Ask Women in Product: How do you transition from a Program Manager role to a Product Manager role?

Are you a program manager who’s interested in Product Management as a career path? These career transition tips from Sahitya Kakarla and Shanea Leven will help you make the switch.

Photo by Diahann via Twenty20

Answer from Sahitya Kakarla, Product Manager at FIS™

Start at your Current Company

  • Explore opportunities. Take the time to learn about your company’s hiring practices, get to know the product managers, and learn how to be notified of product openings as soon as they get listed.
  • Become an expert on your product. Use your product inside and out. Spend time on it. Learn the settings, understand the configurations, discover the edge-cases, and identify the bugs. Get to the point where you can confidently talk about it, suggest improvements, and ask questions. Showcase your product knowledge within your company — in meetings, hallway discussions, etc.
  • Express an interest in transitioning to a PM role. By stating your interest and demonstrating product knowledge, you increase the chances that your name will be considered the next time there’s a product opening.

Do outstanding work in your program management role at the company, so people are receptive when you ask for a transition to grow your career.

Stick to your Domain

If you have significant experience as a program manager in a single domain, you have considerable domain knowledge, so use that to your advantage.

When I was job hunting, I interviewed for a travel company’s ad product and lost out to someone who had more domain knowledge; I knew nothing about ad-tech at the time. I also met a PM from an e-commerce company, only to discover that I didn’t know enough about the operations and logistics of retail and warehouses.

I loved the products of both companies and was passionate about them, but I didn’t have the required domain knowledge. Learning domain knowledge quickly is hard; it’s only after you’ve spent months and years working in a domain that you learn the acronyms and the nuances :)

I say this not to deter you from applying to companies outside of your current domain, but rather to point out that it’ll make the transition harder, simply because there’s more to learn. Take it one transition at a time.

Find your Superpower

  • Look back at your career and connect the dots. How did you start your career? What have you done in your previous roles? What are you working on today? Where do you want to go next? Understand your story and identify what you’re most skilled at, what type of work you most enjoy, and what areas you should work on improving. This self-discovery will help you identify your superpowers and understand the kind of company and role that would be a good fit for your story moving forward.
  • Practice the elevator pitch of your story with friends and family. Doing so should help you figure out your shortcomings. Everyone has weaknesses, but it’s important you identify them and work on improving them before you actively start interviewing.

Work on Side Projects that Showcase your Skills

To shore up the gaps in my resume, I created a blog to demonstrate my writing skills. I also used Google Analytics to understand and track how visitors are interacting with my blog as a way to demonstrate my knowledge of data analysis tools. Find equivalent side projects that will help augment your resume.

You could also work with up-and-coming engineers (e.g., engineers at a coding bootcamp like HackBright Academy) to create a simple product which fulfills a user need. Be creative, hacky, and original in these side projects; they provide an opportunity to present something unique about yourself to your future interviewers.

Expand your Network

I was unfamiliar with product marketing, customer interaction, business, and strategy. Meeting and interacting with other product managers helped me understand my gaps.

This is not to say that you need to be an expert in all of the things that a product manager can do, but knowing it is useful. This way, you can focus on applying at companies where the role suits your strengths.

Find a Mentor and a Sponsor

Find a sponsor at your current company who’s willing to work with you to build a business case on why you’ll be a good fit to become a product manager. A sponsor will help you identify the skills you need to develop, and also vouch for you within the company. A Director or a VP of Product Management could be a great sponsor.

Finally, Don’t Be Easily Discouraged

Remember that you’re choosing a company as much as they’re choosing you. While a company or a role may seem good on paper, don’t be afraid to say no if the job responsibilities are unclear, don’t suit your strengths, or if it isn’t something you’ll enjoy doing. Good luck!

Answer from Shanea Leven, Head of Product for

1. Audit Your Current Skills

  • Start by gathering your current or old job descriptions and any past performance reviews. Examine these and itemize the skills listed. Look for phrases like “communicates across multiple departments”.
  • Go to LinkedIn and pull up job descriptions for some of the ideal jobs that you want, and itemize the required skills from these job descriptions.
  • Combine the two skill lists to create a baseline, noting your skills vs. the skills you don’t have.
  • Go back to LinkedIn and look for profiles of other Product Managers to get ideas for how to state your skills using product management terminology. See if you’ve done work similar to other PMs and adapt their phrasing to your own experiences. (See, for example, Krassi Hristova’s LinkedIn profile.)
  • Next, practice talking about real-life instances that illustrate how you’ve used these skills in your current or previous jobs. The examples that you tell should paint a picture for the recruiter or hiring manager — one that links your current job skills to your future job. I recommend using the STAR — Framework to express the examples through anecdotes that are easy to follow.
  • For the remaining skills, create examples with new experiences. You can either create these experiences at your current job or outside of your job. (More on this in # 2 below.)
  • Once you’ve completed the audit, update your LinkedIn and your resume to use the right terminology. LinkedIn is a search engine just like Google. The more product management ‘keywords’ you use in your profile, the easier it will be for prospective employers to find you.

2. Work on the Skills You’re Missing

So the question is, how do you acquire the remaining skills? Once you’ve completed your skills audit, you will likely find that you have gaps in areas like “coming up with and communicating a vision” and “taking that vision and breaking it down into executable chunks.”

