I was watching a college basketball game the other night when I noticed how much bigger one of the players looked this year compared to last year. The announcers even mentioned several times how much time he’d spent in the weightroom during the offseason. He still couldn’t shoot unfortunately, but he was impressive to look at.

Like the basketball player who opts for weightliftings over ball skills, may ambitious young product managers look for tangible skills to add to their résumé. They take Codeacademy classes; become certified scrum masters; maybe even get their MBAs if they’re not worried about costs or time lost.

I don’t begrudge anyone bettering themselves. After graduating from college I took the CFA exam, learned Java at a community college, and took several free Coursera classes among other things. Almost anything to build skills without paying for grad school sounded good to me. Even after I joined a tech startup and started down the product management path, it was years before I figured out the best way to grow in that capacity.

My advice to young product managers who want to grow: Forget the résumé builders. Build your network and learn how to get inside information from people.

In Product Management, Inside Information Is Good

There’s a scene early in the movie Wall Street where Gordon Gekko tells his new stock broker Bud Fox to stop analyzing stocks and start getting him insider information on companies to trade on. He doesn’t care what his brokers think, only what information they can obtain to give him a (illegal) trading advantage. So off Bud goes to eavesdrop in corporate elevators and swipe information by any other means necessary.

Making trades based on inside information about a company is illegal. Designing better products based on inside knowledge about what’s bugging potential buyers in your market however is not. Replace corporate espionage and hostile takeovers with genuine conversations and product requirements, and you’re in business. I highly recommend it.

To be a successful product manager, you need to know firsthand what’s going on with at companies in your target market. What are their major priorities right now? What are they sick of or ready to replace? What’s in the way of them allocating budget to your solution, and how much might they spend on it?

A salesperson might hear these things and think about one deal at a time. You’ll use this information to design more successful products.

You’re as Good as Your Sources

Journalists write articles, but the best journalists aren’t necessarily the best writers. Rather, they’re often the best at cultivating sources and finding the most important stories to write about. The sooner you approach product management with that mindset, the better off you’ll be.

Get outside your tribe and spend as much as time possible in your target customers’. Go to events where they get together. Listen to their conversations. Make connections. Build relationships over time. If you’re not sure how to infiltrating other tribes, here are a few ways to get started:

  • Meetup Groups – Meetups can be great becuase they’re generally informal and cheap. Find some meetup events hosted by people in your target market and just go. Don’t hide what you do, but don’t go into sales mode either. Just be part of the conversation, add value where you can, and pay attention to the challenges they talk about.
  • Conferences – More expensive than meetups, but often larger and with more senior attendees, these can be worth the expense if you really hustle. Find a conference guide for your target niche and read reviews to find which ones have the people you want attending. If you want to sponsor one, great. If not, just go and be part of the conversation.
  • Quora – Quora, at its best, provides a trove of prominent questions and thoughtful answers written by people in your target market, whether it’s accountants, heart surgeons, small business owners, zookeepers, or whatever. Comment thoughtfully on their stuff (writing “great post!” doesn’t qualify), ask questions, and build a dialog with people in your market.

Here’s the kicker: Whenever you make a new contact, look for a way to help them with something: an introduction, a resource they can use, anything to make their life easier. (The thing you offer shouldn’t be your product.)

People are more inclined to return a favor than offer one, so initiate the exchange. When you’re looking for feedback down the road or want to understand something about the market, they’ll be much more likely to take your call.

And while you’re building your rolodex the old-fashioned way, let us speed things up for you in the meantime.