Can you become a product manager again?
August 16, 2023

Can you become a product manager again?

by Brian de Haaff

I enjoy hearing from blog readers. I recently published a post about preparing for a role in product management by gaining relevant experience — even if you have not worked in product before. A reader who I have communicated with in the past followed up. He spent time as a product manager, moved to finance, and thinks he wants to join a product team again.

His career experience is meaningful — but he is being passed over. So, what is the problem?

The first question is, why did he leave product in the first place? At the time, he was more interested in a career in venture capital than he was in building products. The opportunity to help many product builders was more rewarding than building one product himself. I have a lot of friends who are in similar positions. They prefer working directly with customers to working with engineering teams. Sometimes product management can look like a glorious role, but it is not for all people. You really need to understand what matters to you.

I think I understand why this reader is not getting hired. He still loves finance and talks about it with passion. But he is not clearly articulating what it takes to build a lovable product.

Product management is different than it was even five years ago. How product managers approached their work then was less charted — the role itself was far less understood.

Product management is better understood in many companies today. There are best practices and purpose-built tools you need to know how to use.

Product teams today move faster. Development cycles are shorter — allowing for quicker releases, tests, and iterations. There is a stronger emphasis on understanding customer needs and refining based on real customer feedback. Design skills have become more integral to the role. And, importantly, success is measured based on outcomes (e.g., user engagement, retention, conversion rate) rather than outputs (e.g., features shipped).

To be sure, if you have spent time in strategy, sales, support, or even finance roles, then you likely have deep knowledge of your market and customers. Or if you moved into an operations role, you may have worked closely with IT and engineering teams and gained project management experience.

Adjacent experiences can help you learn and develop a product manager's perspective.

If you want to move back into a direct product role, you will need to be purposeful and patient. Here is what I recommended to the person who contacted me:

Get curious

Reflect on your career journey. How did you get to where you are today? What skills have you gained that you did not have earlier in your career? What are your current gaps? (Be honest with yourself here — there is strength in recognizing how and where you need to grow.) And most importantly, is product really where you want to be?

Deeply understanding how your experiences away from product work can be applied to your next role is essential. At a tactical level, interview prep is key.

Discover what is new

Product management has evolved. Educational resources and certifications exist to help shore up the unknown — these may or may not be useful depending on how much you know about the discipline already.

Take every opportunity you can to work with the product team at your company. Ask to attend product meetings or join customer calls. It is also worth exploring tools and solutions that have become essential to product management — roadmapping software, digital whiteboards, product design, analytics, and the like. Familiarity is not the same as daily use, but it is a start.

Express your interest

Speak up. Share your aspirations with your manager. Some companies will let you take on application, system, or product responsibilities before you transfer to a new role or team.

Grow your network and connect with product folks and companies on LinkedIn. Opportunities can emerge this way. Some smaller, early-stage companies may be more likely to consider candidates with specific domain expertise (like finance) without recent product experience, especially if they have a vertical-specific offering.

There is no single path to returning to product management. Be open to taking twists to get back into the work.

I am looking forward to hearing if he moves from finance to product. It will be work to land his dream role, but I know that with perseverance it is possible.

Product success awaits those brave enough to pursue it. We have your back — try Aha! today.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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