A while ago, I posted on my LinkedIn profile a brief introduction to a talk I gave in front of the Product Managers community at Zalando
about how I managed my career change and transitioned sales to product management.
Within a few hours of sharing that little sneak peek of my story, I received a lot of personal messages, both from colleagues and from people outside of the organization who I had never met before. They asked questions like:
“How do you become a Product Manager?” and “What did you do to get there?”
While writing the answers to those messages I started to realize that I actually picked up a few useful tips and tricks along the way, most of which I learned the hard way through trial and error. So here's how — in my thirties — I attained one of the most sought after positions in the job market today without having any previous formal experience in the role.
1. Know your Motivation(s) and your Goal(s)
This might sound cheesy and you might skip this to jump to the juicy stuff (it’s coming, I promise), but first you should know your goal and what motivates you to reach your goal in this process. 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 than once to feel the motivation I needed in order to push through day-to-day tasks. Because I couldn’t quite figure out the answer to the "What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, I ended up changing positions and roles for all of my professional career, jumping from one thing to the next, before I finally managed to accidentally stumble onto product management.
Once I crossed that path and started to understand the role, I became utterly fascinated. For the first time in my professional life, I was completely sure that this was the career that I wanted to pursue.
This is why product management is so special to me: It combines some of the things that I love the most and feel I can give a strong contribution to. As a product manager I can be insatiably curious, I can utilize my imagination and observational skills to find technological solutions to problems and/or emerging needs, and I can communicate with a lot of people (all at the same time).
So now that I had my goal and motivation covered, the question was became: How do I go about landing a position in my thirties without any previous formal experience in that role?
2. Do your research and prepare to study (hard)
Like all the things that you are inexperienced in 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 — browse Medium, Hackernoon and compare every book on the topic recommended by Amazon by reading all the reviews. Alternatively, you might consider starting with my recommendations below. Among all my reading and browsing, the top six resources that helped me understand the most about product management are the following:
I added this last title, a classic on communication by Dale Carnegie, because a product manager's responsibilities extend way beyond defining a strategy, a roadmap to go with it and refining the backlog.
One thing that I quickly discovered in fact is that oftentimes PM = PR (aka public relations). 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. The bottom line is that you can be sure that 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 like acting or improv. It will help you to manage stress and expectations during meetings. I know that my past as a ballerina and my stage experience have helped me a lot in managing stressful situations and finding the confidence I needed.
To close off this second lesson, here comes the question that torments every aspiring PM — MBA or no MBA?
It is known that some companies have a penchant toward candidates that have attained a 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 teaching me “hard skills” like writing a proper business plan or making a five year financial forecast, it has also given me a more independent working style, enhanced my presentation skills and strengthened my overall professional confidence. It might help you as well, especially if your background is in a field of study other than business or economics. This is because a MBA gives you a broader understanding of how an organization works as a sum of 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 automatically going to be a great PM (but it might make your life easier).
3. Take advantage of what your organization and environment have to offer
Even though if you haven't made the career switch yet, you should practice and start thinking the way a product manager would in your current role. What does your current organization have to offer that you could benefit from to bring you closer to your goal? Usually large companies give their employees a large array of benefits, such as 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 to be paired up with and mentored by more experienced folks in a certain area (which could be totally unrelated to their current job function).
Mentorship is a truly powerful tool and can give you so much, both on a personal and professional level. If your organization doesn’t formally offer a program like this, you might still consider looking around and asking a more experienced colleague to mentor you.
If your organization has tech teams, consider getting in contact with at least one of them and ask if you could shadow their projects and contribute in any capacity you’re capable of 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 for 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 organization 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.
Inside your own organization, you might be able to leverage your existing network to support you in this change or to find an internal sponsor that can promote and vouch for you. If, however, there is no opportunity to transition internally, there are other routes you might want to pursue, like attending local meetups and events centered around product management and entrepreneurship, as well as specific PM conferences, like Mind the Product
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. You'll also start to build your personal network (more on this below) and pick up some of the jargon used in the field.
4. Relationships and timing (aka how to carefully plan your move)
The relationships that you cultivate may be the fundamental key to your success if you are aiming for a career change. Answering the following questions are 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 connections I need?”
As I mentioned above, events and conferences are a splendid way in which you can expand your network. Try to be curious and meet as many people as possible. Even more important than making connections 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 organization 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 have a head start when an opportunity presents itself, which leads us to a key element: timing.
Like most things in life, timing is of the essence in your transition to product management. This doesn’t mean you need to wait for all the stars to align in order to apply for the job, but that you need to lay the foundation and create a 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.
5. Sharpen your most important tool, your resume
Of course a career change move wouldn’t be complete without talking about 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 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). But 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 that you would like to apply to.
- Among the job descriptions that you have read, select the top four or five 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. Examples 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 passages 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 any way 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 with a tech team within your organization.
- 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 you are 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 you will do to grow into it and help the company. If you are regularly attending product meetups and conferences/workshops, go ahead and mention this as well. It shows willingness and motivation, which recruiters usually love.
- 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 importantly, 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 experience, especially in a position as demanding and critical as that of a PM.
A good strategy 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.
6. Rise up, it’s time for the interview
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?
As I mentioned earlier, 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 to remember is 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 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. 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: visualize the successful outcome of the interview. I imagined myself successfully answering all of the questions during the interview and getting the job so many times that somehow it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Visualize the same for yourself and you might be pleasantly surprised about the outcome of all your hard efforts.
Wishing you the best of luck for your career change!