Can a Consultant Learn to Become a PM?
I was a consultant at BCG for five years before I moved into product management at Yammer just over a year ago. In this two-part series, I will share what useful knowledge and skills from my time in consulting I was able to reuse, and how I closed gaps.
The articles are organized around the classical framework business/technology/UX and the PM skill model communication/organization/execution described in this excellent article by Matt LeMay. This first part focuses on the former trifecta.
The purpose of these articles is to help current and former consultants in considering whether a PM job might be interesting, preparing for and getting through job interviews, and starting in a PM job.
Key PM domains: Business, technology, UX
The “textbook definition” of product management, if there is a PM textbook, is that it straddles the boundaries between the domains of business, technology, and user experience (UX). Whether the PM role has a stronger focus on one of these depends on the company — both driven by how the PM role is defined and what other roles exist in the company (especially in a startup setting). The PM role tends to fill any gaps that exist in the organization.
(Former) consultants are naturally stronger in some of these domains than others. I will describe my experience with strengths and gaps to be filled for each of the domains below.
Business is naturally the domain in which a former consultant has the greatest strengths. There are two aspects I want to particularly highlight: strategy, and understanding of markets and customers.
Strategy is the bread and butter of management consultants. Even in projects that aren’t per se strategy work, consultants are trained to think strategically. For example, competitive advantage is something that I think about quite naturally. This includes thinking through various business models and their implication on offering, organization, and go-to-market approach. Sure, the tech world has its own frameworks and idiosyncrasies, like disruption theory, network effects, or ad-financed business models, but ramping up on those is comparatively easy.
Understanding of markets and customers is something that a lot of consultants have built up. I am working in the B2B space, and having witnessed enterprise decision processes at all levels helps me with understanding business requirements, the dynamics of purchasing decision, and the politics that are at play behind the scenes. Similarly, in the B2C space, understanding the dynamics of an overall market, as well as being able to quantify market potential, is very useful to product strategy and prioritization decisions.
I have a degree in computer science, and had done multiple tech industry and IT projects during my time in consulting. Other (former) consultants might have had less exposure to technology. In any case, however, consulting is almost never a real technical job, so there are some points in the rechnology dimension that will be harder for a consultant to grasp than others.
Some companies require their PMs to be much more technical than others. As a consultant, unless you also have an engineering background, applying for one of those positions is going to be very difficult. Especially as a first PM job, it is probably better to stick with one that focuses on the other areas more.
For former consultants, the impact of technology on businesses and markets is probably easiest to grasp. In the B2B sector, you might have seen technology directly impact what your clients could and couldn’t do. Even in B2C, identifying trends and the structure of an industry will come fairly easy to you.
Working and communicating with engineers is another key skill that is critical for a successful product manager. While consulting projects might have involved working with cross-functional teams, as a PM you will typically develop more depth in the actual architecture of your product’s systems. It is very hard to recommend how to actually prepare for this, since it also depends very much on the exact product. However, a basic understanding of web technology (client/server, HTTP, HTML/XML/JSON, web services, databases) is probably valuable to build up for most products today. As a fresh PM, it makes a lot of sense to get overview of the architecture of the product and get a sense for how everything works and fits together.
3. User Experience (UX)
Typically, consultants have very little formal knowledge in user experience (making pretty slides doesn’t count!). However, some of the necessary requirements can be built up individually.
One of the more elusive skills of a PM is product sense, meaning the ability to reason about product goals and UX decisions. In order to build up and exercise product sense, nothing beats analyzing a lot of existing products and coming up with improvement suggestions for them. I did a lot of preparation in this area by reading through the excellent book “Cracking the PM Interview”, and doing regular product exercises as outlined in it. I also recommend the following article (shameless plug):
Product Teardowns at Yammer
Why we spend an hour every Friday talking about a different product
Another extremely important aspect of UX is user empathy, meaning being able to put yourself in the shoes of different users with varying goals and use cases of your product. You can of course think through this in theory, e.g. using some of the frameworks in the PM Interview book recommended above, but nothing beats talking to actual users in order to build up this empathy. These usability studies and user interviews very much resemble expert and practitioner interviews that are commonly conducted by consultants — you plan what you want to get out of the interview, write an interview guide with non-leading questions, and then execute the interview and try to observe how the user uses the product.
In the second part of this article, I am focusing on key product management skills — communication, organization, and execution — as opposed to the domains covered in this article:
Did you find this article interesting? At Yammer, we are striving for diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints on our PM team, and have hired multiple ex-consultants in the past. We are also hiring, so please apply! And please click the ❤ below, it helps others find this article!