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1) What do you do now, and what did you do before?
I’m a Product Manager at a tech company that allows our clients to buy and sell online advertising space. I talk to clients, decide what products we should be building, design them, work with engineers to get them built, roll them out to clients, and then evaluate their success.
I used to be a writer – first a journalist and creative nonfiction writer, and then a technical writer and manager of a technical writing group with some marketing writing in the middle.
2) So, why the change?
I realized that while I liked the investigation, assessment, and clarification I was doing in tech writing, but I didn’t want to be reactive – I wanted to build the things I was writing about.
3) How did you pitch yourself to the desired industry/role? What worked well? In hindsight, what would you have done differently?
As a writer, I’m very good at figuring out what people are really saying, which is the same thing you have to do as a product manager. For example if your client says they want to pay less for ad space, what they really mean is they want to make a bigger profit margin. The answer might not be to depress ad prices, but to allow buyers to charge their clients more for more effective ads.
Writers also have to organize information into a neat package and decide what doesn’t belong, which is like scoping a product feature.
And finally, I’ve always been a storyteller. Successful products feel like stories; for example Nike doesn’t sell shoes, they sell self-improvement. Coke doesn’t sell soda, they sell American values. Even less brand-sensitive products like ours have stories at every turn; I’m making your day-to-day worklife easier, or I’m helping you help your clients.
I was in a unique position because I was working at a startup for 3 years when I told my boss I wanted to do something different. I had proven that I was smart and flexible, and the company was open to job shifts to better take advantage of staff talent. In hindsight I would have asked for more guidance or advice for external training to help me learn some practical lessons more quickly, and not felt like that ask would make me seem unqualified.
4) What was the most valuable thing you did in preparation for the new industry/role?
I had already read a lot about product management simply because I was at a startup, and everything we all did was related to creating and releasing products. I chose on books recommended by our talented CEO and attended product-focused meetups and asked lots of questions of other product managers. Remember, though, that everyone does things differently. I didn’t think that everything I read or heard applied to me and me and how I needed to do things.
5) What other advice or insight do you have for readers seeking the same career transition?
Most product managers seem to have either an MBA or experience specific to their field – a programming background for tech companies or a design background for fashion companies, etc. But if you’re interested in trying it, I’d recommend starting a mini business of your own. Most of the product managers I know sold pizza on the corner in college, or made jewelry to sell on Etsy, or started a website. These mini businesses failed in many cases, or made just a bit of extra spending money, but thinking about your market, your product, and your delivery will teach you most of what you need to know for a regular product manager job.
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