It’s a tacky notion to generalize, so I’ll focus on my own experience and my own journey. It would be great if it helps anyone else.
This one is easy – you do the same thing you would have done after University – only without it. Let me elaborate. One thing I have learned through my 25+ years of different careers in IT and around is that university degree, diplomas, and certifications have very little – if anything – to do with actual performance on a job. At least once in my past 10 years, I was hired against the rule of “everyone should have at least a Bachelor degree in this company”. I also was officially denied a consideration for employment at another company once because of lack of Bachelors degree. That was after I’ve got a solid 10 years of experience in the industry. I guess those two cases cancel each other out.
What defines me as a “knowledge worker” is not a degree or a certificate. It’s the actual knowledge. Granted – given a good education (and by “good” I mean – as close to a real deal as possible, not just expensive one) a lot of things get easier or more transparent. A lot of other things, however, become invisible. You need a special knack to “uncover” things, persistence to do this all the time and actual intelligence to recognize the “AHA!” moment to be able to succeed.
A degree may (or, rather, should) supply you with a set of tools – the quality of them would vary based on your teachers and their methods, but at least you’ll get the basics. Without a degree, you’ll end up developing your own set of tools that may or may not be better than those imposed by education. The upside is that they will be yours, so – ultimately much more convenient to use more often.
The way I have become a Product Manager was through working in various roles in IT – tech support, software engineering, technical leadership, project management. At each stage, you can see various pieces of the puzzle, but usually until the level of manager of “development” or project manager the whole picture will be obscured. This, however, allowed me to build my own set of tools to determine and paint that big picture without having direct access to assets (people or systems) that can define it for me.
Once I was able to get to the big picture for existing systems – it became a lot easier to create my own big picture where there was none before. Because a product isn’t just a piece of software that does A, B and X. A true product is a solution to someone else’s problem. I’ve used this line in one of my other Quora answers, but I’ll repeat it again: “Don’t think about how to make your product better. Think about how you can make a life of your customer easier”. Any successful product would be one that resolves a customer issue or takes away or eases the pain.
Ultimately, to become a Product Manager to start thinking about yourself as a product. What kind of problems will you be able to solve? How do you go to the market? Where is your audience? What are the definitions of your own success?
Well, the last one is easy – once you have solved a couple of real-world problems with a product of your own – you can start thinking that one day you will be a successful Product Manager. I certainly think I will.