How to transition into product management
Prior to business school, I was a management consultant working in international development. In my role, I worked with multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, and other public and private sector organizations on projects with social/environmental impact goals. My career transition has intrigued a lot of people including an experienced interviewer who surprised me by asking: “It looks like you wanted to change the world. Why gaming?”. To which I began by saying, “Who says gaming cannot change the world?”.
In the ensuing conversation, I pointed out an array of use cases mobile gaming serves including entertainment across socio-economic levels, age and gender, a platform for expressing creative talent, an engaging educational medium, and as inspiration for countless products outside of gaming. I elaborated on how gaming pushes the boundaries of imagination and simulates collaborative, social environments through cutting-edge product, game and graphic design.
The simplicity of the answer belies the absorbing nature of soul searching that preceded it. I had spent the last 6 months reflecting on my life journey to chart out a path that is authentic to my values, interests and goals. It will be presumptuous of me to think that I have answers to all your questions, but I will share two broad lessons based on my experience.
1. Choose focus over an opportunistic approach for long term success.
a. Pick areas and companies you are passionate about.
As someone who was starting out with a blank slate in the tech world, I found it useful to question my own motivation. Why this product or company? What about it inspires me? Product roles often require prior product experience, or maybe computer science/engineering degrees or industry specific experience. However, your ability to outperform is influenced by your passion for the product, a sharp intuition for what might create user delight and an insatiable curiosity to learn more about the user. I had classmates who worked in the music industry or have been theatre enthusiasts and have gone on to become PMs at Netflix and Spotify. Passion for the product and an ability to empathize with consumers will not just help you interview better, but will set you up for success subsequently.
b. Choose roles/products that disproportionately value your spikes.
Typically, candidates are evaluated on one or more of the following: analytics, design, project management, strategic thinking, technical know-how. Project management and strategic thinking are necessary everywhere but gaming for example, has a strong emphasis on analytics and does not require technical degrees or know-how (only a healthy interest in the same). For example, if you are a data-geek, roles in gaming will play to your strengths. You have a better shot at success if you play with your strongest suit.
c. Once you have a list of roles, cultivate relationships that can help you apply and prepare.
Most companies in the bay area prefer referrals more than any other recruitment channel. Referrals are known to surface high quality candidates and subsequently lead to better employee retention. Find strong first or second degree connections that can vouch for you. Don’t miss any opportunity to network or discuss roles with hiring managers. I personally did not do enough of the latter, but hiring managers manage the initial screening and depending on the company could be highly influential in the hiring process.
2. The right mindset can keep you on track and prevent burn-out.
a. Treat rejection dispassionately (easier said than done!) and use it as an input into your evolving strategy.
With little direct or adjacent industry experience, I did see rejection more often than I saw success. Many of my applications did not make it past the resume screening process. And my first couple of interviews didn’t go beyond 1-2 phone interview rounds. However, these failures taught me some important lessons about recruitment strategy, including items I mentioned above, better positioning my experience, or simply showing me that I was under-prepared. Tennis star Maria Sharapova says in her new biography: “Every loss teaches you something. The quicker you learn from the losses, then forget about the actual losing, the better off you will be.” Do a quick analysis of an interview or application you failed, if possible talk to the hiring manager about how it went, try as much as possible to be honest in your assessment of yourself, add a to-do if needed and then forget the interview. Move on.
b. Figure out what you are optimizing for. Your job search is unique to you.
As career-switchers, you are probably looking for a fast learning curve and mentoring over career progression, compensation or work-life balance. It is not uncommon for people to compare themselves to peers or get swayed by someone else’s take on where to get hired. Don’t lose sight of your personal goals, and optimize for the same.
c. Keep an open mind.
Product is only one of many paths one could take to be successful in the technology sector. Do remember that a product role is just a means to the end, not the end in itself. It is more important to land an opportunity that allows you to can pursue your interest AND be extraordinary at the job so you can deliver outsized impact.
Finally, as you go ahead with you search, remember to also enjoy the process. Career-switching is difficult but the good news is that there are plenty of good opportunities out there. Companies benefit from a wide range of ideas and opinions and a good majority like to maintain functional diversity in hiring. So they are always looking for someone like you!
Pallavi Jayannavar is a Product Manager at Pocket Gems, a mobile gaming company that has created several top-grossing free-to-play games. I joined Pocket Gems after graduating from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. This article is a reflection on my career transition into product management with no previous background in technology or product.
Also read: How I Got A Marketing Job At Lime