Advice

Breaking Into Product Management From a Non-Technical Background

From time to time Co.Lab hosts training programs to help people – especially those from non-traditional backgrounds break into tech so they understand that there truly are no limits to what they can do and that your background doesn't necessarily need to hold you back. Here are six things we learned from one of such events with Diego Granados, a Product Manager at LinkedIn.

Tiwatayo Kunle
June 22, 2022

Gone are the days when it was pretty much compulsory to have, say, a computer science background before you could go into Product Management. Diego tells of a lady who played professional basketball for 10 years and then became a product manager and a man who had been an opera singer for 40 years before moving to product management. You belong in tech okay?! So here are a few things you should keep in mind as you pivot to Product Management from a non-technical background.

1. What matters most when you’re trying to get into PM is your story

The reason that people are able to break into tech without a Computer Science background or Software Engineering background or even without an MBA is that they were able to craft their story in a way that makes sense. What that means is that they did some things in the past and they talked about the skills they learnt in that ‘unrelated’ thing in a way that’s relevant to Product Management.

In Diego’s case, his previous job as a consultant working with customers, engineers and designers had so many parallels to product management that when it was time to switch he could reel out quite a number of product manager duties he had already been performing.

Yet, irrespective of whether the switch is from something not too distant from Product Management like consulting or something as farfetched as opera singing, it is very important to translate that to your story. Use those stories to tell about yourself, to answer questions like “why do you want to be a product manager?” “why do you want to work here?” Or even behavioral questions in an interview such as “tell me about the time you had to deal with difficult customers.” 

You might have been a bartender which means that you dealt with customers, received feedback, took note of the problems customers had with the product, and solved them. It does not matter that these skills were gained via bartending. What matters to recruiters and hiring managers is that these skills are relevant and transferable to Product Management.

2. Reflect on what some of these keywords in product management mean to you

Perhaps you don’t think you have the skills to be transferred because you're still a student or you’ve been in a very unrelated industry for a really long time. Here’s a hack – try breaking down the Product Management keywords.

For example, a ‘customer’ does not have to be any person buying things from you. It could be an internal team you were servicing within your organization. Or you think you’ve never planned a ‘Roadmap’. However, if perhaps you’ve made a three/six/nine month plan for your year, that’s a roadmap. 

You might have never run agile sprints but at some point you’ve broken your work down, submitting portions of the work as they were ready and making changes along the way- that’s the experience in agile methodology that you didn’t even know you had.

Yes, these are simplistic definitions of these terms but ultimately, the spirit behind them remains the same as it would when applied to Product Management.

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3. Do your Research

I like a fast-paced environment with a lot of unknowns. Does that mean that I should join a startup? Do I like the big tech corporation that is more established but likely slower than a startup? What kind of technology do I want to work with? Do I like more of the frontend or backend consumer experience? Do I want something very specific like web3, blockchain or things like that? These are vital questions any pivoter needs to ask themselves.

Once you start figuring those things out for yourself, then the best thing you can do for your career is to talk to as many Product Managers as you can from that industry. Because the concept of the product manager as the one who drives all the initiatives and talks to customers; sets the vision and the strategy and creates the roadmap; influences engineers and designers;  carries out the user research and all that you might have read that are wonderful about product management, may not be true for that industry. You need to arm yourself with information in order to make the best decision for you. 

As a newcomer, you really cannot go wrong with seeking out information on the Product Management field. As is often mentioned, Product Management is nebulous therefore in order to come to the best possible understanding of the demands of the job, what company fits you best, how to stand out, you have to read everything you can lay your hands on and speak to anyone willing to speak to you about Product Management. Knowledge is definitely power.

4. Stop preparing your resume for yourself

The resume is for the hiring manager. Thus you have to make it easy for them to look at your resume or your LinkedIn profile and see these transferrable skills. Sometimes the way the resume is set up can make the hiring manager say “yes, I see your experience as a Personal Assistant and I know you’re going to do a good job as a Personal Assistant” but what would be better would be to mention the relevant things you did as a PA that will make you a good Product Manager. 

So including specific statements such as “While working as a PA, I made this deal happen for X million dollars by…” or “I did this financial analysis for X market” and “I raised this campaign for 1 million budget in marketing” is an excellent way to give the hiring manager all the relevant information at a glance.

Hiring Managers and recruiters are vetting hundreds or even thousands of candidates. Get yourself noticed by putting forth the details you’d like them to know at the forefront of your profile and don’t assume that they’ll reach out to you for clarification.

5. You don’t need to build the ‘next’ anything

In moving to Product Management, you need a game plan and that plan need not involve competing with Airbnb or building the next cool, viral app for people to download. The plan can be volunteering, working on a side project or building your own product. The projects could be something relatively inelaborate such as a podcast, a blog, a newsletter or a vlog. 

What you’ll very quickly realize is that there’s nothing that’s actually ‘simple’. Regardless of the project you decide to take on, you’ll have to talk to users, they're going to give you feedback, everyone's going to have different preferences, you’ll need to adjust to the market, you're going to proffer hypotheses, maybe you hit a wall, you’ll need to change direction, and then you start writing in a different way, you're gonna get more feedback, then you're going to need to grow your team. 

You may hire developers, editors, content writers or whoever is going to help you.  Now you need to manage people, then you're gonna keep growing and expanding, testing and iterating. And at the end, you're going to have a ton of stories of how, by doing this side project, you not only gained experience in the industry but also transferable skills into product management. It takes time, it takes grit and it takes patience.

6. Look internally

Say you’re looking to move to Product Management and you're currently working a role in project management or program management or marketing or finance. You can shadow Product Managers in your current company and learn from them.

You can approach them and say that you’ve noticed the work they’re doing and are interested in an opportunity to shadow them perhaps on a customer call. You can offer to take notes, recaps of meetings or spend time relieving them of some tasks that will reduce their load and increase your knowledge.

After doing that for a little while, you can ask for more responsibilities until you gain confidence and are convinced that you can do the job because you’ve been shadowing the Product Manager. And companies notice this. They notice people willing to work and those putting in the work and all things being equal, they do not forget about them when it’s recruitment season. Or, as always, you gain the transferable skills you need to tell your story to other companies if you so decide.

All the above lessons culminate into what Diego considers the most important thing that Product Managers need to do – keep learning. Whether you’re an established Product Manager or looking to transfer from a non-technical background, you cannot build a product by yourself. Products work within an ecosystem and Product Managers need to see the bigger picture. In his opinion, the worst PMs are those who come into the room assuming they know everything – you always have to learn. So keep learning, do your research, keep building,  craft a good story and put your best foot forward as you prepare to take on Product Management.

You’ll make it - you belong in tech.

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