Irma Mesa

Grow your skills with side projects

Let me start with this: props to this person -

who submitted this question on #AskWiP! It’s a question that many have when they’re starting to build product skills and for good reason — open source product management opportunities are difficult to find. Unlike software engineering, where you’ll find Github projects or non-profit organizations actively looking for volunteers at any level to come on board and contribute, open source projects that look for volunteer PMs are almost non-existent. Yes, there are ways to possibly gain some experience by attending PM boot camps or online courses where you can experience the entire ideation-to-delivery process, but those are typically paid opportunities.

In this post, I share with you some tactics that you can use to improve your chances of finding the few PM roles that are available in open-source and side projects. Let’s get into this!

1. Use your network

Reach out to folks on LinkedIn,, or via Slack workspaces to see if they know of any small teams looking to bring on a freelance Product Manager for their product. This route will lead to projects that will help you learn and hone in on your unique PM style.

Here are some quick links to online resources I suggest scoping out for opportunities:

a. LinkedIn  —  Reach out to your connections! It doesn’t hurt to ask if they may know or have heard of a company looking for a PM to join.

b.  —  Filter by PM openings for early-stage startups that are looking for freelance PMs! More often than not, such startups only need someone to come on for a few hours a week to get the product off the ground and developed.

c. Product-focused Slack Workspaces — Slack groups focused on Product Management are perfect for linking up with a fellow PM to ideate and ship. For example, the Women in Product Slack Workspace has a #sideprojects channel where you can suggest or find a side project to work on. Similarly, you can join the Product School Slack or the MindTheProduct Slack to spin up a product idea with another PM!

2. Find online coding teams

Chingu Voyage, for example, is an online coding cohort that will welcome people who’d like to be a PM for a group of three or four developers. Projects of this type are a great way to get involved in both the PM and Engineering sides of the work. They also let you build up experience in creating a backlog, running backlog refinement, prioritizing based on goals and deadlines, and running user research to ensure that the shipped product has value for the end-customer.

3. Use Taproot+ to find and volunteer at a non-profit

If you’ve never heard of Taproot, they’re a volunteer-based project site for non-profit organizations. Though they don’t have a specific listing for organizations searching for product managers, there are quite a few looking for project managers. While Project Management and Product Management are two different fields, consider volunteering if you’re looking for experience working with and managing a team that needs to focus and stay on track for delivery. The projects listed at Taproot offer a fantastic way to give back and also gain marketable experience.

4. Plan and start up your own product idea

It may be a little scary to start up your own thing, but many of the folks with Product Manager titles have either had a casual side product or have become CEOs or founders of their own products. It’s the work they put in on their own product idea that allowed them to build up an impressive skill set and well-honed product sense.

The process is straightforward:

Brainstorm. Take a week or two to sit down and brainstorm on issues that need solutions. It can be ANYTHING — transportation, accessibility, and healthcare are a few industries that immediately come to mind. If you take enough time to reflect, you’ll find there are problems that need solving all around us.

Vet. Find a problem that you’re passionate about and see what type of product can be created to either solve the problem entirely or make it a little less of a problem for its audience.

Dig in. Go through the whole process of ideation, research, and deployment. Use online tools to help you achieve an MVP of your idea.

Prototype. Take it a step further and release a working prototype for your friends to provide feedback and allow you to iterate.

Document. Write about your whole process on a blog. Take the time to reflect on your learnings and findings.

Learning by doing will always be one of the best ways to truly fail fast, learn quickly, and keep moving.

We have to be pretty creative when we’re aiming to up our PM game through open-source and side projects. It’s not as straightforward a process as it is for our Engineering friends. For now, your best bet is to use Slack workspaces, online coding teams, or volunteering sites to find projects. If you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, consider spinning up your own product idea and take it from the ground up to strengthen your PM knowledge and gain hands-on experience.

I’ve used all the approaches above to become more proficient as a Product Manager. Here are two recent examples:

Getting into User Experience.

I served as a Project Manager for a Web Development cohort via Chingu Voyage for a month. My team had three people, including myself. In this role, I learned to coordinate with a remote team, create timelines to meet our release date, and set up user stories for the development team to follow and deliver a Paypal clone site. In addition, I was able to focus on the User Experience, which helped the team apply design best practices to build a product for a real end-user. I included this project on my resume and talked about it in interviews for PM roles. The project allowed me to confidently showcase my ability to lead, my problem-solving skills, and the care and attention I devote to the user experience.

Validating product ideas.

I built a product idea on the side and connected with a Twitter friend to complete mockups a few months ago and it was a great learning experience. In this project, I started from scratch and thought about the fitness industry and how trainers need tools to track their clients. It was from that initial thought that I arrived at FITTY, a mobile app for fitness trainers. I went through all the phases of validating a product idea: discovery, wireframing, competitive research, usability studies, and mocking up my app on Adobe XD. I then paired with my Twitter friend, Thor Schroeder, to improve the design and layout so the app would be user-friendly. This experience taught me the value of validating product ideas as early as possible to arrive at an MVP. It’s really important that the product you build provides value and meets a real need in society or else the resulting effort may well be a loss. Each of these projects has played a part in getting me to where I am today. I hope that the tips I’ve shared above will help you find open-source or side projects so you too can strengthen your product management muscles. Good luck!

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