Product Manager and modern-day Alice in Wonderland. https://saratortoli.substack
A while ago I posted on my LinkedIn profile a brief intro of the talk I gave in June in front of the Product Managers community at Zalando about how I managed my career change and transitioned from a Sales position to a Product management one.
To my surprise within a few hours from sharing that little sneak peak of my story, I received a lot of personal messages, both from colleagues and people outside of the organisation that I have never met before, asking the following questions:
“How do you become a Product Manager?” “What did you do to get there?”
While writing the answer to those messages I started to realise that I actually picked up quite a few useful tips and tricks along the way, which most of the time I learned the hard way through trial and error, and I figured that maybe my personal experience might be of interest for those who want to succeed in changing their career in general and becoming a Product Manager in particular.
So if I managed to capture your interest, here is my personal story of how, already in my 30's , I attained one of the most sought after position in the job market today without having any previous formal experience in the role, turned into a little recipes article just for your benefit.
It might sound cheesy and you might skip this to jump immediately to the juicy stuff (it’s coming, I promise you) but first things first, you should know your goal and what motivates you to reach your goal. It’s as simple as that: if you know what you want and why you want it then all things are possible.
Professionally speaking, I found myself struggling more then once to feel the satisfaction I needed in order to push through the day to day tasks, and if you are reading this blog post about career change then my best guess is that you are also seeking something that will make you feel more rewarded and fulfilled.
Because I couldn’t quite figure out the answer to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” and most important why I wanted it, I ended up changing positions and roles for all my professional career, jumping from one thing to the next, before I finally managed to stumble accidentally into Product Management.
Once I crossed path with it and started to understand the role, I became utterly fascinated and for the first time in my professional life I was completely sure that that was the career I wanted to pursue.
Here is the reason why Product Management is so special to me: it combines some of the things I love the most and I feel I can give a strong contribution in. As a Product Manager I can be insatiably curious, I can utilise my imagination and observation to find technological solutions to problems and/or emerging needs and communicate with a lot of people, all at the same time. It is too good to be true.
So now that I got my goal and motivation covered, the question was: how do I go about landing a position in my 30s without even a stitch of previous formal experience in that role?!
Like all the things you are inexperienced with and are interested in learning, you need to start by covering the basics. In my case that meant reading everything I could get my hands on. Now you can follow my example and also lose yourself in research, browsing from Medium to Hackernoon and comparing every book recommended on Amazon on the topic by reading all the reviews ever written on it. Alternatively, you might consider starting from my recommendation below. Among all my readings and browsing I found that top 6 resources that have helped me the most to understand what Product Management is and have prepared me for the role are the following:
How To Get Into Product Management (And Thrive) by Lenny Rachitsky
All the product resources you’ll ever need by Micheal Williams
Inspired by Martin Kagan
The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen
How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie
I have added this last title, a classic on communication by Dale Carnegie, because a Product Manager responsibility extend way beyond defining a strategy and a Roadmap to go with it, or grooming the Backlog.
One thing that I quickly discovered in fact is that oftentimes PM = PR (aka Public Relation). A Product Manager is expected to lead without having any formal authority and to align management and stakeholders around his/her strategy for a successful product, therefore your ability to communicate effectively and influence the outcome of meetings toward your intended goal is of the utmost importance. Bottom line is you can be sure your interviewer (that is once you land an interview) is going to test your communication skills.
As an added bonus, in case you struggle a bit in this area and the thought of public speaking (which you will end up doing a lot) makes your knees wobble, a good idea might be to sign yourself up for some performing arts classes such as acting or improvisation, which will help you to manage stress and expectations during meetings. I know that my past as a ballerina and stage experience has helped me a lot in managing stressful situations and find the confidence I needed.
Finally to close off this second recipe, here comes the question that torments every aspiring PM: MBA yes or MBA no?
It is known that some companies have a penchant toward candidates that have attained an MBA. As I have recently earned one I can only speak from personal experience and say that it has helped me in preparing for my career change in several ways. Besides learning “hard skills” such as writing a proper Business Plan or make a 5 year financial forecast, it has given me a more independent working style, enhancing greatly my presentation skills and strengthening my overall professional confidence. It might help you as well, especially if your background comes from fields of studies other than Business or Economics, and this is because an MBA gives you a broader understanding of how an organisation works at large in all its parts, as well as some of the tools that you need if you want to succeed in the role. That being said, having an MBA doesn’t mean you are going to be automatically a great PM, but for sure it might make your life easier.
Although technically you still have to become one, it is time to practice and start thinking like a Product Manager would. Look around and ask yourself: “What are the low hanging fruits that are around me?”
For instance, take your own organisation, what does it have to offer that could benefit you and bring you closer to your goal? Usually large companies give their employees a large array of benefits, like an internal job portal or some form of tutoring.
For example Zalando, the company I work for, offers a Mentorship program, where employees can sign up and are paired with more experienced colleagues to be mentored in a certain area, which could be totally unrelated to their current job function.
Mentorship is truly a powerful tool and can give you so much on both personal and professional level, therefore even if your organisation doesn’t formally offer such a program you might still consider looking around and ask a more experienced colleague to mentor you.
If your organisation has tech teams in residence get in contact with at least one of them and ask to shadow their projects and to contribute in any capacity you can in your free time, even if this means that you will end up skipping your lunch breaks or staying an hour or two longer than you usually would. The practical experience that you will gain from this, will definitely compensate every sacrifice that you make.
Beside benefits such as the ones mentioned above, there is another reason why I suggest that looking at your own organisation first could be a good strategy: simply put, it is much easier to transition internally than selling your “inexperience” outside in a highly competitive market, and if this is true for most jobs, it is undoubtedly so for Product Managers.
