“How does one transition to be a product manager without ever having been one?”
Unlike my peers studying electrical engineering or computer science, the field of Product Management was virtually unknown to me when I first graduated college. I, among many of my fellow business-minded classmates, spent most of our free time in college networking and chasing down internships in the prestigious and clear-cut paths of either Investment Banking or Consulting. Paths that were supposed to….
- Maximize your career optionality in the future!
- Set you up with the skills to tackle anything!!
- Make you hyper marketable to tech companies and/or startups!!!
Now fast forward to first year post grad me, working as a Technology investment banking analyst at a bulge bracket bank and struggling to get past even a first round phone screen for a product role. Back then, one of the most burning questions I had top of mind was:
“How does one transition to be a product manager without ever having been one?”
When I first began navigating the brave new world of Product recruiting, I felt deeply frustrated by the sheer nebulousness of the process. Unlike banking or consulting, where there are literal textbooks that I could study, financial concepts and formulas that I could gobble up and regurgitate in interviews, there seemed to be no definitive playbook that one could follow to land a role in Product. I originally thought that my analytical training in finance and nuanced understanding of software business metrics gave me an edge as a promising PM candidate, but throughout my interview process overwhelmingly so was I met instead with a “Sorry, but we’re just looking for someone with more relevant experience.”
But I was determined to land a job in product. And over the course of a few months’ time, I was eventually able to successfully transition into product management — without learning how to code, knowing a wisp of SQL, or working on a side project.
Over the past few years, I’ve gotten a number of questions from friends and acquaintances asking about how I made the transition — here’s my attempt to document my thoughts and more efficiently share what I’ve learned along the way when transitioning to become a PM. If you are someone who might be interested in making a similar transition, I hope you will find this helpful!
Step 1. Evaluate your personal risk appetite and determine your best approach
From what I’ve observed, there are 3 general paths that I’ve seen people take to transition into Product, and each come with their own set of considerations.
- Get into an Associate Product Management Program
Many established tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter offer Associate or Rotational Product Manager programs that are specifically catered for either new grads or those with little to no prior product management experience. These programs are structured to maximize exposure of participants across diverse cross-functional company initiatives and allow them to train and learn the ropes of product in the process.
Pros: Needless to say, these programs are structured specifically to cater to the interests of Product newcomers and are singularly focused on setting you up for success in Product, under the helpful guidance and mentorship of experienced PMs.
Cons: These programs are extremely competitive, especially at larger tech companies, and often only has headcount for a handful of individuals each year. Although these programs are sometimes also offered at small-medium sized startups (how I personally got my start in Product!), it is more rare to find those positions as these programs run on either an annual or somewhat ad hoc recruiting schedule. Depending on the stage of career you’re in, you also may not want to regress back to an associate level position.
2. Transition to a role adjacent to a Product Manager (i.e. Software, Project/Program, Marketing), with plans to eventually transfer internally
Pros: If you currently work in an industry very far from any product development processes, this would be a great way to gain first hand knowledge around the role and get a real feel of what it would actually be like on the ground as a PM. You might also be able to gain relevant experience doing PM-like responsibilities that you can use to make your case to pivot later on internally. Your chances of transferring as an internal candidate are likely more favorable than recruiting externally if you did not have any prior PM experiences, as you will have already working knowledge of the company’s business and operations that can put you over the top compared to lateral candidates.
Cons: While the chances are generally more favorable, there is still no guarantee that you would be able to pivot internally. However, there would inevitably be a sunk cost in the time invested in the company doing non-product work where you can be gathering more direct experience elsewhere. If considering this approach, I would highly recommend either researching or seeking out peer-level contacts at the company, and asking if there have been precedents of internal transfers to better ascertain your actual chances before committing to the role.
