More on Transitioning from Consulting to Product Management
A few years ago, I wrote about my experience transitioning from Deloitte Consulting to Product Management. Since then, I’ve spoken to over 50 current and former consultants from many different firms (MBBs, Big 4, Tech, Boutiques) and levels (Partners, Consultants, Analysts, Interns).
Below is a summary of the common questions I get asked about transitioning from consulting to product management.
I don’t have a technical background, will that hurt my chances of becoming a software product manager?
No (and yes). My previous engineering manager at Microsoft would say that being too technical or too much of an engineer hinders the ability of a product manager. You end up thinking too much like an engineer and it creates a bias on how to solve a user or customer problem. It also causes a lot of headaches if the product manager tries to dictate “the how”.
The caveat to this is that if you don’t have some technical grounding, your life will be more difficult. It’ll be hard to get trust from engineers and difficult to assess tradeoffs in product development. There are tons of articles about this specific subject (I think this one sums it up well).
My advice here for consultants that worry about this — do as many hands-on, introduction books. Like, “Building your first web application using React” or “Introduction to Python”. These books assume the reader has limited technical knowledge. And as an added bonus, it’s actually a lot of fun!
Should I try to transition to a role that works closely with product managers?
Most consultants would transition more naturally to roles such as customer success, business development, or finance. And more often than not, most product managers need to work with these different groups. Although this might not be a bad move (especially if you are tired of the consulting grind), it’s not guaranteed you can transition to a product role later. Anecdotally speaking, it’s usually engineers that transition to product managers.
As with anything in life, if your passion is to be a product manager, then don’t settle for anything less.
Are you really the CEO of the product?
I think Ben Horowitz’s quote needs revision, as it seems to be misinterpreted. Do you know who the CEO of the product is? It’s your customers because they ultimately drive the decisions. Unless you are both the actual CEO and head of products, you are not the CEO of anything.
Actually, I take that back. You are only the CEO when the product fails and someone needs to take the blame. In that scenario, yes — you are the CEO.
What makes a good product manager?
Outside of the fundamental product manager skills, all great product managers have their own style and preferred products based on their strengths (similar in consulting when you start developing industry or functional expertise). And if you want to be great, you have to quickly narrow and double down on developing these strengths. For example:
- Being an external or internal PM — Product management has an aspect of business development, especially if you are trying to find early adopters. This requires going to conferences, customer visits, and giving presentations. You are painting the vision of what the product can do for users. As a contrast to this, some product managers prefer to focus their time and energy on execution.
- Level of knowledge on technology, data, and analysis — Are you a “computer” nerd? Did you have world-class data and analysis training from a top-tier management consulting or investment banking firm? Do you compete in spreadsheet competitions?
- Types of products, features, or users — Think Facebook News Feed versus Intuit TurboTax. This can dictate your style and level of involvement in different areas. Kit Ulrich wrote a good breakdown of the 6 different “types” of product managers.
- Product maturity — Do you like shipping v1 or driving products that have passed the product-market fit phase and are ready to grow? Both have their pros and cons. Both are needed for any successful product.
- Industry, function, or none of the above — Some product managers never move out of a certain industry or function. They continue to ship different products but only in Retail or HR. Others might prefer the challenge of trying new things.
As for me, I tilt toward being an external PM. I’m definitely a computer nerd (and I like to think I have mad Excel skillz). I love building deep “power user” types of products. I can’t imagine myself shipping anything but v1 (I’m addicted to chaos). And because I’m addicted chaos, I enjoy trying new things (from Microsoft Workplace Analytics to Unity ML-Agents 🤔)
Did I make the right choice?
The short answer — absolutely. Although, there are certain aspects I miss. For example. Dealing with difficult and high-pressure client problems. Breaking down the work with microscopic precision. Executing flawlessly. Getting the high when your team actually pulls off the impossible and win over the client’s trust. Of course, there’s the points and status too.
Luckily — I still get these experiences as a product manager.
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” ― Albert Einstein
Thank you for reading my article. Are you a current or former consultant and considering moving to product management? Would love to hear your questions, feedback, or experience.
Special thanks to my employer, Unity Technologies, who provides all new fathers a significant amount of leave. This allowed me to get some needed time to reflect and write this article.