5 Tips on Transitioning to Product Management from a Business Background

Product Management is a tricky field to enter. Colleges don’t offer a major for it, Associate PM programs are rare (especially at startups), and most companies only hire PMs with previous product management experience. This Catch-22 is frustrating and best summed up by the pithy words of Mos Def — “Why do I need ID to get ID?”

I was fortunate enough to stumble into Product Management despite graduating with no idea what I wanted to be when I grow up. After stints teaching high school math (rewarding, but I was terrible at it) and management consulting (liked traveling, hated PowerPoint), I joined PayPal as a data analyst. I figured that even if the job was boring, at least I’d be working in the rapidly-growing industry of digital payments, and I could parlay that experience into something better down the road. Luckily, it turned out that I loved trying to decode customer insights with data (even SQL!), but transitioned to Product to play a more direct role in solving users’ problems. Since then, I’ve been a PM at two different startups, and spoken to many people trying to make a similar transition.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to landing your first PM job, but here are a few tips that might help:

  1. Figure out if you actually want to be a PM. This sounds like incredibly pointless advice (“Why else would I be reading this post?”), but it’s less obvious than you think. I’ve had countless would-be PMs tell me they want to get into Product so they can be mini-CEOs and tell people what to build. Spoiler alert: reality is far less glamorous. I do endless research (qualitative and quantitative) to figure out what users want, spend long hours talking to stakeholders to build consensus, and take the blame if we don’t deliver impact. If you’re cool with that, then by all means, read on.
  2. Consider transitional roles that will help you get there. Few companies are willing to hire PMs with no experience, but many are willing to hire entry-level customer service reps, account managers, sales people, and analysts. Apply for these roles to get your foot in the door, learn as much as you can, and make the case to switch after a year or two. At the same time, don’t be blatant about using this job as a stepping stone to another one. Excel and prove yourself first before broaching the topic of switching to Product. If you’re mid-career, you may also have to take a pay cut or a demotion along the way, so be prepared to temporarily check your ego and quality of life.
  3. Maximize time spent with customers. As a PM, your job is to be the voice of the customer, so focus on transitional roles that will allow you to interact directly with users. For instance, if you are currently working in sales at an investment bank, consider sales for an enterprise software startup. From there, listen to your clients’ feedback and problems, identify trends across multiple clients, and work closely with the Product and Engineering teams to prioritize and address the feedback. In another example, one of my colleagues started as a customer service rep at our company before becoming our Facebook community manager, then finally an Associate PM. She not only understands who our customers are, she has incredible empathy for what gives them joy and pain — invaluable knowledge for a PM to have.
  4. Establish relationships with people who can help. Once you are building experience that’s relevant to becoming a PM, reach out to people in your company who can help you achieve your goal. Set up monthly 1:1s to introduce yourself to leaders and peers in Product Management, Product Design, and Engineering, learn what they do and understand why they make certain decisions. Find a mentor familiar with product development (not necessarily your manager) to give you candid feedback on what other skills you still need to develop. Having allies across the company who can speak on your behalf will make it easier when a PM role opens up, and you’re ready to make the transition.
  5. Read, learn, and build on the side. Even if you are not PMing a team today, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn about how to be a good PM. The Internet is full of amazing resources on the topic — check out this excellent curated Product Manual, Ken Norton’s weekly newsletter, and Julie Zhuo’s blog. In addition to reading, try to apply these skills to a small side project like a blog or a Shopify store, or just play around with quick-and-dirty wireframing tools like Balsamiq.

It took me a while to get there, but I am grateful I found my way to Product. It is a challenging, often-exasperating job, but I wake up every day excited to create experiences that give joy to our customers and a sense of accomplishment to our team. Good luck to those of you who are still on that same journey, and feel free to reach out if you have questions. It may take me a while to answer, but I’m always happy to help.

PS. This was my first-ever Medium post, and part of my 2018 New Year’s resolution to start writing more about my experiences. I welcome any feedback on my writing or content to make it better!

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