The obvious next step is to go and get those missing skills and experiences so you can speak about them in job interviews and apply them in an actual product management role. You can get the missing experience either in your current job or outside of your current job.

  • In your current job, ask! Many product managers are overwhelmed with features they cannot implement. Ask them if you can help. Is there data that you can look up for them? Is there an analysis you can complete? Is there a small feature that you can think through for them? Even if they don’t implement it right away, can you come up with a vision and execution plan for that feature to practice? Better yet, if the PM already has a plan, would you be able to compare notes with him or her?
  • Outside your current job, explore! There are many options to gain PM experience outside of your job. Consider volunteering at a non-profit and getting experience there. Or execute your own product vision by building a proof-of-concept with a freelance engineer.

Whether it’s inside or outside of your current job, your goal is to be ready when a hiring manager asks, “Tell me about an idea where you came up with the vision for a product.” You can speak to what you did and what you learned. Even if your ideas are not implemented, you can speak to that as well. For example, you can say, “The idea didn’t get implemented in the end, but I’ve learned from the experience, and I know what I would have done differently. For example, I would have spoken to X stakeholders,” or “I would have spent more time quantifying the impact of this feature,” or “I would have talked to users first to develop a better user story.”

The most important thing is to work on each missing skill or experience so you can point to the results of your efforts or highlight the lessons learned from failed attempts.

3. Decide: To CS or not to CS?

  • Are there product managers that don’t code? Yes.
  • Are there product managers that do code? Yes.
  • Are there some PM jobs that require a CS degree? Yes.
  • Will you code in your day-to-day life as a PM? Likely not, outside of some SQL queries.
  • Will knowing how to code help you be a better PM? Possibly.
  • If you don’t code now, how much of an investment can you make?

So how do you decide? It goes back to your Skills Audit in the first steps. If the jobs you chose as your ‘ideal PM job’ require a CS degree, can you get it without one? Maybe, but it will be harder. If the types of PM jobs you seek do not require a CS degree and there are other PMs at the company that don’t have a tech background working there, then I would say there’s no need to get a degree. You’ll just need to have a compelling way to demonstrate your skills or experience around breaking down requirements.

In my case, I chose to get a CS degree as a second bachelor’s degree. It took a year and a half since I could transfer all of my General Education (GE) credits. It was half the cost of my first degree, and I took it online while I worked full-time. It was the hardest, most humbling experience of my life, but I am personally a better PM for it.

4. Get Feedback, Rinse and Repeat

At the end of each interview, ask: “Do you mind if I ask you a bold question? We’ve been talking for 30 mins — 1 hour (-ish). Is there any reason that you see that I would not be a good fit for this role or is there anything that I am missing?”

Some interviewers won’t say anything, and that is okay! But if you don’t ask, you’ll never know. This is my favorite interview question, and I’ve received so many great insights from it. No two answers are quite the same, but you get immediate feedback and useful insights on exactly what they are looking for. You’ll become aware of areas that you may have missed in your original Skills Audit, and you’ll have more motivation to work on getting these missing skills so you’ll do better on the next interview.

5. When all else fails, be confident!

I had this epiphany one day after I bombed two interviews for two entirely different reasons. The first was an interview at what I thought was my dream company, and I was so nervous I could barely speak. I felt uncertain that I was ready to be a PM and allowed the fact that I really wanted to work at the company to overwhelm me. My lack of confidence kept me from showing the value that I brought to the table.

The second interview was at a startup where I grilled the Head of Product about why there was still no product after three huge rounds of funding. The feedback I got from this second interview was that I was “too senior and should probably be Head of Product… somewhere else.”

So what was the difference between these two interviews? Confidence! I learned how to act with confidence by reading these three books:

You may ask, does being confident really matter that much? The answer is Yes! As a Product Manager, you have to advocate for your product vision. You have to advocate for your team. You have to fight through company politics and inspire others to rally around your vision. All of these activities require you to be confident — or at least sound confident! If you are making the transition to product management and you don’t sound confident about doing the job, how can others have confidence that you’ll succeed doing all of that and more? So you must sound confident from Day 1, in your interviews.

Many people ask me how I made the transition from Program Management to Product Management. The five points above are exactly how I did it. I was a program manager responsible for creating developer training. In this role, I was effectively a product manager; I came up with the vision, executed the project, and did everything a Product Manager does.

Yet, I was not able to land a Product Manager role. After failing yet again at another job application, I asked the interviewer why I had been rejected when I had done everything that a PM does. He said it was because I hadn’t built actual software. That feedback led me to performing a skills audit. It made me ask myself, “What do I need to do to build software?”

The answer was to stop interviewing, move teams, and pick up Product Management work that the current PM was overwhelmed with. I did this for nine months while I filled in my skill gaps. After the product launched, I resumed interviewing. I had my stories and examples ready, I spoke with confidence in my interviews, and I landed a Senior Technical PM role.

Career transitions are hard for everyone, but you only need one company to say yes. Just remember: your stories and experiences help paint a picture for the interviewer and while you are telling those stories…Be confident!

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