Career,  Uncategorized

Guidance on the transition from management consulting to product management

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This is where I work now! Photo credits: BizJournal

In January 2019, I left my job in management consulting at the Boston Consulting Group to begin a new journey as a Product Manager in Facebook’s Rotational Product Manager (RPM) program. While looking to switch jobs, I leaned heavily on my product manager friends. I asked them what their days entailed, how they prepared for interviews, and why they decided to become product managers. I also took them up on generous offers to mock interview me.

Of course, not everyone lives in San Francisco and has ready access to friends who are PMs. Knowing how lucky I was to have their support, and in the interest of paying it forward, here are some thoughts on transitioning into product management. I’ve also attempted to answer the questions I receive most frequently from LinkedIn. I hope this can help anyone in a non-technical role looking to transition to a PM role.

Caveat: these are my personal observations and do not in any way represent the views of Facebook Inc.

How do I move to product management from consulting?

I won’t lie to you – it’s tough. In recent years, product management has become a more structured and competitive position. There are two key barriers to entry for most entrants:

  • Technical proficiency
    • If you haven’t studied computer science or engineering, you have a steep climb ahead of you. Because product managers communicate heavily with engineers and manage all cross-functional partner communication, recruiters want to be confident that a candidate can earn the respect of engineers, as well as “translate” complicated engineering concepts in a way that cross-functional partners (e.g., Legal, Design, Communications) can easily digest
    • Generally speaking, if the ‘product’ in question requires platform management, or if the role is tagged “technical product manager”, the bar for technical fluency is higher.
    • Certain companies, most notably Google, require all their product managers to have an engineering background
  • Previous product management experience
    • It’s a catch-22: in order to become a product manager, it helps if you’ve been a product manager in the past. Most PM roles require prior PM experience. This makes sense, since most startups aren’t resourced to pay and train a novice. Even for those who do have prior experience, the demand / supply ratio of candidates to positions keeps PM a competitive job

Okay, it’s hard. Now what do I do?

Despite very real barriers to entry, many people successfully land a PM offer. Here are the most common ways I have seen it done:

  • Join a program for new PMs. This is the most direct path. These programs offer a chance to complete PM rotations on different teams, build foundational PM skills, and experience a breadth of PM experiences at a large company. Building for different audiences (e.g., building for game developers vs. consumers) and working on different teams (e.g., growth vs. an emerging product) helps you build a POV on what kinds of product management roles you enjoy the most. There are a few well known programs like this:
  • Go to business school. Many product manager positions are open to MBA students. Of course, getting an MBA is expensive and there’s no guarantee of a PM position after graduation
  • Transfer within your current company. Join a tech company in a different role, and internally transfer to product management. Consultants often join tech companies in a strategy role or a business operations role and transfer in a year to product management. A transfer typically requires great performance, strong relationships with PM leadership, and company growth (to free up headcount). Lateral moves are easily achieved at a fast-growing startup. Working on side projects can help you build a case to hustle laterally into a new role, but can be tiring on top of a full-time job. On top of all of this, successful transfers often are demoted a level when they switch to PM.
  • Take a bootcamp. A bootcamp can help re-brand you as more technical and experienced. Here are the well known ones:

How do I get a product manager interview?

  1. Get referred. Seriously. It’s not politically correct to say so, but these companies receive many applicants and having a referral helps ensure your resume gets a fair evaluation. If you are coming from a non-traditional background and are an aspiring PM, this becomes all the more important. Start early to build a network on LinkedIn if you don’t already know people at the companies you’re targeting.
  2. Think like the resume reader. Highlight anything that demonstrates impact (especially quantifiable impact), product sense, execution skills, technical proficiency, leadership, and drive – those are what most APM recruiters look for. You have maybe 10 seconds to make an impression.

How do I prepare for a product manager interview?

While product management interviews are intimidating, preparing for one is quite formulaic. You can definitely acquire the skills to ace an interview given correct preparation. Generally speaking, interviewers look for clarity of thought, leadership, and potential to quickly scope and assess a problem. Taking the interviewer through a logical approach and thought process is far more important than getting the ‘right’ answer.

For a very detailed and comprehensive breakdown of what a preparation process looks like for the Facebook RPM program, check out this post. It contains solid, detailed advice and I used it myself when prepping for my Facebook interviews. However, it is VERY thorough, and if you have less time to prepare, here is what I recommend (this is what I did!):

The best way to prep for the interview is live practice. Mock interviews are a much better use of time than reading books on product management theory.

  • Find a product manager who is willing to mock interview you. If you don’t have any in your personal network, reach out to current product managers on LinkedIn. The worst they can say is ‘No,’ and their feedback will push you to improve your interview performance.
  • Find a friend who is also interviewing for PM jobs and mock interview each other. You can easily find practice questions on Glassdoor to ask each other. Putting yourself in the interviewer’s shoes is just as valuable as being mock interviewed yourself. Mock interviewing others helps you learn new ideas and interview styles, as well as develop a perspective on what constitutes a good versus a great answer.
  • If you need practice partners, the internet makes it easy!
    • Join Lewis Lin’s slack group to easily find practice partners online. You can often find partners interviewing at the same companies as you.
    • Join StellarPeers.com. It integrates with Google Calendars to allow you to quickly schedule practice interviews with whenever is convenient for you.
    • Join the RPM Prep Facebook group – this is a group of people applying to RPM who practice together and trade notes

Books on product management. These are helpful when you’re getting started, but make sure they’re a supplement to your live mock interview practice and not the substitute for it!

