Product Careers & Interviewing
What is the most effective way to pivot into product management without experience or opportunities to do so?
Question from Tasha G
What is the most effective way to pivot into product management without experience or opportunities to do so?
Answered by Natalie Rothfels
Co-Founder and Leadership Coach, OIR @ Reforge | Previously Principal Product Manager @ Quizlet and Khan Academy

First, I want to acknowledge that this is a tough one because it’s not all in your control. So much of the recruiting experience is broken, and we are still living within the confines of systems that make it really hard to break into any position of power if you don’t already have it. And that can be incredibly frustrating.

So let’s first name all the things that are most certainly not in your control but that end up having a big impact on your ability to get any job, qualified or not. Let's dive into the most effective ways to pivot into product management:

Factors outside of your control

  • Whether hiring committees are following best practices of fair resume review (e.g, obfuscating names and irrelevant information)
  • Whether hiring committees actually have a structured rubric against which you are being evaluated, and then questions that align to that rubric
  • Whether the skills you’re asked to show within an interview actually match up with the skills required for the job
  • Whether there’s a job position that’s actually open or under active recruitment
  • The market conditions (including hiring freezes)
  • Whether other people give you a chance and can see how your existing skills are transferable or relevant
  • Systemic biases that favor past experiences over future potential

Given that depressing list, the reality is that moving into any “exclusive” job is going to be fraught with power struggles. So if you’re having any of those frustrations, know you’re not alone.

Factors within your control

The good news is that there are some things that are in your control.

Deeply understanding the job and the skills required for it

  • Not all PMing is created equal, both inside of a company and across companies. A core product PM is different than a Growth PM, who is different from a 0 → 1 PM. Adam Fishman and Keya Patel hve a great piece on those differences here.
  • Similarly, the company type and stage is going to have very different needs and standards for PMs. Large corporations have very rigorous and standardized hiring processes. Series A startups have very different needs and gaps. Understand which companies might be looking for which product skills that most match up to what you bring to the table.

Understand which skill competencies you have and lack

  • PMing is a notoriously breadth-focused job that requires a wide base of baseline competencies. Ravi Mehta has a great articulation of those competencies here. Understand the full lifecycle of product development and articulate which parts you may need to level-up in.
  • You will need to highlight your existing competencies and mitigate against your weaker areas, either by growing them in advance of trying to make the transition, aiming for a position that mostly requires those strengths, or crafting a clear plan for how you’ll up-level when you transition (e.g, like taking a guided sprint)

Clarify how your past experience translates into a PM job

  • I used to be a teacher before I moved into Product. There are so many relevant transferable skills. For example:
  • My ability to command attention and rally a disparate, chaotic group of people towards an outcome. Classroom management is no joke. Neither is aligning 10 people to row a boat in the same direction towards a goal.
  • My willingness to go with whatever shows up and not know the answer. Teachers have plans, but they have to respond in real time to whatever is actually happening in their classrooms. Product management is no different.
  • My ability to manage multiple stakeholders. Teachers are never just teaching. They’re dealing with administrators, parents, siblings, counselors, caretakers, and more. Product leaders are constantly dealing with different needs from different people and must prioritize across them.
  • Try to articulate how your current job or past experiences are relevant to the Product competencies, and then craft a story about how you can use one for the other.

Paths for moving into a Product role

My strong recommendation for pivoting to product is to attempt to move laterally from another role inside your company. Why?

  • In general, it’s much easier to transfer laterally within an organization that already knows you than to attempt to enter into a different company in a brand new role. Your existing company knows your skills, your work ethic, and your impact inside the organization. They will have a much easier time imagining you within a new role. You can also pre-empt any open headcount within an organization if they know you're looking. That's impossible to do when you're on the outside of a company.
  • Articulate what you want and why to your manager (and eventually whoever is responsible for the Product org, too). Your manager should be there to support your current and long-term growth, whether that’s inside the company or not. Managers are humans too, and they want to do a good job helping you get to where you want to go. But how are they supposed to help if they don’t know what you want? If you have a supportive relationship with your manager, a good starting point is to share where you see yourself going, why, and what kind of support you’re looking for from them. If you’ve done your homework to understand the skills required for the PM job, you can then present a clear map of how you already have those skills, or highlight which ones you want to work on to set yourself up for being able to make the pivot if a position becomes available.
  • Recognize that internal changes take time. The more you can set yourself up for a shift over quarters rather than weeks, the better for everyone. When there are fewer surprises for everyone, the better.

There are, of course, other ways to move into Product, but your mileage may vary:

  • There’s the now-seemingly-traditional path of getting an MBA, getting a summer internship, and then hoping for a full time offer. I know plenty of PMs who have done this, but I honestly think it’s an extremely inaccessible option for most people. First of all, business school is super expensive and requires you to take two years away from an operator role. Secondly, organizations are still really biased! If you don’t go to a top 5 business school, it’s easy to be at the bottom of the pile (ugh!). Again, totally inaccessible.
  • There are courses, like through Product School, General Assembly, and Reforge. But my experience is that there’s a bias amongst hiring managers for people who have done the job in a real context before because companies are not courses. Courses rarely give you the sandbox to have to navigate the interpersonal and leadership demands of PMing, yet those two competencies are high determiners for PM success.

Stay focused on your lane

Let’s sum it up:

  • Focus on the things that are in your control. Really get clear on not only why you want to PM, but what kind of PM role you’re looking for and what your current skill gaps are for that role.
  • Don’t keep it a secret — tell people you know who can help you move that you’re trying to make the transition. Your manager is included in this, but don’t spring it on them and expect an immediate change. They hired you to do a different role, and unless they’re really supportive…it’s actually not in their best interest to have you leave their team! In turn, you need to get really clear on your hope and goal, but also your asks from them. Are you hoping for support on a specific skill? Are you hoping they can help advocate for you internally? Think of the best case scenario you’re looking for, and work back from there.
  • You’ll likely have more success moving laterally than getting a brand new gig somewhere else. Teams that already know you and your work already have a baseline of trust! It’s actually usually cheaper for them to hire from within for an open role rather than have to build a pipeline and interview from scratch. Think about what it would be like to be a PM at your current company, and make the case for it.
  • Remember, change takes time. Slow and steady until you’ve got the skills, and then it’s all about finding the opportunities to showcase them.
About the author
Read more
Read less
Natalie Rothfels
Co-Founder and Leadership Coach, OIR @ Reforge | Previously Principal Product Manager @ Quizlet and Khan Academy

Natalie Rothfels is a product leader with a decade of experience building, launching, and scaling at Khan Academy, Quizlet, and Reforge.

Additional Resources
Read more
Read less

See all the questions & answers

Tag me in coach

Want to level up your product manager skills?

You can apply to a Guided Sprint and we’ll make sure you get the most value out of your coaching experience and being part of our community.

We want to make sure you don’t miss out on any of our free events and career resources, so follow Scale Higher on LinkedIn. Hope to see you at our events soon! 😊

See guided sprints