How I grew my product management career with open source

Gaining experience in open source helped me create a successful career path in product management.
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I'm a curious person, and I like to explore many fields in the technology industry, from visual design, programming, and product management. I am also drawn to open source ideas. So I'm excited to share with you how I, as a product manager (PM), have used open source to build my career. I believe my experiences can help others who are interested in product management.

What is open source software?

In simple terms, open source software is software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify, enhance, and share. Opensource.com has documented a detailed and comprehensive article to help you understand what open source is. 

My discovery of open source started in the early phase of my career as a visual designer. I was curious to know what it meant and how to be a part of it and that led me to reach out to a few experienced open source contributors and advocates. Though I didn't contribute at the time, I acquired knowledge of the community which helped me when I made the decision to start contributing. 

How to break into product management

It might seem that breaking into product management is difficult, that you must put your boxing gloves on, come out fighting and force your way in. And yet, I've heard from other product managers that it was actually easier to break into compared to writing or debugging blocks of code, or pushing pixels to generate complex wireframes for product design.

Our journeys and approaches are different, so it's safe to say that the road to becoming a product manager can often be long and unpredictable. With the increasing level of competition in the job market, getting a role as an entry-level product manager can be difficult. Recruiters often require 2 to 3 years of experience to join a product team. You might ask, "How am I expected to get the experience?"

Here's a quick look at the four strategies for directing your career toward product management:

  1. Internal transition at a large organization that might require your manager to advocate for you as a good fit to transition within the company. You must have proof that you have transferable skills. This is generally considered the quickest route to product management experience.

  2. Junior PM roles at large organizations. It's common to go through an organization to get an internship, or to join an associate product management program that employs a junior PM.

  3. You can also try to get into product management by joining a startup.

  4. You can start a side project of your own to break into product management.

Without hands-on experience, it's difficult to become a product manager. As open source product manager David Ryan stated, "Few people are taking advantage of what is possibly the most under-utilized path to practical product management experience."

What is this path?

Open source is the answer

An open source project needs more than just code to be successful. This ranges from a strategy for the project, user research, and linking the strategy to daily work. These are all activities that a product manager should be actively involved in. But how much of the product management discipline is the responsibility of a first-time product manager?

Susana Videira Lopes stated in one of her articles that the "essence of getting an entry-level product role is to introduce you to the product management discipline in a way that builds up your confidence, while at the same time delivering value for the organization as early as possible."

How can an entry-level product manager get involved with an open source project, and deliver value?

Simple answer: Ask Questions

Here are some questions you can ask:

  • What problem or opportunity is being explored?

  • How is the solution being framed to tackle this problem?

  • What metrics are used to determine whether the project is successful?

  • Who are the people this solution serves?

  • How are they being informed about it?

  • How does the solution fit with both the immediate and wider ecosystem?

  • Where is the documentation being maintained on the project?

  • Do project maintainers understand accessibility requirements? Are they being met?

You've acquired skills as a product manager. Use them to help you express these thoughtful questions, and invite the team to consider them. The team can select the ones that resonate for the developers and the community, and prioritize what's most important.

These questions help you build user personas, a customer journey map, lean canvas, and more. This kind of experience goes a long way towards developing career potential.

My experience at OpenUnited

OpenUnited is a platform that connects digital talent and work in a unique way. We work with contributors to help them prove specific skills by working on high quality open source products. Once their work is verified, these talented contributors are eligible to work for companies on paid tasks.

OpenUnited is an open source platform that onboards contributors of all kinds—product managers, developers, designers, business analysts, and others. It helps them improve their skills and provides them with a long term source of high-quality paying work.

Farbod Saraf, a senior product manager at Miro, onboarded me on a platform he created with a partner. I joined the project and learned about contributing to OpenUnited. I also learned about other projects that could help me grow in my product management career, and made my first contribution. It was a good experience because I got to start working quickly on bits of the product, to improve the experience of other users on the platform. My mentor Farbod made it easier by making himself available to provide any needed help while I contributed to the project.

Everything you contribute to an open source project becomes a powerful public record of your development as a product manager. I strongly recommend the OpenUnited platform to anyone who wants to break into product management with open source.

How do you find open source projects?

Many people believe that contributing to open source is best left to developers because they find it difficult to search for and get open source projects they can comfortably contribute to.

As a first-time product manager, there are several ways to find open source projects to contribute to. Here's a list of some:

  • Speak up in product manager communities such as Mind The Product and Product School.

  • Go to local meetups and open source conferences like Open Source Community Africa Festival to connect with open source project creators and maintainers.

  • Engage with product managers working at larger open source companies such as GitLab or Mozilla. They may be able to refer you to open source projects where your skills and contribution could be beneficial.

  • Investigate open source advocates and DevRel teams at open source companies to get recommendations of open projects an entry-level product manager can contribute to.

  • Look to open source companies on AngelList or popular open source products on Product Hunt. These are great places to consider in your search for open products to contribute to.

What next?

Ruth Ikegah, a great source of inspiration for me, wrote an article for beginners in open source. In her article, she gave some tips to consider as you embark on contributing to open source.

Before joining and contributing, do some research on the project, community, or organization, and ask questions. When you finally decide to join the community, try to be active by introducing yourself and stating areas where you can help the project.

Of course, open source isn't just a stepping stone for your career. It's a platform in itself, and it needs great product managers. Get involved, contribute to the community, and help it help you hone your skills.

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shebuel
Open Source contributor, Advocate, and Community builder; Shebuel is passionate about building healthy and sustainable Open Source communities around projects and their contributors globally
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