2a. Challenges transitioning from the business world

I’m coming from the business world – help?!

This is the first of a few chapters that specifically address those who are currently in a business role (perhaps working in an industry like finance or consulting, or perhaps working in a business function of a tech or non-tech company) who are seeking a PM role.

Let’s get an uncomfortable truth out of the way: as a member of this group, you are unfortunately not very unique right now. For a variety of reasons, right now the tech industry is hot, and there seems to be a swell of interest in product management. Coming from the business world, there are a lot of things that seem appealing about a PM role: it doesn’t require coding, feels a bit like a managerial job, is somewhat prestigious (your tech friends assure you), and seems to offer a mix of becoming a functional generalist and a topic area specialist. What’s not to like about that?!

Some of those reasons are more nuanced, and will be covered in other chapters of this guide. Others are definitely true and are a key reason why PMs love being PMs. But, the facts we’re  dealing with here are that a) you are from the business world and want to get into tech and b) this is a popular thing that many people are trying to do right now.

It’s going to be an uphill battle

The fact that PMing seems to be hot right now leads to this immediate consequence that we have to acknowledge: transitioning from the business world to PMing is going to be an uphill battle. It’s a simple consequence of a relatively low supply of PM jobs and a relatively high demand for those jobs.

But, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and hundreds if not thousands of people have made this transition before. We’re going to cover some different topics around this transition to help you first understand what to expect, and second improve your chances of making the transition successfully.

Think about it from the company’s point of view…

As an applicant for a generic PM role, think about what the hiring tech company is trying to determine. There are a few main questions that they probably want to get some comfort around.

Is this person actually interested, or just following a fad?

Tech companies all know that a PM role is desirable right now, and they’ve probably received dozens of applications for the spot they’re trying to fill. A fundamental question the company is trying to figure out is whether you’re actually interested in the job. For somebody who’s already a PM at a different company, this interest is taken for granted. But as someone from the business world, it’s a relative unknown.

This means that the burden is on you to do the necessary legwork to show that you’re actually interested! We’ll cover more specific tips in the next few chapters, but you can show true interest in any number of ways. Reading various websites or publications about the tech industry is an easy place to start (perhaps a prerequisite). Understanding, at a high level, the technology behind current trends is also helpful. Finding areas of tech that you’re excited about and digging deeper into those would also be great for your chances. You certainly don’t have to become an expert in any given topic or technology, but the more you can speak to your interest in the industry, the better your chances.

It’s important to note here that your interest should be genuine. You could certainly fake the interest and treat a lot of the above suggestions as homework. But, not only will your interviewer will likely see through it, it’s also a somewhat bad sign about how much you’ll enjoy the job. If you really want to go for a PM role, make sure you like the industry and the content you’ll be dealing with first.

Is this person potentially qualified for the job, or at least a quick learner?

Someone reviewing your resume will be looking for signals that you are interested in and can actually do the job of a PM. Is there anything in your work history that’s related? Even if you’ve never formally held the title of “PM”, there’s some chance that you’ve worked on projects where you’ve had PM-y responsibilities.

Working on new product development has a clear link to product management, especially if you had to work cross-functionally. Projects involving using feedback from users or customers to develop specs for what needs to change or get built are also similar to PM projects. Working on projects only with people from your same function are weaker as evidence.

Experience demonstrating other kinds of soft skills could also be helpful – anything involving influencing others, building support for your case, keeping a team aligned towards a goal, managing cross-team priorities, etc. Anecdotally, it seems that management consultants often work on projects that involve some of these soft skills. However, a PM application can’t rest on the laurels of soft skills alone.

There is one skill area that does not really demonstrate your qualifications for a PM job: financial or other kinds of heavy quantitative analysis. Building a complex financial model definitely demonstrates intelligence and competence, but is not very useful for a PM, both because it’s a relatively solitary activity and because PMs rarely build those kinds of models. If this was a major part of your work experience, you should feel free to mention it, but it probably won’t be very additive to your application except in very specific situations (e.g. the company is hiring a PM specifically to help oversee an acquisitions push).

Even if your past work experience is not perfectly aligned with a PM role, it helps to demonstrate that you’re a fast learner, especially when it comes to technical skills. Many PM applicants have some kind of engineering or technical degree from college, even if they didn’t go into that area for work. Other PMs go the route of learning how to code, either via self-guided learning online or through a formal class (a later chapter will specifically cover the idea of learning how to code for a PM job hunt). These are all useful signals about your ability to handle the technical content knowledge that will be required of a PM, so it can’t hurt. The real question then becomes whether how much investment in one of these activities is worth the time and effort.

Will this person fit in culturally?

Tech companies care a lot about cultural fit. The smaller the company, the more important it is that a new hire fits in well. Any resume screener or interviewer will be looking for signals about cultural fit, so you should be aware of how you come off (both in writing and in person). (However, don’t forget to be authentic!)

