How to become a Product Manager

First of all, you are aiming too low. If you do everything I ask you to do below, I’ll be surprised if you still want to be a product manager.

Secondly, I get asked this question a lot so I’ve decided to come up a course for this over a long term but here is an actionable outline in the interim. If you want to transition to a PM role in your company or otherwise, you need to excel in these skills to get noticed.

  1. Customer empathy or Domain skills
  2. Business skills
  3. Strategic thinking skills
  4. Communication skills
  5. Educational qualifications
  6. It is always better to be great in one of these skills than being mediocre in all of them.

So, how do you build these skills?

Domain skills

Immerse yourself in the world of your customer. Seek time from your manager to spend a day or two with each segment of your users so that you can represent them in meetings in the office. Empathetic customer representation will get you noticed at the office.

Start building your network of users that are open to taking your calls respond to your emails to discuss your product. Get to 10 such users within 30 days. Make sure these 10 folks are not all from the same segment.

What’s the sign of success

You have a healthy network of users and you can list a day in their life as a user of your product. You can list their problems. You can quote their response to, why they like your product. You can draw a flow chart describing their workflow. You can list the folks they work with day to day and their titles. You can list other product that users tried before using your product.

Homework 1: Use powerpoint to document your activities in this area.

Business skills

Start your own business online.
Get an audience of 2000 people interested in your opinion before you build anything.

If not, learn about software businesses by listening to podcasts or reading blogs. Pay attention to numbers being shared on these blogs. For example: In June 2016 ConvertKit had a monthly recurring revenue of USD 100,000 and a margin of 50%.

How are software product sold?
What is the role of marketing? How do they do it?
What is the role of sales? How do they do it?

Learn how to validate ideas in the shortest amount of time.
• Create a kickstarter campaign for your idea
• Build a landing page for your idea and drive customers to it.
• Build a video for your idea
• Learn how to create wireframes to explain your idea
What’s the difference between a B2B business or a B2C software business? Why does the GTM difference drive different behaviors for the product team? How do the normal business metrics differ?

Homework 2: Create a presentation on what you learnt. What surprised you. Present to your friends and let them critique it.

What’s the sign of success

You can quote specific numbers and metrics in meetings. Instead of saying, “A lot of users want this feature” you say, “Between 10-20% of our users in segment “A” will find this feature useful based on conversations I’ve had with users”

  • Try to sell something. Start with smaller commitments:
  • Get people to buy your idea
  • Get people to give them your email address
  • Get people to give you < $5 for something you sell on gumroad or amazon or ebay.

You will get noticed at the office.

Strategic skills

Get reading.

Learn about the business world and how software businesses compete. Its much better to read about small businesses than large businesses. Buy and read HBR case studies in your domain.

Know that all business have to worry about Customer acquisition, engagement and retention. So, what are the most common tools that help business owners in these areas?

Understand normal what numbers for:
1. Click through rates on emails
2. Click through rates on web CTAs
3. Typical retention and conversion numbers of different software businesses
4. Software business models that work and why
a. Freemium
b. SaaS
What pricing strategies have been tried and work in your industry?

Homework 3: Create a presentation on what you’ve learnt. 10 slides only.

What’s the sign of success?

You have a point of view on product strategy and roadmap that you can defend. Since this is the highest value add activity in a business, its hard for a new person to claim mastery here, however, having a point of view on the world and is based on more than opinion helps get you noticed.

Communication skills

Do lack of writing and language skills coming in your way?
Most people are not going to call you out for bad grammar, wrong choice of words, and for rambling on and on unless you are really bad. So, if you are being called out already, you have a lot of word to do.

Few other questions to answer:

  • Do you look forward to communicating your point of view?
  • What would be your preferred communication channel – writing, drawing, speaking?
  • Do you have people around you that are great at writing, speaking? Why is that? What do they do that you don’t? Can they evaluate your skills in writing and speaking?

Most normal Indian folks like to speak fast in English. For a long time, speed of delivery was the only measure of language competence in our country. This has led to bad behavior. Slow down and be careful about the words you choose. Ensure people understand what you are saying before you rattle off another sentence.

