Pivoting into Product Management

Photo credit: Agberto Guimaraes

These days, it seems like everyone wants to break into product management (myself included). The ability to sit at the intersection of technology, design and business without ever having a “typical day” is what makes “PMing” the belle of the ball. But, it requires a lot of legwork to score the next dance. Why is this so? Product management is a notoriously difficult field to pivot into because:

  1. The role of a product manager means something different to every industry, every company and every person. This is evidenced by the many product titles floating out there ranging from technical product managers to product marketing managers.
  2. There isn’t one direct path to PMing. Employers differ largely over what skills and prior experience they seek when hiring. Graduate schools are only just starting to explore offering product management focused programs. Schools such as General Assembly (my alma mater) and the Product School have somewhat addressed this need by offering certificate programs.
With scores of developers and MBA graduates flocking to PMing, how can someone without a technical background or business degree pivot into product management?

Earlier this year, I made this leap. At the start of my journey, I had a resume filled with real estate sales and development experience, an undergraduate degree in Art History and Economics and I could not read one line of code. The job search was challenging and I faced enough rejection to last a lifetime, but, the challenge was worth it. Below I have shared ten learnings from my journey into product management:

Photo Credit: Justin LaBerge

1. Get your story down

You are a product and you should be able to pitch your story.

At the beginning of my search, I had the mindset that I was starting from zero. I could not see the parallels between my prior experience in real estate and product management. After receiving feedback from my peers and taking an inventory of my existing skills and experience, I learned that I already had product management experience but in an industry that labeled the role differently.

When I iterated on my strategy and used product management terminology to describe my real estate experience, I saw a drastic shift in my confidence and an improvement in my interviews. For example, I compared the process of launching a new listing to running an agile sprint and elaborated on how my team utilized user centered design to stage and develop properties.

When crafting your story, use the right terminology. Focus less on your titles and more on explaining your methodology. Tie it together with your driving motive(s) for why you want to be a product manager.

2. Have a method to your madness

Create a targeted strategy for your search and organize your time by doing the following:
  1. Compile a list of companies you are interested in and rank your interest level. I used a scoring system based on a scale of one to five to organize the companies I was targeting. This enabled me to prioritize my search and time. Each week, I would work on a mix of top, mid and bottom tiered companies. I typically would test new methods and practice my application and interviewing skills on the bottom tiered companies.
  2. Use task management tools to help you stay on top of your search. I used Trello to keep track of my search, but even a tool as simple as Excel can work.
  3. Manage your time so you do not get burnt out. Set a fixed amount of time to dedicate each week to your job search. Having a finite amount of time can create a sense of urgency and motivate you. Productivity tools such as Toggl can also give you a snapshot of how you are spending your time.

3. Leverage your existing network

Early in my search, I reached out to my friends and asked them to introduce me to anyone they knew who worked in technology. Through this, I was able set up over two dozen meetings with various tech professionals. Many of these second degree contacts connected me with product managers who worked at their company. This was a great way for me to learn about various tech industries and the hiring process at different companies. If you have a list of companies you are targeting, utilize LinkedIn to see if any of your existing contacts are connected to someone at that company.

4. Get caffeinated

Have coffee chats with product managers and employees at companies you are interested in.
Photo credit: Drew Coffman

Be prepared for these meetings with some questions about the company they work for and their experience. Do not think of these opportunities as dry business networking, and instead figure out ways for you to bring something to the table. For example, are they working on a side project you have some domain knowledge in and can offer advice, or do you have contacts that you can connect them with?

5. Do your research

Always be prepared for any coffee chat, informal interview and formal interview by researching the interviewer, company and industry.

Some topics I always researched prior to my meetings included:

  • What products does the company offer and how do they fit each other?
  • Who are the customers and what is the market?
  • What is the company’s business model? I organized my research by completing a business model canvas. For startups, I used a lean canvas.
  • What do customers love and hate?
  • Are opportunities still on the table ? Are there any secondary untapped markets?
  • Who are the key people in the company?
  • What are some current challenges the company is facing and how would you solve these problems?
  • What is the company’s mission statement and culture?
  • Has there been any recent press? Why not?

6. Get into their shoes

Have empathy for the employer and recruiter.
Photo credit: Camila Damasio

If you were in their position and received multiple requests for meetings and applications daily, how would you decide which applicants to reach out to? Got an answer? Cool, now go do it. For me, I would want an applicant that put in the effort to build genuine connections. As a result, I sought out ways for me to add my personal touch to my search by sending hand written thank you notes and follow up emails with articles and resources I mentioned during my meetings. Instead of solely using LinkedIn to reach out to new contacts, I used tools to find personal email addresses. I also attended meet ups organized by product managers I wanted to meet so that I could introduce myself in person.

7. Shine bright like a diamond

The application process is very competitive. Experiment with how you can demonstrate your skills and passion for a role in way that will make employers notice you.

During my search, I dedicated a day and a half each week to building out case studies for my dream companies. This was very time intensive but I had fun brainstorming new strategies. For example, I completed an analysis of how to improve Pivotal Tracker’s on boarding process (read my case study here) and shared it with their product team. For OKCupid, I crafted my resume in the format of OKCupid’s user profile and leveraged a project I had completed previously on dating apps to demonstrate my interest. Although, I ultimately did not land a product role at either company, I was able to get out of my comfort zone, practice my PM skills and form new connections.

8. Do more

The job search process can be a roller coaster ride. A great way to keep your sanity during your search is to get involved in a meet up, work on a side project, pick up a new skill and/or blog.

Examples of side hustles I worked on during my search:

  • Completed online courses on Treehouse and Code School to learn the fundamentals of HTML, CSS, Javascript and SQL. If you are not sure which languages to learn, take a look at which languages your dream job’s products are built with and learn those.
  • Enrolled in a 100 day UI design challenge.
  • Formed a weekly book club to discuss technology focused books.
  • Attended various tech meet ups including the ones hosted by ProductTank.

9. One is a lonely number, do not do it alone.

You will encounter rejection during your search and it might be difficult to stay motivated. Fight the urge to give up by having an accountability partner.

I was fortunate to have multiple accountability partners that I met with regularly. During our stand ups, we went over what we completed that week, any blocks or challenges we faced, brainstormed together our next steps and practiced for interviews. Having an accountability partner is a great way to gain insight on how to improve your search and to have an outlet to express your frustrations.

Late in my search, I also participated in a beta testing session of Tribe of Five which connected me with four other aspiring product managers. We each committed to completing at least thirty minutes daily to our job search and shared our progress with the tribe. To learn more, visit tribefive.me or email better@tribefive.me.

10. Do what works for you

Find your job search product market fit.

At the start of my search, I was focused on uncovering the one correct formula for landing a product role, but after speaking to various product managers and learning about their diverging paths, I uncovered that what I needed to focus on was doing what worked for me. It is helpful to gather advice, but it is up to you to interpret what that advice means to you. A tip that I received consistently from everyone I spoke to was to focus on securing a role through networking. Ironically, I landed my current role by applying to a position posted on LinkedIn.

Final Words

You are a continuous rough draft. Keep an open mind, fearlessly iterate, diversify your search, put in the time but also take breaks to recharge, don’t take it too personally and forge your own path. Product managers come from all walks. Enjoy your journey.

Safe travels…
Photo Credit: Dylan Gianlanella