Inside your own organisation you might in fact be able to leverage your existing network to support you in this change, to find an internal sponsor that can promote and vouch for you, such as your Mentor and the team that you have shadowed, attesting that although your experience comes from other fields, you have all that it takes to succeed in the role, a task that might be easier said than done if you try to prove this externally to someone who is just seeing you for the first time during the interview process.
If in contrast you are on your first job or there is no opportunity to transition internally, there are other routes you might want to pursue, like attending local meetups and events centred around Product Management and Entrepreneurship, as well as specific PMs conferences, like Mind the Product or Productized.
The advantage of attending such gatherings, which I personally recommend no matter what your circumstances are, is that you learn a lot of what is “hot” and out there, while at the same time start building your personal network (more on this below) and pick up some of the jargon used in the field.
The relationships you cultivate might be the fundamental keys to your success if you are aiming for a career change. Answering the following question is of the utmost importance: “Do I have the right contacts/connections? If so how can I leverage my network to get closer to my goal and if not how can I acquire the connection I need?”
As mentioned above, events and conferences are a splendid way in which you can expand your network base, trying to be curious and meeting as many people as possible. Even more important than making connection is following up with the people you meet, so that you are actually building the foundation for your change. This of course applies to your own organisation as well, cultivating good working relationships with colleagues can only help you, especially if you are planning to move internally.
By setting this strong foundation and by talking to your network you might come to know and have a heads up when an opportunity presents itself, which leads us to a key element: timing.
Like most things in life, also in your transition toward a Product Manager role timing is of the essence. This doesn’t mean you need to wait for all the stars to align in order to apply for the job, only that you need to lay the foundation and create the situation that will allow you to be at the right time and in the right place, which is why networking and attending conferences and events is so important in the first place. You will truly be amazed of how much information you can get if you are willing to listen to people and maybe the chance you were waiting for is right there, waiting to be seized.
Of course a career change move wouldn’t be complete without talking about your most important tool, your resume. So the question is: how do you make your resume attractive to recruiters even though you have no formal experience as a Product Manager?
Admittedly recruiters are going to scan your resume (or a software will) and the first thing that they will notice is that the “Product Manager” job title is suspiciously missing from it. There is unfortunately nothing that you can do about that (and I highly recommend that you avoid lying), however take heart because there are other things that you can do to seriously increase your chances of landing an interview. Here are a few pro tips from my personal recipe which apply for everyone who is considering a career change:
Take time to read all of the job descriptions that you can find that resonate with you and you would like to apply to.Among the job descriptions you have read thus far, select the top 4 or 5 that you liked the most and start looking for patterns. What are the most asked for requirements for a PM? What are recruiters looking for?Start clustering your results around the main pillars. An example of pillars could be communication, business strategy, tech acumen, stakeholder management and so forth. For each pillar write down the most sought after traits and possibly copy the passage from the job descriptions you have selected to use as a reference. It’s time to take a look at your resume: is there anything in your past working experience that is similar to the results you obtained from your clustering exercise? If so is there anyway that you can rephrase it to make it more appealing to the recruiters? For example you might have launched your own product in the past or worked closely within your organisation with a tech team and shadowed them in their processes. Rewrite your resume if necessary with your newly found knowledge in mind. Try to put yourself in the recruiters perspective and think about what they are looking for and how are you the right person to get the job done.Prepare your (short) cover letter and elaborate more on why you are a good fit for the role and what will you do to grow into it and help the company. If you are attending regularly Product meetups and conferences/workshops go ahead and mention this as well, it shows willingness and motivation and recruiters usually love that and they are mostly curious about career change and the motivation behind it.Have someone else read both the job description you want to apply for and your resume to get an honest feedback. Is what you have written clear enough? Most important, is it relevant for the recruiters?
If the answer is yes, then congratulations, you might have a good chance to be contacted! It is fair to point out that although you have proven on paper that you have all that it takes to excel in the role, chances are that recruiters might still prefer (understandably) someone with a formal product experience, especially in a position as demanding and critical as is the role of a PM.
A good strategy therefore might be to apply for a lower position if needed, such as a more junior role. There will be plenty of time to show your value and grow in your new position once you have landed the job.
Congratulations, you have covered all of the above and finally managed to land your first PM interview! Now, how do you prepare to face a PM interview?
Well this is the time where all your previous reading and studying actually come in handy, so you might consider taking a double look at those before the interview. Additionally I would highly recommend the book “Cracking the PM Interview: How to Land a Product Manager Job in Technology”.
As mentioned in Recipe #2, besides the technical knowledge, communication is a key part of the PM job, therefore your interviewer is going to carefully evaluate your personality as much, if not more in certain contexts, than your “hard skills”.
One thing that might make the difference is to remember to be humble and transparent about what you don’t know. As counter intuitive as this might sound , it is actually what made the difference in my case compared to more experienced candidates competing for the same job. Product Management is a very demanding profession in which you are expected to have pretty much everything covered and figured out at any given time. Cheer up because you are not a PM yet, therefore you might want to be transparent about things you don’t know yet but you are willing and eager (that’s the most important part) to learn in the future. Your interviewer also knows that you are coming from another background so they won’t expect you to know everything, but they will for sure try to assess how fast you will learn and if you are truly willing to do so, so prepare to bring a lot of passion and enthusiasm to the table.
Finally a brief mention regarding your mindset prior to the interview which can truly make the difference: visualise the successful outcome of the interview. I imagined myself answering successfully all of the questions during the interview and getting the job so many times that somehow it became a self fulfilling future.
Visualise the same for yourself and you might be pleasantly surprised about the outcome of all your hard effort.
Wishing you the best of luck for your career change!