From pork bellies to product management
Making the switch from finance to product
Aside from the great learning experience and amazing friends that I got from my first job after college, I also get to tell people that in a past life, I was a commodities trader (agriculture futures to be exact, e.g. corn, soy, hogs, cattle). It always causes raised eyebrows, being a somewhat untraditional starting point for someone who’s now a product manager at a SaaS company building HR software.
For context, I studied operations research and financial engineering in college. After graduation, I worked in finance at a small proprietary trading firm for a year and a half before moving across the country to join Intercom as their first data analyst. After 2.5 years at Intercom, I joined Lattice as their second engineering hire, where I now work as their first product manager.
There are many different ways to get into software product management from other industries. A common and successful way to make the transition is to get an MBA and then apply to PM jobs at Facebook/Google/Amazon/other large company that regularly recruit from business schools. But, maybe for whatever reason you don’t want to get an MBA, or maybe you’d rather work at a smaller startup (post-MBA PMs more often than not end up working at large companies.) Or maybe you already work in tech as an engineer, designer, or product marketer. I hope my experiences doing the switch “on-the-job” will be helpful to those people as well.
Start with what you know
Despite what you’ve read about there being a lot of transferable skills between finance/consulting and product management, it’s going to be hard to find a company (especially a startup) that’d hire a product manager who didn’t have some experience in product development. And unlike software engineering, where people without direct professional experience can get hired from their work on side projects, it’s a bit hard to dabble in product management on the weekends, especially when important skills like managing a relationship with a sales team can’t be found in an online tutorial.
But luckily, if you work in finance or consulting, you’re probably a great candidate for a lot of other roles that startups desperately want to hire for! Because I already had data analysis skills, I focused on roles in analytics or data science teams as I searched for my first job in tech. But if you’re an investment banker, look for financial analyst roles. If you’re a management consultant, look for roles in operations. And so forth.
It will take time
Because you’ll have to spend time in other roles before landing a PM role, whether you go the MBA route or the on-the-job route, nothing is going to happen overnight.
I quit my finance job in March 2014 and started working as a data analyst at Intercom. I did that for a year before switching to a product engineering role on their growth team. I was an engineer for the rest of my time at Intercom and for the first eight months at Lattice. All in, that’s over three years from leaving trading to being a product manager. From a pure time perspective, it probably would have been faster to get the MBA (though it was certainly cheaper to not). Which brings me to my next point…
You will have to work a lot
The topic of working hard (and long) has been a popular but thorny topic of discussion in the tech zeitgeist. Neither of the startups I’ve worked at valued being in the office every night till 11. But the reality remains that if you want to achieve unusual goals, you have to work unusual amounts. The people who are letting you do a job you’ve never done before will feel better about the situation if they know you’re dependable and willing to work hard to figure things out.
For a while at Intercom, I was essentially doing two jobs during my transition from data analyst to engineer. The team still needed analytics support and we hadn’t backfilled the role yet. At the same time, I wanted to prove that I could keep up with the feature commitments I made towards our weekly sprints. For four months, I worked a lot of weekends and 11 hour days.
There are usually many people who want to transition between roles at a company, and teams only have the capacity to mentor a limited number of people. If you work in finance or consulting, chances are you’re no stranger to long hours. Use that tolerance for the grind to learn more and be faster than the people around you.
Make sure you’ll like the job
For better or for worse, I think there are a lot of qualities about product management that make it very attractive to smart, motivated, but ultimately confused people.
I’m not suggesting you need to have had a long burning passion for products to be a product manager (though I’m sure it’d help) but you should know realistically what the role entails. For as enticing as being the “CEO of the product” is, there are just as many people out there saying “it’s not as glamorous as you think it will be.” And trust me, all that becomes very apparent as you’re setting up your company’s JIRA instance or when you have to be the one always saying “no”.
This is a case where spending time in roles that are adjacent to product management is very helpful. It’ll expose you to product managers so you can see if their day-to-day life is something that you’ll actually like doing.
Move toward roles that are closer to the product
Be deliberate about moving closer to roles that will bring you closer to the customer and the product. If you are technical, spending time in software engineering is probably the best way to transition to product management and be successful afterwards. Knowing how software is built is an invaluable asset when you’re working with engineers or trading off impact and difficulty. If you’re not technical (and don’t want to commit the time to learning), customer success/customer support positions are great positions that bring you in the trenches and expose you to exactly what customers are experiencing day in and day out.
And when you do make the jump to product management, do it in the same company. It is infinitely easier for people who know you and the quality of your work to take a chance on you compared to people you have no relationship with.
Do the job anyways
There’s an oft quoted saying of how responsibility is taken, not given. Once you’ve gotten close to the product development process, take it upon yourself to pick up tasks that a PM would do: volunteer to write help center articles, participate in design review, sit in on customer calls. Think about how your company’s product could be better and give feedback to the PMs.
Tell your manager or other leaders at the company that you’re interested in working in product. Your manager isn’t a mind reader, so you have to let her know what you want. And you’re much more likely to get what you want if you’re doing that job anyways.
Outside of work, read — yes, read the establishment startup and product canon but really just read anything. Twitter can be huge time suck, but I find that if you follow the right people, there’s no better source that surfaces already curated reading material.
Try out new products and be an early adopter whenever you can. Think about why you like certain product experiences and what makes other user flows confusing. I like to describe a PM’s job as making a very large amount of small decisions every day, and you need to develop opinions and taste to make those decisions.
An addendum: Be really lucky
I’ve worked hard over the last 3 years, but I’m very, very aware that a large portion of it was due to luck: lucky to be in a position where I could take risks in my career, lucky to have found great companies with people I could learn from, lucky to have encountered leaders and managers who were willing to take a chance on me.
There’s no such thing as the perfect role for anyone, and to be honest I still have no idea what I want to do with my life. But comparing the way I felt about my job while working in finance with how I feel now as a PM, the difference is night and day. The most important thing that I’ve learned from this journey is what it feels like to enjoy what you do for a living. Because once you know what that feels like, you never want to lose that feeling again and that is what will drive you towards the right things.