Recently, I’ve been advising students and recent graduates. A common consultation request I get is to discuss career transitions, given that I landed in Product Management without the typical background of computer science and business.
I hope that my experience is helpful to folks looking to switch functions or industries.
Here are some of the interesting transitions I’ve done so far.
- Chemical engineering degree to consulting
- From system integration consulting to management consulting
- Consulting to customer success at a startup
- Customer success to product management at the same startup
Transition 1: chemical engineering undergrad to consulting
This one is simple to explain. Most people don’t realize that consulting firms aren’t looking for management and business gurus for their Associates/Analysts straight out of undergrad. Many consulting and finance companies, such as Accenture, hire a significant amount of engineering students as consultants for their analytical skills.
The trick for this one? Convincing the firm that you will be prepared, confident, and comfortable when working with a client. I find that the analytical portion of the consulting interview process is easy for engineering students. The key area where engineering students blunder is in articulating their answers clearly in a way that showed they were ready to communicate with clients.
Storytelling is a crucial skill here. Often it’s not about what you’ve done; it’s about whether you can explain it to someone for the first time and make them feel a part of your story. Make them intrigued by the problem and ultimately happy and excited about your solution. Have them “feel” the pain you went through as you failed and then show them what you eventually learned from the experience.
Transition 2: system integration consulting to management consulting at Accenture
A key goal I had while at Accenture was to learn about management and business. I joined Accenture initially as part of their System Integration & Technology Consulting. This was a great start since it leveraged more heavily the analytical skills developed during my engineering education. However, Accenture also has a Management Consulting practice, which I realized would help take my learning opportunities in the management and business side to a new level.
The trick is, just like a promotion, a company needs to have justification for approving an employee’s transition from one role to another. There are several factors that the company has to consider:
- Track record: this is the most important. A company is unlikely to invest in transitioning you to a new role and helping you thrive in the position if you aren’t already performing well on an existing function.
- Skillset: does the employee demonstrates having the right skills to perform well in the new role? For any missing skills, can the employee reasonably develop them in a short period?
- Headcount: do we need additional people in the role the employee wants to transfer into? Can we more easily replace their headcount on their current position?
- Transition cost: moving an employee to a new function always has costs—training in the new role, disruption to their existing team, etc. The company needs to consider all this.
So, how do you overcome all this and justify the transition? In my case, it took two key elements: (1) a strong performance track record and (2) senior management support.
The strong performance track record was possible because I clearly understood what the company expected of me. I clarified the company’s established responsibilities for my function, not just for my level but also for 1 and 2 levels above my existing one. That is, as a Consulting Analyst, I was ensuring that my work didn’t meet or exceed the analyst requirements, but instead, I looked at the Consultant and Manager ladders and tried to meet or exceed those as well. I often checked in with my manager and looked for opportunities to replace low-impact work with other more impactful work.
The senior management support was correlated with the performance track record. By becoming known for being able to solve problems thoroughly and help managers, senior managers, and executives started to come to me for special requests or side projects that I could help them. Since I was diligent about saying no to low-impact, irrelevant work, I often had the additional time to help with these critical requests.
At the time I was intent on moving to Management Consulting, I had a set of performance ratings ready to back me up. More importantly, I had several members of the senior management team ready to make a case for why I should be granted the transition. My transition to management consulting was approved a few months after my request, thanks in large part to these two elements.
NOTE: all that I mentioned above also helped with transition 2b, relocating from the Accenture Boston to the Accenture San Francisco office (which has a higher demand, thus hard to transition into.) An additional step I took there was to ask Senior Managers I knew from the Boston office to introduce me to partners in the San Francisco office. Thanks to their endorsement, the partners in the SF office agreed to talk to me and later supported my case for a transfer.
Transition 3: Consulting to customer success at a startup
This includes several transitions, which is the point I want to illustrate. Sometimes, you need to make several smaller, adjacent transitions to land the position you will be happy with ultimately. This was my experience here.
I was happy as a consultant at Accenture. As I mentioned in the above transition, I had various supporting senior managers & senior executives, had roles I enjoyed, and a good track record. For a while, I thought I’d stay in consulting forever. However, a part of me didn’t want to miss out on tech. However, I was puzzled, how does someone with a chemical-biological engineering degree and a few years of consulting experience joins a startup in the tech world?
I owe a lot of gratitude here to a great recruiter who pinged me at just the right time on LinkedIn. He wanted to talk to me about a role at a tech startup. At the time, I was busy and didn’t respond. However, he followed up a week later at just the right time for me to look through the company website and realize that the team working at the company was terrific, and I’d be lucky to join that team. I interviewed and got into the company as a Product Engagement Manager. This was very similar to a Customer Success Manager role, which I knew wasn’t the last stop of my career. However, it allowed me to use my enterprise client skills I had acquired as a consultant to help the startup while, in return, I could learn about the product, technology, software as a service, and startups.
Once at the startup as a customer success manager, the story of how to transition to Product Management was very similar to transition 2. The specifics may have varied, but the framework was the same. I had the same barriers to overcome — and the same strategy to overcome it. Say no to low impact work, focus strongly on deliver high quality, high impact results, get strong performance reviews, help out executives in work related to my target function that helped me develop new skills and, ultimately, get executive support to transition to product management.
Due to the nature of startups, however, timing can be a bit more unpredictable. It could have been the case that new positions in Product Management, my target function, wouldn’t open up for 1+ years. I saw that happen to other people seeking to transition. However, the experience and learning opportunities, plus executive support, I gained while pursuing the transition would have been valuable regardless of whether I accomplished the transition while at that company or in a future company.
One thing I’d add is that for this specific transition, there was more of a skills gap that I had to narrow down, so I had to be deliberate about the new projects that I helped out with. I focused on projects that were high impact, but also helped me develop the skills I was missing for product management.
Top learnings on how to transition job functions
The key learnings that I’d abstract out of all my transitions so far are:
- It ultimately boils down to senior management and executive support. If they are convinced that you can do an excellent job on the new role, they’ll invest in you.
- The easiest way to convince management about anything is data – an excellent track record proving that you deliver reliable results and can learn the skills required to succeed in the new role.
- The best way to deliver those reliable results are to (a) understand your role expectations, (b) say no to low-value work to free up time for high-impact work, (c) aim to deliver excellent results 1-2 levels above your current level’s expectations.
One important factor I failed to talk about, but it’s a simple one, is that you should never forget that people are just that, people. Ultimately, they will be more likely to help you if they think you’re fantastic, which is just as much about your personality as it is about the results you deliver. Simply put, be kind and genuinely care for others as you do great work. A competent ass is still an ass.