From Liberal Arts to Product Management

Caveat: this is not a how-to guide

Bo Ren
Bo Ren
Aug 8, 2014 · 9 min read

I know a handful of non-traditional product managers out there.

Psych to PM: @Rohinivibha.

Art History to PM: @xsvengoechea.

Neuroeconomics to PM: me.

Contrary to Silicon Valley stereotypes, we exist. Becoming a product manager without the CS degree and coding skills is possible, albeit difficult.

Phase Zero: What is product management?

1) Identifies the traits you want to embody as a PM

2) Clarifies what you want to accomplish

Here is my definition of a PM:

Prod·uct Man·ag·er

n. a person who functions as a scientist, armchair psychologist, and janitor in cross-functional teams. Ever curious, open to new ideas, perceptive, listens, and evolves through time. Someone who works well with engineers and designers and understands the customer’s needs. Someone who will do anything necessary to ship a product on time and maintain that product’s quality through its lifecycle.

What is your definition of a PM? There is no right answer. Every PM is slightly different. Feel free to let your definition evolve as well.

Phase One: Gather User Data. The user being YOU. Understand your motivations/‘user needs’.

Phase Two: Identify the product. Know what kind of PM you are building yourself into.

There are so many breeds of PMs so do your research. If I were to draw you a matrix, there would be too many boxes. Instead, I found Asana Product Manager Jackie Bavaro’s Venn Diagram of PM skills helpful:

Diagram by Jackie Bavaro, stylized by Lester Lee for Medium

A good PM embodies skills in both circles. You may be heavier on some skills over others. Some PMs are design-heavy others are user-focused. Find your niche.

Talk to people. While working as a support rep at Sunrun, I took out one PM a week for lunch or coffee. I asked them what product management meant to them and what they consider to be a good PM. Each interviewee had a different answer. Out of the myriad of stories, opinions, and advice, I started to separate signals from the noise. PMs are problem solvers. PMs are conduits. PMs are technical-minded people who translate problems to solutions etc. Hearing other PMs’ stories helped me realize that the journey is non-linear and the job unglamorous.

Phase Three: Do a SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of yourself

Read a lot of job descriptions and LinkedIn profiles to hone in on the industry profile. Find patterns in how PMs describe themselves. Pick up on action verbs like ‘tackle data quality problems’ or ‘analyze user complaints’, anything cluing in on skills and tasks critical to the job. Once you identify the action verbs and adjectives (‘cross-functional’, ‘critical thinking’, and ‘impactful’ etc.), think about how you can acquire these skills, traits, and experiences. Knowing what you’re missing will inform you on areas to develop.

Phase Four: Build your MVP product — build YOU.

Seek out product experience: Now that you have a worldview, find projects in your current role that enable you to work with members of the product, design, and engineering team as much as possible. Small projects such as setting up Salesforce CRM, filing bugs, testing the newest release of the company website will help you become the technical point person in your department. Do anything that could expose you to interfacing with more technical minds. You want to build your brand as a go-to problem-solver opening the doors to product-related projects and cross-functional opportunities.

Phase Five: Ship your product — get the job!

Transition to product internally or apply externally: Once you feel you have enough of a skill set to qualify for a product gig, apply away! Apply internally for product openings if you see prospects in your current company. Internal transfers give you a huge advantage because you know the product and company well which is time saved in onboarding. You’ve also cultivated relationships with the existing product team, establishing credibility and rapport. If your company is not hiring internally then apply externally for junior product roles (associate product manager) or rotational programs that will give you the right training and mentorship to succeed as a PM. Many people think startups are great learning grounds for product management. I disagree, because you can only practice product management with a cohort of engineers, designers, and other team members. I will admit, I learned a lot from the start-ups I worked for (Sunrun, Opower, SigFig) but found the resource-constrained, fire-fighting environment inherently lacking in mentorship and training. It’s better to start at a mature company learning from experienced PMs. Consider rotational programs at Intuit, Yelp, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Evernote. These rotational programs are open for recent university graduates and young professionals looking to transition into product.

Know your target company and speak their language: If you do decide to apply externally for fresh product roles, research the company by first having informational interviews. By talking to a company insider, you will be able to go beyond online job postings and really understand what they are looking for. Each product team works slightly differently so be sure to understand the organization’s structure. Ultimately, what will help you land that first-time product gig is by speaking the company language. People hire people who speak the same language. Language is synonymous to “culture fit.” If a company makes an investment software tool (SigFig, Wealthfront), then they speak predominantly finance. If they are an energy efficiency SaaS company (Opower, EnerNOC) then they speak renewables. Others speak in design frameworks(Nest, Square) instead of domain specific jargon. Whatever the company, make sure you are fluent in their dominant language.

Realize that the product management route is non-linear full of close approximations, trial and error, and serendipity. Apply the best fit model to your product career development. They should want you as much as you want them. Find a company that looks beyond the piles of cookie cutter resumes and sees value in your non-traditional background.

By the way, it doesn’t have to be a ‘sexy’ startup or a big tech company. My first product role was at a solar finance startup, working on a very unsexy part of the product: contract changes. Working there made me realize I wanted to be closer to the software side so I moved into energy efficiency software as a service and then investment services software before landing at Facebook. Each step I took brought me closer to product management, from building processes to shaping the end product.

I owe my journey to the mentors, managers, co-workers, and friends who took a chance and saw potential in me. Wishing you the best on your product journey! Carve your own path and power forward.


Different Skills = Different strengths as a PM by Jackie Bavaro — Jackie writes about the diverse skills of a PM

Joel on Software — This blog is a great reference to understand basic engineering terms.

Psych to PM Rohini Vibha — Writings focused on user research and how to work with engineers as a nontechnical PM

Kickstarter PM Ellen Chisa — Writings on product management best practices, gender, culture

Weebly PM Ryan Glasgow — Great design oriented perspective on product management

‘Product Manager, you are a janitor…essentially’ by Matt Baletz — All the unglamorous aspects of product management.

Thanks to Ximena Vengoechea, Ashley Dotterweich, and Ellen Chisa.

    Bo Ren

    Written by

    Bo Ren

    Serving founders @samsungnext, writer, advisor