How I made the transition into product management from an MBA.

My path into product management was never straight-forward or clear, and even after working as a ‘product manager’ for a year, it took me some time to find a role in which I felt truly excited about the product I was building.

During my time in school, product management was definitely one of the less popular paths to pursue post-MBA. Resources were extremely limited to help students prepare for product management interviews, and tech companies were not as interested in recruiting for product managers on-campus like other roles (e.g., consulting, investment banking, operations, finance, etc.). Those [Chicago] winter months I spent preparing for interviews felt pretty bleak (yes, pun intended)— it was extremely challenging to see that light at the end of the tunnel, which continued to fuel my self-doubt. Before I dive into the off-beaten path I took for product management recruiting, here are some questions I’m frequently asked:

  1. Do you need an MBA to become a product manager? Absolutely not, but you can use your MBA as a differentiator — I will cover that more later on.
  2. Do you need to have a computer science background? No, but you should have sufficient technical knowledge to have a meaningful conversation with developers about the code base. All too often, I’ve seen non-technical product managers that couldn’t engage on the details in conversations quickly lose credibility with their developers. So take a few coding classes, and add those key words (i.e., C++, python, javascript, etc.) to your resume; it may not guarantee an interview, but it minimizes your chances of going into the reject pile.
  3. Why did you choose product management? Unknowingly, I had been grooming myself to become a product manager up until getting my MBA. It just took an enlightening conversation for me to realize there was a role out there that perfectly encapsulates what I’m passionate about. I was always obsessed with design, but afraid to fully embrace it as a full-time career. I found that product management allowed me to combine the best of my two worlds (i.e., design and building) to deliver products that could have a meaningful impact on my users.
  4. How do I get into product management? Let’s dive in!

I faced A LOT of rejection during the application process simply because I didn’t have any product management experience. Most companies were looking to hire candidates with at least 3+ years of product experience, which led me to start asking myself, “Why did I even get an MBA?” So how did I turn this experience around?

Network first, before submitting your resume. While this seems like a no brainer, don’t skimp on this process. I recommend saving your personal referrals for when you’re more experienced as a PM; you want to avoid exhausting your resources especially when there’s a high likelihood of blowing your interviews. Cold outreach on LinkedIn helps, but I’ve gotten interviews with a few YC startup CTOs because they were impressed that I somehow managed to reach them by doing the guesswork of what their work email is. Coming off as a hacker and hustler gives you a lot of tech credibility, and in many ways, this persona embodies a great PM.

Don’t just talk to other PMs only. Leading a product from start to finish depends on cross-functional teams aligning on common goals and coming together to build something. Take the opportunity to learn from engineers, marketing and design teams on what makes an effective product manager, too. It can really broaden your understanding of the role, and make you appear more well-rounded as a potential PM.

Go beyond case interviews. Assuming you’ve done your readings and perfected the CIRCLES method, put that into practice with real products (even better if you have access to the product for the company you are interviewing with). I spent a lot of time picking up random products and dissecting the decisions that were made — this exercise is even better with partners. I thought about what I would have done differently, and tried to rationalize the value it could have brought to both the end-user and the business. It’s never about cracking the case (in fact, there is no such thing), it’s more about displaying thoughtfulness and an intellectual curiosity when trying to understand the problem and prioritizing features to arrive at an optimal solution.

Get experience. I interned for a startup as a product manager, and used that time to build relationships and learn from seasoned product managers. If that option is not available, I recommend taking matters into your own hands and building a product yourself. Make friends with a few software developers, and build an MVP. It’s okay to feel embarrassed about your product, but think about how you would improve it afterwards. I can’t emphasize enough how valuable it is to collect experiences centered around product, even if that’s not your official title… yet — [insert winking face].

Don’t rely on your MBA to get your foot through the door. But once you’re interviewing, you can use it as differentiator. Great product managers prioritize both business needs and customer impact — your understanding of the first part is formally documented on paper, and you are also taking advantage of your MBA’s resources (i.e., Venture Labs, entrepreneurship programs, classes, etc.) to gain experiences around the second part. It can demonstrate your genuine desire to become a PM, which will always work in your favor during the interview process.

Best of luck!

Product and Design. Kellogg MBA 2016. Fellow yogi. Husky whisperer.