Tips on writing

  1. First things first. Write! Write every day. Start a blog, even if its private. Stick to a schedule.
  2. Write everything twice. The first draft is never the final draft
  3. Write in short sentences
  4. Use spellcheck and grammar check
  5. Don’t use words that can be misconstrued misunderstood
  6. Remove every extraneous extra word and sentence
  7. Read other people’s work.

Tips on speaking

  1. Record yourself presenting on a topic for 5 minutes and play it back.
  2. Watch ted talks and youtube videos on presentation.
  3. Learn Graphic Design
    1. This deserves a long post. Let me know if you want it.
    2. Start with or for free

Homework 4: Go back and fix the design for each of the presentations you made in the past three homework assignments.

What’s the sign of success?

How often are you misunderstood? Are you able to influence the outcome of a meeting? Do you feel good about what you write?How consistent were you on your blog. Did you publish at least 80% of the dates you said you would?

Educational qualifications

This is a big blocker in India. I’ve always said that educational qualifications are the new caste system in India. It’s a bit harsh to say this but in a country with a large workforce, people are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. Educational qualifications are a good, quantifiable, defensible in a large company.

So, get an education that matters. If you don’t have a bachelor’s degree from a Tier 1 college, get a Masters from a tier 1 college. If you can’t get a master’s from a tier 1 college, get a part time masters, if you can’t get a master’s degree even then, then get a degree in the US. Its easier to get in US universities and it can really broaden your horizons.

If you can’t solve for education, get a mentor that believes in you and move groups, companies with her so that you can get the opportunities you want.

Sign of success

In career conversations, people do not quote your educational qualifications as a blocking issue. Or, doors that were closed yesterday are open today.

If you do all the above then chances are that you would get more interested in starting your business than becoming a product manager. That is a good thing. If you still want to be a product manager, then know this. It’s a lot of communication and selling your vision internally and monitoring metrics.

Shadowed Qualities – Good Tape, Great Story

I listen to the startup podcast from Gimlet media fairly regularly. Last week’s episode was groundbreaking in a lot of ways.

What a fantastic episode. It’s raw, personal and honest storytelling. Its great tape edited to produce an even greater story. It was so poignant, it made me cry. Alex Bloomberg’s personal journey felt so relatable since I went through a 360 survey not too long ago.

While I did not get as deep with the analysis of my own survey results, it was clear that I had work to do. I could not carry on the way I was. I needed to develop my time and team management skills. This is not something I enjoy. I’m much better at managing my own work than the work of my team. I’m still trying to get better at this skill that I really did not care for, much to the detriment of my team. I’m also getting better at stepping back and really holding more people in the team accountable for outcomes.

Finally, I also remembered how I had written off Alex Bloomberg’s effort in my post 2 years ago. I’m happy he did not listen to me. I’m happy I did not bet any money on a negative outcome for hearstartup, which is now Gimlet media and it doing over $10Million in revenue and employing 40+ people in Brooklyn. I still dont think they have a big exit ahead of them but they are onto something.

Picking winners is hard.


Restraint is overrated

Restraint is over valued I was reading a travel mag on a flight to MSP and read something provocative. “Balance in life is overrated”. Passionate people pursue their passions singlemindedly, produce extra ordinary results and then burn out and need to recharge. Maybe that’s how innovation happens. Concentrated periods of singular focus and compete immersion in an area. 


2015 Book and Podcasts list

Here are the books and podcasts that I’ve read and enjoyed in 2015. Surprisingly, the podcasts were a lot more entertaining.

Title Rating
Honest truth about dishonesty 9
Money: Mastering the game 8
Mastery 6
Influence 10
4 hour body 10
Small giants 10
HBR on Teams 8
Bad Science 10
Flash boys 8 – did not end well
Surely you are joking Mr. Feynman 7 – bit much to read
Mindless eating 10

I will add reviews for each of these books later.

