The most underrated tactic for landing a Product Manager Job: Side Projects

An impressive side project makes your resume stand apart for the recruiter from the big pile of mundane resumes. And there's loads of additional benefits side projects can have in your Product Management career.

 · 11 minutes
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Aspiring for a job in a field as ever-changing and competitive as product management requires you to stand apart. Bringing just a college degree to the interview table will most likely lead to your hopes getting dashed. Relevant experience sets you apart from other candidates for landing a product manager position and helps you communicate your skills and knowledge.

This is where side projects come in. They help you demonstrate your knack for the product management position to the people on the other side of the table.

In spite of being something that most aspiring product managers are aware of, side projects remain the most underrated tactic for landing a product manager job. The reason is simple - lack of proper guidance and industry-validated information around a product manager position.

Many people have a misconception that a side project necessarily needs to be a startup or an innovative product. There are a lot of other side projects out there for you to choose from that we’ll talk about later in the article.

Another misconception is that landing a product manager position is all about acquiring as many skills as you can. Granted, the position requires you to have a wide variety of skills. But you don’t need to be well-versed in every skill mentioned in some articles about landing a job in product management. The right way is to gain some of the necessary skills and then to start doing side projects that help you develop other skills along the way.

A side project not only helps you develop technical and other essential skills through its course but also gives you a way to demonstrate them. This is just the beginning of the list of benefits of doing side projects.

Benefits of side projects for starting a Product career

Benefits of Side projects for launching your Product Management career

An impressive side project makes your resume stand apart for the recruiter from the big pile of mundane resumes. Big enough as it is, this is not the only benefit side projects have in launching your career as a product manager. Let’s take a look at some of the other benefits of gaining experience through side projects.

  1. Develop Execution Skills
    A study on product managers showed that less than a third of a product manager's time is spent on product strategy. The rest? Implementation, execution and management. A career as a product manager doesn’t just require you to be an empowered decision-maker, but also an excellent manager.
    Doing a side project helps you develop managerial skills and makes you aware of the challenging aspects of resource, team, and time management. This is especially beneficial for those who are making the transition from a technical discipline into a career in product management.

Doing a side project helps you develop managerial skills and makes you aware of the challenging aspects of resource, team, and time management.

  1. Demonstrate Technical and Design Skills
    Having technical and design skills in your quiver will be beneficial for you as a product manager. It will help you ensure better communication and collaboration between different cross-functional teams. This is why the recruiters give preference to the applicants who demonstrate a basic understanding of development and design principles.
    However, it’s one thing to list a skill on your resume and entirely another to have a side project that is an application of that skill. Side projects help you convey your proficiency in technical and design skills to the recruiters and give you a competitive edge over others.
  2. Manifests Creative Thinking
    Having a career in product management requires you to be creative as you’re expected to take new initiatives for the product and ensure seamless implementation. Side projects manifest creative thinking and show the recruiters that you can take the initiative and have an entrepreneurial spirit. By their very nature, side projects are time and effort constrained, forcing you to come up with creative “hacks” to make progress - something interviewers love to see because it’s a good proxy for future success in their teams.
  3. Meaningful content to explore during interviews
    Doing a side project walks you through many challenges. Some of these closely simulate real-world challenges product managers face in their careers. This not only inculcates managerial skills in you but also gives you a lot of references and conversation points during the interview.
    Suppose you’re asked, “How would you prioritize resources when you have two important things to do but can’t do them both?”, or for instance “Tell me about something you flexed your creative muscle”. The experience you gain while working on a side project allows you to use it as a reference and answer questions like these more clearly and confidently. It also enables you to explore the answer deeply during the inevitable back-and-forth which happens as interviewers try to truly assess your Product knowledge and experience - and there’s nothing like a side project to demonstrate how exhaustively you know your craft.

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These benefits make it absolutely critical for you to do side projects that set you apart from other applicants and launch your career in product management.

Things to Remember While Doing a Side Project

Starting a side project poses several questions. How do you go about it? Do you need a team? How to define your goals? You will be able to answer all of these questions if you remember your side project’s primary goal. Everything about your side project from objectives to planning should revolve around the goal of conveying that you can take action, put together a well-thought plan with goals and objectives, and reach your desired goals.

The side project doesn’t necessarily have to be an innovative startup that gives a new solution to a problem. It can be anything from starting a blog to solving a real-world problem in a hackathon. All you need to keep in mind is that it should have the element of creativity, which shows that you can take action and have ideas of your own.

Once you have decided what you want to do for your side project, it is now time for planning it out. You need to define your vision, objectives, and goals for your side project, just like you would in a job. This will help you gain clarity about what you want to achieve, and how you’ll get there. As a bonus - this will come in handy for when you’re preparing for your interview further down the road!

Also, keep in mind that your project goals must be aligned with the resources and time that are available to you. Start with small and achievable growth goals, as real products do. Perform thorough user-research for your side project and choose the growth metrics based on your side project type. For instance, if you’re starting a blog as your side project use the number of views and/or the number of shares to measure growth. On the other hand, if you’re building an app, keep the number of downloads as an initial metric to track.

