From Sesame Street to Silicon Valley - How I got a job as a product manager

A career changer's perspective

One of the most common questions people always ask, “How did you get into product management and how can I do the same?”

I’ll share my experience and thoughts on transitioning into the product management profession.

My own experience becoming a product manager as a career changer

My academic training was in business. When I was in college, my school was heavily recruited by investment banks and management consulting firms so these became the two fields that I had the most information on. However after four years of studying a business-focused curriculum, hours of networking with the banks and consulting firms, an internship at an investment bank, and working full-time as a management consultant, I knew both banking and consulting were not for me. Feeling a bit defeated, I did what everyone does when they felt lost — grad school.

I don’t recommend this long and expensive way for you to change your career, especially if you already know what you want to do. I didn’t. At the time, I had interests in art, product development, and education. I chose a program that was the most flexible in terms of course requirements and selection — I was able to take any courses at Harvard/MIT, and create my own major. The program led me to a job working in product and business development at Sesame Workshop, where I gained some experience in product management through launching Sesame Street’s first subscription video-on-demand service. At that time, I would say 50% of my job was what I would call product management given what I know today, such as understanding user needs through user research, defining the MVP, giving feedback on UX design, and launching the product. The other 50% was more around project management and being a general manager, such as hiring external design and development agencies, make buy or build decisions, own the P&L and budget, and work with partner platforms to expand our product.

At this period of my life, I went to many Meetups to learn more about digital product development. At one event, I heard about the book Inspired by Marty Cagan. After reading the book, I realized a lot of what I did fell into the product manager role. I was curious about what a product manager role was like at a tech company. I started applying to few PM roles and asked for referrals from friends at companies I was interested in. Surprisingly, I got a PM offer at Audible and the rest was history. My road to becoming a PM was not straightforward, and likely if you already have a career in another field, it won’t be for you either, but just because your road to A to B is more circuitous, doesn’t mean you won’t get there, it might take longer and be more interesting.

When I applied for my first official product manager job, I had no previous PM experience, no coding experience, or an MBA. So no, those are not requirements for you to become a product manager, but they are ways that have gotten some people into product management. Few common ways to move into PM for career changers with no prior PM experience I’ve heard of are listed below:

  • Moving to PM from a related role: Product managers wear many hats between business, engineering, and design, thus having related experience will certainly give you a leg up. Many career changers have moved from management consulting, project/program management, product operations, analytics, etc.

  • Subject or industry experience: If you have expertise or experience in a specific product or industry, you’ll have an advantage in applying for a product position in that product or industry. If you are a data scientist who has helped build your company’s data pipeline, it would be easier to show you have what it takes to be a data platform PM. If you are an investment manager, start with applying to be a PM for a finance/investment platform.

  • Internal transfer within the same company: large tech companies like Google or Facebook have official internal transfer programs for existing employees; smaller companies would also let you transfer into new roles and responsibilities.

  • Entrepreneurial experience: if you have startup experience leading a team or building a product, you likely already have the skills needed to be a PM. As many people say PM is the mini-CEO. Companies appreciate these experiences and would often consider you for a PM role.

  • MBA or related advanced degree: large tech companies recruit PMs both at undergrad and graduate level at certain target universities and have PM roles specifically designed for students.

Moving to PM with related experience in product development and project management certainly helped; my education degree and experience in educational products at Sesame Workshop also helped me move into a PM role for a learning product at Audible/Amazon. Having gone through the process, I have few tips before you start applying:

Research the PM role and whether it’s a fit for you

Marc Andreessen defined product-market fit as follows: “Product-market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” Similarly, a job-person fit means you are at a job that will satisfy you. What are some things you enjoyed about your past roles and experience, what were you missing? Will the product manager role be a fit based on your likes/dislikes/goals? The best way to answer these questions is through reflection on your past experience and also learning about the product manager role through online resources and talking to existing product managers.

Recognize your competitive advantage

What is your competitive advantage from your existing experience? For me, my education training and experience in launching a content subscription service were my competitive advantage. Thus I focused on product management roles for educational, media, and video products.

Identify your skill gaps

What are the required skills for a product manager, which ones do you already have, and where are the gaps? A good way to do this is to look at PM job posts and go through each of the required skills. For each skill that you don’t have, brainstorm how you can get these skills at your current job or through a side project. For example, I had experience hiring development shops and outsource the engineering work, but not as much experience working with engineers in house. Thus I pursued a side project with two engineers and was able to raise money and launch the project via Kickstarter.

Change one thing at a time

The product management role is competitive, you will get a lot of rejections, but view your transition as a step function vs. a direct line. If you are an educator, maybe your first step is to find an educator role at an ed-tech company, then move to a product-related role, and finally a product manager role. At each step, you will learn new things about yourself and the role to eventually craft the product manager role that’s the best fit for you.

With all that, if you have decided to transition into product management and can show you have the necessary skills, your next step is to apply and go through the interview process. If you are interested in learning more about that process, please let me know below.