More fun than the books were the following Podcasts:

The Tim Ferriss Show

  • Derek Sivers on The Tim Ferriss podcast
  • Navak Ravikant on The Tim Ferriss podcast
  • Chris Sacca on The Tim Ferriss podcast

WTF with Marc Maron

  • WTF: Neil Strauss
  • WTF: Brian Grazer
  • WTF: Steve Albini
  • WTF: Lorne Michaels
  • WTF: Aaron Draplin. Draplin’s a friend
  • WTF: Fred Armison
  • WTF: Vince Gilligan
  • WTF: Jason Bateman

The Fizzle Show – Early podcasts upto Ep20

Serial Season 1

Startup Podcast: Gimlet media

A16z Podcast

  • a16z Podcast: The Year Mobile Began to Truly Dominate Tech
  • a16z Podcast: The Tiger and the Dragon — On Tech and Startups in India and China
  • a16z Podcast: What Comes After the Smartphone
  • a16z Podcast: Wall Street’s Most Hated Man — A Conversation With’s Patrick Byrne
  • a16z Podcast: Apple Has Lock on Luxury Smartphones, But Not Business of TV
  • a16z Podcast: Messaging As the Interface to Everything

The Food Chain

  • Chicken: Too much of a good thing

This American Life

  • #560: Abdi and the Golden Ticket
  • #504: How I Got Into College, the cheapest startup accelerator ever!

Have been lapping up the podcast over the last few weeks. It has been motivating me to write the book on Delhi that I wanted to write and got me to start the email sign up list for the same on

It has also prompted me to develop a course on how to go from being a developer to becoming a product manager.

While I don’t think I need to sign up just yet, I think this might be the best $35/month you can spend if you are interested in starting your on business online or are pursuing passive income or want to just be a life hacker!


Listen: The podcast



Storytelling – A key product management skill

I’ve written before about the importance of storytelling skills for product managers. It’s the one skill that product management teams in India have not focused on much. While we test for analytical skills at academic qualifications, we don’t test for storytelling skills in product management interviews.

As I’m building my team, I’m really looking for the following skills in candidates:

How good are they at:

  1. Storytelling – Can they pitch their idea? Can they weave a cohesive story around their idea?
  2. Writing and speaking skills in English – A great product manager, who is hard to follow when speaking or in her written words, will not be able to lead very well nor motivate
  3. a team.
  4. Love for technology – can the candidates demonstrate a love for technology and a good understanding of SDLC, etc.

Going back to storytelling… here is a good post to help you pitch your ideas. I’m also linking to a couple of sites that have pitch decks from various startups that you can review to see how entrepreneurs pitch their ideas internally or to VCs.

I love Jack Dorsey’s presentation skills. This particular presentation at Stanfords scorner website is really engaging and inspiring. This is how we should aspire to tell stories


Your life’s narrative

My Life

Once again a great story from This American Life (TAL) inspired me to write a blog post.

As a product manager, nurse you are often dealing with anxiety. At a large company, ambulance you might also feel disenfranchised. You might also be feeling that you do not deserve to be a product manager, sales especially after making a bad decision or after meeting a much more experienced member of the product team that you recently joined. So, here’s how to deal with this. First, listen to the above podcast.

I’ve liked all books by Michael Lewis. He is able to curate great stories and write them in a very accessible way. His story on Emir Kamenica on TAL is a great example of the power of positive thinking and the power of exercising your choice on how to react to a given situation.

What could easily have been an “I’m a victim” story, Emir reframes his story as an “I’ve been so lucky” even when it’s not true in all its details. Yet, this has had a profound impact on his life. The power your life’s narrative has on you is staggering. So, its important to be aware of what story your mind is making up about yourself and then change it so that it empowers you instead of sucking away your energy.

Additionally, remember that Stories are what we make up to explain facts. An unlimited number of stories can explain a set of facts. I learnt this from “Crucial Conversations”. It’s a great book. Here is a summary of it.

So, first try to write down your life narrative. Who you are? And how you got where you are today? Then, do this exercise, as outlined in a simple blog post by Michael Hyatt

And, you may find that you are able to run in a different gear than today.


Project lifecycle

This chart from @maureenmcq does such a great job of describing the phases of a project for a software product manager that I had to share it.


While it is written in the context of writing a book, medicine it is relevant for software projects and business ideas as well. Read her blog at: