Q&A: Should I take a different role before applying to become a product manager?

People sometimes ask me for career advice. Here’s a recent question:

Hi Jock,

I’m an entrepreneur, product/program manager and hardcore gamer. I’m facing a dilemma in my career’s direction. I’m split between my love for the game industry (dreaming of launching a game with a team), and my passion for product management (I would love to be a PM for a tech company).

I’ve applied to both the game industry for producer positions (no PM there), and to tech companies for PM roles. Got a few interviews for PM, but I may lack experience. On the other hand, I’ve got an offer in a big game studio for a production coordinator role (about project and people management, primarily). My manager is experienced and believes in me, and it would be for a triple A game.

I would see myself being a product manager for a tech company, or a game director in a studio. So not only managing projects and teams, but also having a vision for the product/games, researching the market, coming up with features, roadmaps, and so on. I feel I already have a good “product sense”, but I may be lacking in terms of experience, management (especially with engineers), and leadership.

Do you feel being a production coordinator would be a good or at least relevant move toward this career?

Thanks for your help,

Y

Read on for my reply.

Hi Y,

I’m flattered you contacted me for advice about such an important career decision. I hope I can at least give you some food for thought.

To a certain extent, I think you’ve answered your own question.

While you’re worried that you lack experience to land a product manager role with a tech company, you’ve got an opportunity to gain some valuable experience as a production coordinator on what will most likely be a complex game project with a large-ish team. And on the plus side, it sounds like you’d have a very supportive manager.

Your experience as an entrepreneur is valuable – one of my closest friends and most talented product managers got into that career after his startup exited. But you probably need to build on that experience.

People often find that their path to becoming a product manager is not very direct. In other words, people tend to do several different roles before finally making the move into product management. You (probably) don’t want to do production coordination for ever, but it seems like you’ll gain some fantastic experience about working with large teams with diverse skill sets. To do well in this, you could and should also use the opportunity to form a close working relationship with the director for the game, which in turn will give you a much better insight into what skills and experience you’d need to become a future game director (or product manager) yourself.

It sounds as though much of what you’ll experience will be directly relevant to product management. By definition, a product manager is a generalist with lots of different hard (technical) and soft (people) skills. You need to look at where you feel you lack experience and find ways to fill the gap. If it helps, I compiled a couple of lists over on my blog on what I look for in a product manager:

They’re by no means exhaustive lists, but they’ll get you started.

I’ve only briefly worked in a game company, so I don’t have a great deal of insight to offer, but I would say that it’s quite a different challenge to product management outside of gaming. In the gaming company I worked at, we would start with a game concept, try some ideas out to see if the concept was enjoyable to play, iteratively tweak the game mechanics as needed and re-test, then eventually move to producing the game for sale.

Chasing what’s fun to play is somewhat different to homing in on a group of people with a problem you can solve for them with a product or service. Some similarities, but arguably harder to quantify in gaming. Or at least, that’s my view – you might find it trivially easy :-)

So if it were my decision, I’d say take the production coordinator role and see where it leads you. But as it’s not my decision, and I’m just one opinion, go speak to a few other people you trust and see if that helps you reach your own decision.

I hope this has been of some small help, all the best,

Jock


Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management by Jock Busuttil

“This book has been a genuine game changer for me”
– pb (Amazon)

“I wish this book was published when I started out in product management”
– KejiA (Amazon)

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