My transition into Product Management from a ‘non-technical’ background 

It will soon be 3 years since I transitioned into Product Management full-time. Prior to that, here is what my résumé included.

  • Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering
  • Healthcare Consulting (3 years)
  • Customer Success Management (1 year)

I then transitioned into Enterprise Software Product Management at BloomReach, a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) company. It was particularly important to me to do Product Management (PM) at a company in which Software is the core product.

In my specific case, the opportunity to transition was a mix of preparation and luck. In this article, I want to highlight some of the more practical aspects of my transition. I want to offer it as one sample journey that didn’t involve going back to school for either Computer Science training nor an MBA.

Personal awareness and setting a goal.

The first step to transition into PM was being clear in what I wanted to do. Without this clarity of mind, I doubt that the transition would have ever happened. The reason I quit consulting to join a Silicon Valley startup was to learn how to lead in a startup environment. In particular, it was important to me to gain skills that would be relevant when building and growing a new company.

With three years of consulting experience and working in a Customer Success role at a technology startup, I had a great set of skills that helped me engage successfully with enterprise customers. I understood my customers’ businesses and could effectively position our product so that the customer crisply understood our value. I was fluent in business talk — talking to an executive about ROI, year-over-year growth, market trends, opportunity cost, etc. became second nature to me. Given this level of comfort, I decided that it was time for the next phase in my quest to build skills relevant to building and growing a new company.

At the recommendation of a mentor, I wrote down what I wanted to be able to deliver over the next year. My keen interest, I realized, was to gain the necessary skills to understand and influence the core product. As a software company, it is the product that carries the most weight in the success of the company. A PM is best equipped to influence the product and, I realized, the gap between my skillset at the skillset I needed for a PM job was centered around product design and technical understanding. Developing those skills was within my power — there are many great online resources for this. Also, working at a technology startup in Silicon Valley I was surrounded by brilliant minds that could assist me in the process.

Communicating my intent unambiguously.

Having clarity was crucial as a first step. The next step was more important. I communicated clearly and unambiguously my intent. I told my boss that I wasn’t interested in moving up the ladder within my current team, the logical next step in my career. Instead, I wanted to spend any of my discretionary time at work on projects that would allow me to transition into Product Management.

Some people within upper management were surprised by how candid I was on this point — it isn’t every day that an ambitious millennial comes to their manager refusing a potential promotion. I will admit, there was risk taking this step — I could end up not getting promoted within my team nor able to transition into Product Management. I considered this. However, if being clear on this point could aid, even in the slightest, my chances of moving into PM it was worth it.

Preparing for the next step through a project.

At the time, this wasn’t as clear to me as it is now. However, the most important next step was getting involved in the right project. Doing that wouldn’t have been possible, however, if I hadn’t spent my time closing some of my knowledge gaps on product and technology.

I spoke to other Product Managers and read up on the job. I also asked a lot of questions about how our product worked. A nice engineer gave me a quick overview of Hadoop and MapReduce. An Integrations guy taught me how to see in the web-browser when our JavaScript tracking pixel ‘fired’ and see if there was anything wrong with it. A product manager taught me how she worked with the design and engineering teams to define a new feature and sequence its execution. Our data analysts helped me get SQL Workbench setup on my computer and taught me basic SQL scripting to get data off of our analytics databases. Yet some other nice person taught me what an API call was, what it looked like, how it was executed, and how the customer would work with the response. Someone explained to me that the Cloud I spoke of was just a bunch of servers on Amazon Web Services (AWS). In my spare time, I did a few programming exercises in HTML, CSS, JavaScript and jQuery to better understand what the hell was going on when I browsed to a website.

All in all, this was a time of just learning the basics of many technologies so that I could build a baseline framework in my head of how our cloud product worked. This made me feel more comfortable talking about the product to customers and developers integrating our product.

I also found it helpful to learn about the software development process. Learning about Agile Development, scrums, PRDs and design tools was helpful in this regard.

I will be perfectly candid here, I was searching for a clear list of things to learn. I wanted something titled “The perfect guide to all things technical that you must learn to become a Product Manager.” I never came across such a guide. If you are looking for something similar, I find the following exercise to be more helpful. Just pick any service that seems interesting and learn about the components that were used to build it. For example, a simple search about how was Facebook built yields answers such as this and this. Also, kind folks over at Quora answer just about any question people have.

A project to showcase readiness.

The next step is where readiness and luck both played a role. A few months after I explicitly asked to spend my discretionary time on Product Management activities, an initiative with a top client came up. It was an initiative that required a mix of customer success, integrations, and product management skills. It also happened to be related to our new product, which I had spent my spare time learning about.

An executive within the company endorsed the idea of having me as the ‘glue’ between the customer and engineering for that initiative. The other Product Managers didn’t have the time to do this so I would work directly with the executive in charge of the product to deliver this initiative.

This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been clear with my boss about my intent to focus on Product Management. It also wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t done well at my primary function in Customer Success.

Ship and wait for the next opportunity.

Once on this project, it was a matter of dedicating all that I had to ensure that it was successful. I had to work with the customer to understand requirements and clarify prioritization, worked with engineering to design the product functionality, and do a lot of project management to ensure things were done on time. The project was executed smoothly and it showcased well.

Once this had been completed, the timing was on my side. The Product Management team had a few openings and it was only natural for me to transition into a junior role within the team.

A helpful framework

Many things could have been different in my story. I may not have gotten an opportunity within BloomReach to transition into PM, in which case I would have had to look elsewhere. Or maybe it could have taken longer. But, there were a few crucial steps that I strongly believed can help you also maximize your chances of a transition into Product Management.

Be clear on why you want to transition into Product Management and communicate it. Everything else is much easier if you have clarity of purpose on this. Be willing to give up other tempting opportunities to focus on what truly matters to you.

Take the risk and put in the time and effort. When I started learning more about the product, a Product Manager at BloomReach candidly told me that it was possible that an opportunity within BloomReach may never arise for me to transition into Product Management. However, not letting that deter me was key to continue focusing on learning and growing into what would eventually become my opportunity to move into a Product Management role.

Find a logical adjacent move to make. My journey into Product Management is filled with adjacent moves. From a bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering, I went into Technology Consulting. I had strong analytical skills but needed to learn business and project management. From there I moved into Management Consulting. I had good general business skills and financial acumen but could improve in Strategy and Business Transformation processes. This then opened the door to join a Customer Success team in a technology startup where I could contribute broad business skills and learn about technology and Silicon Valley. Finally, with this broad knowledge of business and diving deep into the product, the next adjacent step for me was the PM role.

Learn, learn and learn. All of these adjacent transitions were enabled by doing a ton of learning. I personally read up a ton about our products and the technologies that we used. A popular option in Silicon Valley is to build your own website or app. You can partner with someone who’s more technically or business savvy, depending on your skillset, and build a simple app or web browser plug-in. The process of figuring out what to build, what features to prioritize, how to build it, etc. will start giving you an idea of the product management process. You can also read other books or online sources. Here are a few I used.

Volunteer your time to help on your area of interest. This is how you find sponsors! Every transition I’ve made within a company, whether a company such as Accenture with over 200k employees or BloomReach with less than 150 at the time, came after a more established senior person endorsed my transition. When I moved from System Integrations consulting into Management Consulting at Accenture it was thanks to the endorsement of a Senior Manager I helped on my spare time. Moving into Product Management required the endorsement of my boss, an executive I worked with, and our CTO whom I had a chance to interact with thanks to the project I mentioned above.

I hope that this helps you in your journey. If it does, I’d love to hear from you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s