Mathew Cropper

March 4, 2021

Transitioning into a more technical Product Manager role

Originally published: February 7, 2021

This week, in a Clubhouse room for aspiring Product Managers, people were invited to ask questions and a panel of experienced Product folks would give advice. One of the questions went along the lines of:

"I'm a Product Manager in the retail industry. My role doesn't require any technical skills or knowledge. I want to transition into software. I keep getting knocked back at the interview because I don't have the technical background they're looking for. I'm doing independent learning, but what else should I do to make this transition?"

The answer they got was a little unsatisfying to me (learn about APIs, network and try to get an 'in' with someone who'll recommend you), so I'm sharing some thoughts. A change like this is more than just "learn about APIs". It's about your expectations, the roles you apply for, how you talk about yourself, and interviewing strategy as well.

In this post:

  • Take the Clubhouse advice; up-skill what you can, network when you can
  • Manage your expectations and be thoughtful about what you're applying for
  • Show off your core skills
  • Change the conversation; "it's a no, they don't have the technical background" vs "they're a strong PM, and this gap is coachable"
  • Get feedback when you're knocked back, and iterate on the other steps

1: Take the Clubhouse advice; up-skill what you can, network when you can

The advice the folks in that Clubhouse room gave wasn't wrong, but it wasn't complete. 

Absolutely learn, learn, learn! There are plenty of books, courses, and blogs out there that will teach you what APIs, SDKs, different architectures etc are and why they're used. Having even a basic understanding will be useful to you in your first role on a more technical product. Doing the research before stepping into the unknown is always valuable.

Networking can also be useful. It certainly can open doors. Building an entirely new network from scratch is slow, hard work, though. If you have the time to actively participate in the many communities that exist, then it may be useful to you (even as a learning opportunity). For many, that's not practical; we're spending time with our family, we're already invested in other commitments etc. And that's OK. Don't hold yourself back by thinking this is the only way to get your chance.

2: Manage your expectations and be thoughtful about what you're applying for

The real first step when making a transition into a more technical Product Management role is to be realistic with yourself.

No two Product Management roles in software are really the same, and they'll differ from company to company. On one end of the spectrum there are absolutely roles that require greater technical understanding and experience (eg. A developer-focused product, backend infrastructure), and on the other there are roles where the important thing is to be able to operate effectively in a Engineering <> Design <> Product triad (eg. A SaaS product). Your challenge is to figure out where in that spectrum you could be effective, and seek out those roles to give you the greatest chance of success.

The expectations of the company you're applying to matter as well. It's important to understand the reasons why they're hiring and the outcomes they're trying to achieve with the role. Some will be hiring because the previous Product Manager got promoted or moved on, and are backfilling into an established team with a vision and strategy. Some will be hiring into less well established roles, or where they're banking on your experience to help transform it. Again, it's a spectrum, and you need to have a feeling for where on that spectrum a role sits, and whether you could be successful there.

Seek out companies with strong a Product culture. Apply to companies that emphasise the importance of a growth mindset, coaching, and supporting one another. In your first role, this is one of the things that will have the biggest impact on your success and growth, and these are companies that are more likely to look past some of the experience you haven't had yet.

3: Show off your core skills

Spend time on your CV/resume/portfolio and cover letter. We want your existing experience to shine brightly, and in particular there are certain things we want to make sure the person screening your application sees. 

I've coached several Product Managers early in their careers who sought a change in direction like this. I'm sure they won't mind me saying that in every instance their CV was the thing that was causing doors to close for them. They couldn't get past the screening round of the interview process because they weren't selling themselves or the value they bring.

Emphasise things like cross-functional collaboration, customer research, analytical skills, problem solving skills, planning skills, communication, and successful customer outcomes/your impact. Why? (1) They highlight some of the unique value and core skills a PM will bring to the team, whilst (2) showing that you have the skills needed to overcome some of the technical experience gaps.

4: Change the conversation; "it's a no, they don't have the technical background" vs "they're a strong PM, and this gap is coachable"

If you've done your homework, you've applied for a role you think you could succeed in, at a company that values coaching and growth, and you've got an interview based on the strength of your existing skills. Pat yourself on the back!

An interview like this often involves meeting individually with several people from different disciplines. When you're done, they'll meet to discuss how things went and make a decision on whether to hire you or not. When they have that discussion, we don't want it to be easy to dismiss you because of a lack of technical experience.

All the perspectives in that room matter, but there are two that matter the most to you; the person representing Product (likely the hiring manager) and the person representing Engineering (the person with the easiest "they're not technical enough" veto). We want both of them to be advocating for you to give you the greatest chance of success.

In advance, prepare stories you can tell that emphasise the skills highlighted in your CV. Use the "problem > approach > solution > impact" framework to make sure your stories flow and hit the points that people will be looking for.

For interviews with Engineers, try to weave in stories that show how you set a team up to be successful (eg. Shared understanding, participation in research, collaborative problem solving), how you've worked cross-functionally before, and how you've up-skilled to be more effective in your role before.

For interviews with Product Managers, weave in stories that highlight the strength and breadth of your skills. Be able to answer hard questions like "how have you been involved in building and executing on a strategy before", "tell me about the most challenging project you've worked on", "tell me about a time you failed and what you learned from it", and have stories to tell about how strong a cross-functional collaborator you are.

The goal of all of this is simple. We want people to be convinced of your skills as a Product Manager, to the point where the conversation they have in the debrief is "they're great, they'd work well in a triad, and the technical gaps they have are coachable".

5: Get feedback when you're knocked back, and iterate on the other steps

If you're unsuccessful (don't beat yourself up), this is a learning moment. Ask for feedback to understand why it was a no this time, and then apply that. If they say something like "you just didn't have the technical experience we're looking for", follow up and ask them to be more specific. We want to know exactly the things were missing.

If you can up-skill, do that. If you can emphasise something more clearly in your CV or in your answers to interview questions, make those changes.

In the same way that building great products is iterative, so is this. You'll learn and improve over time.