Why and how I transferred my career from finance to product management

After college, I worked in financial services industry. Colleagues around me love what they are doing, and many people are trying to get into it. I did what I should have, and was not bad at it, as numbers and analysis are not hard for me, but besides, I couldn’t say that I really enjoyed it. My supervisors in different teams (I was in a management trainee rotational program) gave me two big projects. One project was about pre-IPO funding for which I had to do a lot of financial modeling, due diligence, and third party negotiation. The other project was about a new banking platform integration which was very critical internally. The first project deprived my sleep a lot, but I did enjoy it, especially when I was learning about their business and thinking of the ways to make it more operational efficient. The second project gave me huge pressure, as I was the most junior person in the team but my role was project coordinator, and I knew nothing about banking system before this project. I learned hard and fast to catch myself up on the progress and earn senior people’s trust. I found myself very interested in and good at understanding complex technical issues and software for institutions. After these two projects, I couldn’t go back to my routine financial analysis and credit advisory job without thinking about another possibility of my career.

Not sure though, I went to business school, hoping to find my way. To figure out, I did different internships, from data analysis to corporate marketing. I liked them, but didn’t feel that is it. At the same time, I kept talking to people. Starting from the end of first quarter until graduation, I looked for alumni from school’s database and on LinkedIn, sent emails or LinkedIn messages for informational interview, and talked to 2–3 alumni every other week. Things were getting clear: I gradually got to know there was a function called Product Management, learned about it from different people, and thought I might be a good fit to that role.

Excited about this finding, I started to apply for product manager jobs. However, as someone without a technical background or tech industry experience, no one wanted to give me a try. Luckily, a startup offered me an academic internship opportunity, but I had to start from business development associate with high possibility of transferring to product management. I took it, did it well as business development associate, and decided to come back for full-time. As I did more business development, I found myself a bit stuck in it, as people would more and more think you should do this, than taking the risk to let you try something new. After I finished the fund-raising project, I decided to do something proactively, so I persuaded a product manager to let me try a new module design. He was my business school classmate and we used to work together at school, so he somehow believed that I could do it. I took the project and did it very well. Starting from there, I officially became a product manager and have been working on many challenging products.

Product manager is the title of a role in technology companies. Getting it might be easy for some people, but might not for people like me. Even before I started it, I questioned myself a lot, as I got rejected so many times. I am very grateful of the opportunity that product manager offered me, as to him, this was a huge leap of faith. Saying “Don’t give up and keep trying” is way too cliche, though true. There are many things we can do (I have done or should have done) to make the transition easier:

  1. Don’t pursue a goal for the sake of pursuit. Maybe we like it because of our ego, not what we really enjoy doing. So take a pause and figure out what we really want is important and helpful.
  2. Try the things that can give us the transferable skills Plan A needs. Maybe a side project, or maybe a project at work that is not originally our responsibility. We might have to pay extra efforts and gain little, but we got the experience and skills as exchange.
  3. Sometimes a Plan B can get us to Plan A at a later time. Similar to running a company, pivot could be the right decision to do, but we need to have a good judgment on the differences between gritty and stubborn.
  4. More importantly, we have to devote to Plan B and do a good job before we get the chance to work on Plan A. Many times, we see the efforts exerted but not much effect. It could be the accumulation is not yet enough to have a significant change in nature. If we keep doing what we should do, opportunities might be somewhere.
  5. Find the fulcrum (an opportunity, or a person) that could give us a lift, and grasp the opportunity to do well. Finding the fulcrum/opportunity needs us to be proactive, not just wait there. Also, opportunities might not show up fancy, but something we can add value to and also leverage on.

Last but not the least, accomplishing Plan A is just the start of a new and challenging journey. We have to be prepared and keep trying hard. For me, I didn’t expect being a product manager is that hard (worth another blog for it), so I fail a lot and learn a lot at the same time.

There are quite many ways to become a better product manager. Numerous articles and even courses are about it. But I have something to share based on my personal experience:

  1. Learning by doing is not enough, and failure is not valuable unless we reflect on it hard. Reflection is hard because our minds want to escape from it, and practically it’s not easy to gather information and have the right conclusion regarding why things have happened like this. Accept our own emotions and let them go, listen to what others say, gather information and validate if possible, have a framework to analyze it, and be open-minded to the conclusions. No need to be perfect here, as we can iterate in the process, so having hypothesis is good.
  2. Talking to product managers (we can send messages on LinkedIn) in other companies and learning about how they do things are extremely helpful! There are also some online forums about product management. Some issues we are struggling with have been encountered by someone else before and there are already effective solutions. Of course we need to see if those solutions are applicable in our entity, but this is a good enough starting point.
  3. Product management is such a broad description of a job which varies among companies based on type of business/product, size of team, and other factors. No matter what it looks like, product management can cover different areas, e.g. design, project management, data analysis, market research, customer services. No one can be good at everything, so we need to figure out the one or two areas we want to focus on.
  4. At a higher level, product management is about understanding humanity and how technology can add value to it. Product intuition is the ultimate judgement of a good product manager. Being sensitive to industry trend, maintaining the curiosity, and having a good understanding of different products are good indicators of product intuition. An important understanding is product intuition is not what we are born with, but can be cultivated through continuous systematic training, e.g. product analysis, market analysis.

In the past two years, I had more frustrating moments than joyful moments, but I still feel that product management is the thing I want to do and can do well. Every day, there is something new I can learn about or a new problem to tackle. It’s never boring:) Particularly, when the customers share with me how our products make their work more efficient, the joy surpasses all the difficulties throughout the whole process. When I share the feedback with other teams internally, and see how satisfied they feel, there is another wave of joy. It’s a tough job, but worth it!