Here are a few other things to keep in mind while doing a side project that will help you answer these questions.

  1. Create/Manage a team proactively
    If your side project requires you to create or manage a team, be sure to create a cross-functional one and see what it’s like to work with people with different skill sets. Leading them will not only instill leadership qualities in you, it will also make you aware of the challenges a product manager has to deal with because of cross-functional teams. Understand the individual motivators of other members and try to align them with the project’s objectives and goals.
  2. Promote the end-product
    The attention that the end-product of your side project gets is the measure of your success as a product manager in the eyes of recruiters. This is why promoting the end-product should be the highest in the priority list of your side project. Carry out a data and fact centered study of the audience, demand, and consumption of the market. Then review the various promotion strategies used in the industry and see what works out best for your product within your resources.
  3. Document the process
    Making a plan for your side project isn’t enough. You also need to document everything as you move forward. Keeping track helps you reach your objectives faster and ensures the limited usage of resources. Time management is a critical skill for product managers and documenting the process through your side project will help you develop it.
  4. Make your user-research foolproof
    Without having extensive knowledge of the market and competition, product managers cannot ensure the success of their product. Conduct user-research for your side project in a few steps.

Steps to do user research in an effective way

There are a few steps to take, which can be used to ensure that user research is done efficiently and effectively

Step 1: Formulate the questions you are finding answers to

Step 2: List down the hypotheses and things you already know about the answer

Step 3: Fill gaps with market trends and do a comprehensive research on the competition

Step 4: Collect data and use insights to identify the user needs and expectations.

Keeping these things in mind will always keep you one step ahead of the planned objectives, and ensure the success of your side project. It will also ensure that your side project fulfils the main goal of communicating your product management skills to the recruiters.

Importance of Side Projects to learn Technical Skills

Side projects can also be a great way to get proficient in technical skills. By doing side projects that require you to learn various technical skills along the way, you get the much-required practice for the skill not to mention the experience that helps you land a product manager position. Here is how you can use a side project to develop technical skills.

  1. Side Projects - The Perfect Way to Build Technical Fluency
    Learning a specific programming language or a tool to learn more technical skills might not be the most ideal learning mechanism for you. Learning programming languages or other development tools separately can leave crevices in your technical skills. Doing side projects is a more effective learning mechanism as you learn the end-to-end development of a product rather than learning in a disconnected and un-organized way.
    Side projects also ensure a learning mechanism in which you apply the key development and design principles in the side project rather than learning in a theoretical way. This ensures a deeper understanding and helps in building a strong technical fluency.
    Although you won’t be expected to code as a product manager, learning technical skills through side projects gives you an understanding of how the technical layers fit together to complete the development cycle. This helps you ensure better collaboration and communication within your cross-functional teams.
  2. How to Pick a Good Side Project
    It will defeat the main objective of doing a side project if you don’t select a good one, even if it helps you learn a lot of essential technical skills along the way. Pick a project with challenges that you can list as features of your side project in your resume. But don’t pick something too complicated or to be completed. Choosing a simple project with a realistic goal is far better than going for a complicated project with unachievable goals.
    To generate a good side project idea, first, find a pain point or a problem. It could be as simple as something like not remembering the diet you’re on. Once you have a pain point or a problem in your mind, choose the simplest way you can think of to solve it. The implementation must be simple and well within your time and resource constraints. Be sure to build an app that stores information. It will not only make it necessary for you to learn a full tech stack but will also provide ease in documenting the whole process.
  3. Selecting a Tech Stack for Your Side Project
    One of the biggest decisions in the development of a product is the selection of the software stack that will be used for its full-stack development. The software stack in many ways defines how the product will turn out to be and what will be its most notable features. This is why product managers have long discussions with senior engineers and weigh down the pros and cons of various tech stacks to select one for their product.
    LAMP, MEAN, and MERN are the most popular software stacks out there. Each of them has different features and benefits and are used in the industry for different products. For making a side project, the best tech stack for you will be the LAMP stack. 
    LAMP is an acronym for four open-source components:
  • Linux: An open-source operating system 
  • Apache: Widely used web-server software 
  • MySQL: Popular open-source database 
  • PHP: An Open-source server-side scripting language

    The LAMP stack will be the best for your tech stack because of two significant reasons. Being a stack made up of open-source components, you will find a big library of high-quality, yet cheap learning resources like online tutorials for these. The LAMP stack also eases full-stack development because of the ability of languages like MySQL and PHP to integrate well with other languages and tools.

To sum up, side projects are the most underrated aspect of launching a career in product management. Side projects give you a competitive edge over other applicants and maximize your chances of success in landing a product manager job. They can also help you develop various managerial and technical skills along the way. They also help you to demonstrate your talent and skills as a product manager to the recruiters.

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