Even with a strong business-oriented background, product management wasn’t always on my radar for my career.
My last major career transition moment was at the end of my MBA. I had failed to found a start-up. I had a painful student loan and a US student visa valid for just one year post-MBA. I had to find work quickly that would help me grow and make use of my problem solving and execution skills, so I joined a consulting firm. It was a great opportunity to polish my skills, create impact, and explore various industries to discover what I really wanted to work on in the long term. It was interesting work with brilliant people, but something was missing.
After some time, I was introduced to the Product Management World by Joaquin Richards, who was working at Nubank, a digital bank. He walked me through his day: he worked with diverse and cross-functional teams of designers, engineers, and business analysts, and together they would turn an idea into a product that improved customers’ lives. Compared to traditional post-consulting roles, such as Business Operations Manager, Strategy Manager, or Private Equity Associate, being a PM sounded like an opportunity that would push me out of my comfort zone and fulfill my dream of growing a start-up through a different lens. A couple of months later, I transitioned into Product Management, and so far I am loving the journey of growth from my consulting roots.
If you are a consultant looking for a career transition, hopefully I can help you draw the roadmap for a successful start.
What does “Product Manager” mean?
A Product Manager is a Jack of All Trades. I really like the way Vivek Bhupatiraju, PM at Springboard, defines it in the book “Product Management Essentials”:
“A product manager is above all an advocate for the user. Their primary responsibility is to ship the right product and get it in the hands of the intended user base. Find a problem, design a solution, and find a way to translate that into a product that’s easy, effective, and complete.”
One of the biggest differences between a consultant and a product manager is that as a consultant you are not “above all an advocate for the user”, but a True North guide who answers their most challenging questions. Although you are helping the clients and providing them clarity, you charge a fee to the client for the work you do, you work WITH the client to make things happen, and you usually switch clients every 4 months. As a PM instead than being a guide you are working towards improving the user’s life (they usually don’t know the work we do behind the scenes), you don’t charge them a fee, and walk with them along their whole journey, not just for the duration of the product development.
Another difference is the type of work you do. As a consultant, the client’s pain points are usually business driven: client wants to grow sales, reduce costs, a Private Equity company wants to buy another one and wants to understand the target company’s competitive advantage, etc. As a PM, you are looking into real-life problems that you can relate to. Someone has a hard time understanding how their bank is charging them their fees, they are waiting way too long to get their questions answered on the bank’s call center, or they just want an easier in-app experience. I found the product manager’s impact more tangible and fulfilling.
What does a consultant bring to the table as a PM?
A product manager sits at the intersection of the customer, technology, and business. In general, consultants are strong in the Business/Strategy area. Key business skills I brought to my first PM role were:
- Strong analytical skills: will help you make informed decisions by analyzing data, impact on the customer, and interacting with other more analytical teams. For example, I work on a daily basis with Business Analysts, and having strong analytical skills helps me guide our workflows and state hypotheses to be tested.
- Business strategy: helpful to define the product roadmap, size an opportunity, and define the product vision.
- Prioritization and having an 80/20 approach: prioritization is a key skill for problem-solving. You will have many issues to solve with limited resources (time, engineers, designers, etc.). Being able to make quick back-of-the-envelope calculations and measure impact over resources needed in an efficient way will be critical for your success. Remember Vivek’s words from above: find a way that’s easy, effective, and complete.
- Being hypothesis-driven: at the beginning of product creation (ideation), you usually state hypotheses regarding which pain points you are solving, when will the customer use the solution, what is the value perception of your product, and as a result which will be the impact on your business. Being hypothesis-driven will be very useful for customer insights, understanding the user experience and roadmap, building surveys and primary research questionnaires, and designing tests and monitoring.
- Project management and implementation skills: these are your toolkit to drive the product from ideation to launch. Execution is one of the main tasks of a PM. For example, I am working with engineers on a daily basis to carry out product development, and being able to map the roadmap for your team and execute accordingly is an essential part of the job.
To strive as a PM, it’s essential to be able to prioritize with data, make informed decisions, and provide clarity to the teams you are working with. These skills, honed during consulting, will help you resolve the many user pain points on your plate.
When I started at Nubank, I booked meetings with people from different areas of the business and listened to what the customer’s pain points and problems were. Then I gathered data to measure how important each of those problems was, and what the impact would be if we solved them. After that, I spoke with the engineering team and analyzed how complex each of those solutions would be to build. With all that information, I mapped which pain points could be solved quickly with little effort, which were critical problems that needed to be addressed ASAP, and which were nice to have solutions but required a lot of effort and perhaps would be better to solve at another time. Thanks to this work, I now have a clear path for the next few months, I have aligned with the management team and helped them understand how the product roadmap aligns with our vision and goals, and also after testing the results, we will be able to predict the impact on the business and adjust our budget accordingly. Being an active listener, gathering people’s thoughts on pain points and solutions, and being able to make informed decisions is a great toolset to turn ideas into products in an easy, effective, and complete way.
Skills you’ll need to build
The key areas you will need to build up as a former consultant are the customer experience/design and technical pillars. Although working as a consultant was great training for the business strategy and project implementation side of the PM role, I am still lacking in the design and technical skills needed to excel.
As a PM, you will work with cross-functional teams: designers, engineers, business analysts, and customer experience managers, among others. To be able to align and empower teams to work towards the same goal — mine is to improve customers’ lives — you will need to understand how the different teams think, what their needs are, and provide maximum clarity to all the internal stakeholders. This will bring more meaningful conversations, more effective meetings, and ultimately better products. Something I am working on is speaking the same language as my peers, and understanding their thought process. Some of the activities I am doing to get there are:
- Taking an Agile course to improve my execution.
- Learning how to pull data queries to work better with Business Analysts.
- Learning how the back-end and front-end architecture work and communicate with each other.
- Learning some computer programming language at a high level to be able to communicate with engineers more effectively. I am starting a Clojure course in the next months.
- Working together with a designer and UX researcher in product discovery.
Experiencing things first hand is the best way to narrow that gap. Even if you are rusty the first time, getting out of your comfort zone and doing some technical or design exercises, getting feedback, and iterating until you get it right will do wonders for you. For example, in my first weeks at Nubank, I shadowed another PM in daily stand-ups and Retrospectives with engineers. What I admire about the more experienced PM was their ability to communicate effectively with diverse experts in design and engineering. When I asked them how they learned, they told me: ask about everything you don’t understand, get feedback, and iterate. I followed their advice, worked hard to emulate their execution, and after some time I started to lead daily stand-ups and retros myself. Although they are not the best retros or dailys in the world, I am working on the feedback I received and getting better over time.
Do Your Homework
Lastly, but most importantly, invest time in yourself and your transition into Product Management. As consultants, we are experts (or at least pretend to be) at primary and secondary research. These skills will be very helpful for figuring out if being a PM is the right path for you.
Before getting my PM job, I spoke with other Product Managers about their day-to-day experiences, what they loved and didn’t love as much about their jobs, and how to prepare for interviews. In addition, I read product management books, Medium publications, and other sources of information. As a former consultant coming into the PM world, I am still reading books, learning to code and analyze data, and scheduling meetings with other PMs and even shadowing others to get the best ramp-up possible.
As a PM, I am experiencing what I loved about being a consultant, and much more. I am solving people’s problems, working hard to improve their lives, and I still have room to grow and learn. I am also working with talented and diverse individuals whose thought process and needs differ from mine, learning at a hockey stick speed, and getting the most tangible impact I have gotten in my life. Just thinking that every product I build will impact +15M customers, and make their lives better, makes me want to go to work every morning with a smile.