    • Decode and Conquer by Lewis Lin – this is a book of sample PM interview questions and answers. It provides an understanding of the overall PM interview process, and serves as a good starting point to begin formulating an approach to notoriously ambiguous interview questions. Because the author provides detailed evaluations of the sample ‘answer,’ it helps you distinguish an exceptional answer from a passable one.

    • Swipe to Unlock – written by three of Facebook PMs, this book explains tech concepts in a simple way. Examples of questions include “Describe cloud storage to a 5-year-old” and more strategic questions like “Why did Facebook buy Oculus?”. If you’re already familiar with core tech concepts and can explain them succinctly, skip it!

Cracking the PM Interview is a solid book loved by many, but I only skimmed through it. I found it dense and preferred to focus on live practice.

Why did you transition from consulting to product management?

The push: I enjoyed many things about consulting. I particularly relished the challenge, the close-knit team culture, the steep learning curve, and the ability to quickly ramp up on new and interesting subjects. Over time, however, the travel began to wear me out. And because I moved from one project to another in a relatively short amount of time, I was never able to see the impact of a given project manifest at a client over the long term.

The pull: I discovered my execution skills were weak. During a yearlong break from consulting, during which I worked for a nonprofit that was trying to improve its digital presence, I defined the strategy for and executed to build a prototype of a digital fundraising platform. Defining a detailed, strong strategy was easy. I had practiced creating comprehensive strategies for years in consulting. But I stumbled over the execution, and I knew I needed to improve those skills if I ever wanted to run a digital product line or business of my own someday. I returned to the US, learned more about product management, and decided to seriously pursue opportunities in the field.

How does product management compare to consulting?

  • Consulting and product management are similar. Both require the ability to break down a complex problem into its discrete parts, focus a team on what is most impactful, and persuade from a place of influence rather than authority.
  • Tech projects require much more ramp-up than consulting projects. A PM needs to ramp up on technical concepts, product context, and the personal and professional goals of team members. In early-level consulting, the majority of the learning centers around core skills (e.g., ppt, storyboarding, excel, etc.). In product management, most of what I’ve been learning is around how to manage people, how to delegate effectively, and how to work with a team where everyone’s skills are widely different.
  • Consultants on a team are all trained at the same firm, have similar skill sets, and approach problems similarly. Your teammates in tech are more diverse. Being a product manager requires working with designers, lawyers, policymakers, engineers, and many more! It’s fun but also challenging.
  • As a PM, your success depends on your ability to facilitate team productivity, as opposed to your individual work contributions. There is little sitting alone working on an Excel model, and a lot of aligning team members and sharing context.
  • Consulting team culture is very tight-knit, since teams often travel together and work long hours in the same room. I do miss that level of camaraderie and that depth of friendship at work.
  • Work-life balance is generally much better in product management than in consulting.

FAQs from LinkedIn

Does the RPM application requiring submitting a cover letter or supplemental documents? No. It requires submitting a resume. You also have the option to submit your LinkedIn profile, GitHub, portfolio, or website.

Do you remember any sample questions that you were asked while interviewing? Yes, but I’m not allowed to say what they were. You can find practice RPM interview questions on GlassDoor, which was my primary source of mock interview questions when I prepared for the interviews.

After your interviews, were there areas you felt you could have done better? Or any answering approach that you could have used better? As a consultant, I was trained to think about the business first. But as a product manager, you have to think about the user first. Flipping my mindset from a business focus to a user focus was the biggest switch in interviewing I needed to make. E.g., instead of considering business segments like “high-end salon, medium-end salon, low-end salon” the relevant segments are user segments, something like “affluent working woman, impulse spender, or value-seeking mom.” 

What’s the general background of an RPM class? Do they usually have some technical background/have worked in tech before? Or are there a few industry switchers in the program? It’s quite diverse! Some classes lean heavily towards new grads, other lean heavily toward experienced hires. A consulting background is common. There are also a good number of folks with startup experience.

Because of my lack of any real and specific product management experience, what would be the chances of me landing an RPM interview? As good as anyone else’s! Almost no one in my starting class had any PM experience beforehand.

For you and other RPM colleagues who came from more business-related backgrounds, when you realized you were interested in Product Management, how long did it take to prepare and immerse yourself in understanding product management/ technical side and preparing for interviews? (I’m sure this will vary but just wondering.) I started doing live practice prep as soon as I found out I had an interview for RPM, which was about 10 days before my first round interview. During that time I prepped pretty intensively, and did between 1-3 live mock interviews a day.

I would like to know if you have any idea if everyone that applies for the Rotational Product Manager Program receives an interview? At least the first round phone interview? Unfortunately not!

2 Comments

  • Niketa Kulkarni

    Hi Neha,
    Great post! I just thought I would connect here. I believe our moms have been friends for awhile! This was a great read.

    • Neha Singh

      Thanks so much Niketa! You were probably too young to remember but we once spent a week at your home. I gave your mom my number awhile back in case you’d like to reach out.

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