3. Go to a smaller startup / Start your own company and be the PM of your own product
Pros: Earlier stage start ups tend to have much looser definitions of roles and responsibilities compared to more established ones, as you will often have to wear many hats in the company. This gives you ample opportunity to be entrepreneurial in your work and gain the relevant experience that you desire. Starting your own company and PM-ing for your own product also lends tremendous learning opportunities to put product theories / frameworks to practice and gain the experience you need.
Cons: I personally think that the best way to learn as a new PM is to be under the mentorship of someone who is more experienced, and who can guide you in your first year of simply getting reps of shipping and launching under your belt and grasping the overall product process. Being the first product person at a startup with leaner resources will inevitably require you to take a lot of initiative to seek out this type of guidance with an advisor externally, and depending on your current position, the start up might require you to take a salary cut in lieu of equity in your compensation.
Step 4. Learn to speak and think like a PM
What better way to learn about Product than from seasoned, industry-leading Product thought leaders themselves? There are a lot of excellent content available on common product topics and frameworks that I’ve found to be extremely helpful to not only educate myself on the role, but also to become familiarized with the vernacular that PMs use and think in. Here are a few of my favorites:
Understanding the role and why it exists — (This section came from a great PM reading starter list originally curated by my friend David Wang!)
- The Role of a Product Manager
- The Black Box of Product Management
- Minimum Viable Product Manager
- Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager
- You are a janitor
General Product resources and articles
- Julie Zhuo’s Newsletter: The Looking Glass
- Brandon Chu’s Black Box of Product Manager
- Ken Norton (Former Google PM and current GV partner)’s blog
- Product Manager HQ
- This is Product Management Podcast — Helpful to listen and learn the industry jargon and how to speak “PM-like” in interviews
- Exponent — Great resource to see Product Case interviews in practice
Step 3. Shape your narrative, you may already be more of a PM than you think!
Chances are, if you currently work in a role that requires you to work in a team and tackle problems through analytical thinking — you may actually already be doing more of this oh-so-elusive PM work than you think! Here are a few general description of responsibilities that can be directly translatable to product:
Leading a project from start to finish to solve a problem
Analyzing data to distill insights and drive decision making
Prioritizing a backlog of projects based on a framework
Collaborating with cross-functional teams in an organization
Iterating on improvement based on user feedback (think creatively on who a “user” might be, could be a managing director, a client ….whoever will be utilizing your end product!)
Think about all your existing experiences and see if it can be reframed in the vein of product responsibilities, and then start reflecting those in your resume and in your interview pitch!
Step 4. Interview, rinse and repeat
“Nothing happens until something moves” — Albert Einstein.
You will never truly feel 100% prepared/ ready/ confident enough for interviews. The pool will always be icy cold when you first tip your toes in, so why not just canon-ball it and go all in! When it comes to interviewing, my best advice here is to do as many as you can. As painful as my first couple of interviews were (I had once admittedly asked an interviewer “uh…what does an API mean?” which led to my receipt of a rejection email almost immediately thereafter), I’ve in all honesty learned the most from those painful-and-somewhat-humiliating experiences. My arsenal of interviewing knowledge grew exponentially with each one that I tackled — each time I got a question that I did not know how to answer, I wrote it down so that I would be able to answer it next time. Think of your interview process much like how you would manage a product. Test hypotheses of what works or not, always move with a bias for action and view each interview as an opportunity for learning and data collecting!
While I recommend watching some exponent videos to get started and get a feel of the overall tone and structure of interviews, just like learning a sport or how to do anything, you can’t just sit on the sidelines forever! Do mock interviews with friends, do practice interviews with your dog if you need to and just start interviewing as soon as you can to begin collecting data on your own performance and identify your weak spots!
Now that I am on the other side, I firmly believe that if you are determined to achieve and willing to learn, you absolutely have the skills needed to become a Product Manager. My hope is that this piece of writing helped in some way to demystify the process by sharing my personal journey and learnings. Ultimately, my greatest piece of advice is that a bias for action will serve you well here — Start talking to people, start doing some research, start applying to roles, and I wish you the best of luck on your process!”