Culture will vary company to company, so a bit of recon work is often helpful (i.e. asking around about the culture of a company). Generally speaking, tech companies are more relaxed, especially when compared to consulting firms and definitely when compared to finance firms. But, while a tech company may look relaxed from the casual dress code and the “fun” office decor, it may be intense about shipping product, hitting company goals, and growing. So, it’s still useful to get a sense of the culture of the company before going into an interview setting.

Those coming from business roles might also want to be cognizant of the interviewers’ biases when first meeting you. Tech firms are not like consulting firms and definitely not like finance firms. Don’t show up to a tech interview wearing a suit unless you’re absolutely sure that’s the norm at the company; business casual might even be a bit too much. You don’t want to come off as “too business-y” – don’t throw around jargon or namedrop your previous firms or clients. Instead, try to show a dose of humility, a bit of nerdiness, and an earnest desire to learn, and you’ll probably come off as more relatable. (Again, disclaimer here that tech companies can have very different cultures.)

Coming from an MBA program

Many MBA students from a finance or consulting background think about using the MBA to transition to tech and product. Let’s be upfront about this: there are some benefits of using an MBA to make a career switch, but it is by no means guaranteed, and you will still have to demonstrate your interest and ability to a hiring firm.

Many MBA students think the MBA is a free ticket to switching industries. This is generally not true. Consider for a moment that there will be many students in MBA programs across the country who will be going after the same kinds of jobs as you. That group of candidates will have its own distribution of relevant prior experience and relative fit for the job. If you’re coming from a pure business role and do not demonstrate special interest in tech or relevant work experience, then you will still be at a disadvantage for PM jobs relative to your peers.

There are a couple of advantages to being in an MBA program as you try to make this career switch. One is that the largest tech firms might have structured recruiting programs for PM roles at your school. This makes it a bit easier to get your resume in front of those companies, though for small and medium-sized tech companies, the job hunt will still be more reliant on your initiative and networking.

The second advantage of being in an MBA program is that you ostensibly have more time for learning about the industry, working on a side project, networking with people in the tech industry, etc. This all can take up a lot of time, time that’s harder to find when you’re still working full-time in a job.

A topic which comes up frequently is whether there’s a stigma against those with MBAs in the tech industry. The answer is: sort of. Tech firms are definitely willing to consider hiring MBAs, and there’s plenty of precedent for MBAs with the right backgrounds taking on product roles at tech firms across the size spectrum. There seems to be a correlation between size of the tech company and willingness to consider MBA graduates for PM roles. However, aside from a general suspicion of cultural fit (“All MBAs are arrogant and filled with hot air”?), MBAs also tend to be expensive salary-wise. This makes it a bit harder for a startup to consider an MBA, but also for an MBA to be fully happy with an offer from a startup.

So in short: an MBA is neither a guarantee nor a pure advantage when trying to transition from a business role to a PM role, but it does buy you time to prepare.

There will be an adjustment period

Preparing for the PM job hunt is all well and good, but if all turns out well, don’t forget to prepare for the transition to a tech job as well!

Say all you want about the consulting or finance industries, but one advantage they do have over tech is structure. Small and medium tech firms will not have the same kind of structure and support that you might be used to from another industry. For example, there is likely not a set career path of a set number of years in a given position before one should “expect” to be promoted. All kinds of internal systems may be more nascent at a smaller tech company, and part of your job as a PM will be to help identify the most important processes to build and actually help to create them. This is not to say that you’ll be setting up payroll, for example; but, you could very well be the first person to push for a certain benefits program, or company bonding events, or weekly all-hands. At a smaller tech firm, it’s all hands on deck, and you shouldn’t consider any task beneath you. A lot more of your time will be spent on “figuring things out” on your own – not just in terms of company processes, but also in terms of what the heck it means to be a PM at that company. Ideally, if this is your first PM role, you should try to go somewhere that has at least one other, more senior PM who you can learn from.

Larger tech firms, however, will have structure, although perhaps not of the type you’re used to. If you’re coming from a business role where you mostly interact with people within the same function (e.g. consulting or investment banking), you’ll be surprised at how much more complex interactions can be when you deal with coworkers across different functions. The good news is that larger tech firms will probably have more established processes for PMs to follow, although tech firms tend to be more open to tweaking and improving processes over time; this is again something that a PM could have substantial input into. Remember, though, that big tech firms are still fundamentally big firms; there will be more hierarchy and process than at smaller firms.

As a final note, it’s important to point out a subtle mindset change. If you’re coming from a role like consulting, investment banking, or investing, chances are that you were the “center” of your company, from a cultural, revenue-generating, and pecking order point of view. At the tech company, there’s a decent chance that PMs do not occupy the same position in their companies. There are plenty of tech firms that are engineering-centric, design-centric, or business-centric. As a PM, you’ll still have the opportunity to influence change and set direction across functions, but just be aware of organizational dynamics in your new role.