap into being in charge; or you were a business person closer to the building of the product; or maybe you were a marketer and felt like you could have more of an impact by being closer to the engineering team,” Underwood said.
“We have a few folks on the team that have transitioned into product management for the first time, but they were really strong at whatever they did right before product, and that’s valuable,” she said.
The ideal skill set depends on the project at hand
When hiring product managers, Underwood said she looks at three different criteria: functional experience; subject matter expertise; and the size of the team teams the candidate has worked on in the past. Underwood said that she weighs those three measurements differently depending on what the specific project calls for.
“Notice it isn’t a specific academic background, or how technical you are,” Underwood said. “It’s a lot more about these three areas and making sure that the person who is hiring decides what is important going into that process.”
Functional experience is an important criteria to Underwood for determining whether a candidate is prepared for the job. She considers whether a candidate has worked as a PM before, how many products they have launched, and how complex those products were.
She also looks at whether a candidate has experience with the particular subject at hand. A talented salesperson, for example, would carry those insights into a project that directly deals with Slack’s billing features. “Somebody that has worked in enterprise software here is really valuable to our enterprise team because they’re building tools for administrators and [chief information officers], so knowing that audience, knowing how software normally gets sold to those types of customers is super valuable,” Underwood said.
Not everyone works well at growth-stage companies
The third thing Underwood looks for is what stage of growth a candidate is best suited for.
High-growth companies like Slack face different challenges at different stages in their life cycle, Underwood said. Just because someone is good at being a PM when the company is very small doesn’t mean that their skills can scale with the company.
Most often, Underwood said she sees candidates who are really good on small teams of a dozen people, or really good at organizations of 50,000 people.
“But people that have gone from point A to point B and have taken a company through growth, that’s a really special skill set,” Underwood said. “Because it’s almost like this constantly destructive experience where you can’t hold onto ideas very tightly. The way you did things six months ago probably will not work today.”
People with growth-stage experience, Underwood said, have an advantage since they “are going to be nimble and not take themselves too seriously, and they’re going to be totally open to changing the way they do things all the time.”