A Timely Switch
I find myself lately retelling this story to quite a few interns and new grads. I recall being in their exact position wondering exactly how to transition careers and who to look up to as a trailblazer in the space.
Where I work, I remember deeply wishing there were more women in lead positions. Within the product organization alone, we currently have 5 women out of 33, none of whom hold a managerial or above role**. Nonetheless, the product managers at the company (gender non-sequitur) are quite inspirational. I love how they capture the room, inspire the comrades toward a north-star, are decisive and clear. I hope one day to be that person as well.
My transition from product design to product manager was not an overnight task. It took well over a year and it started when I was a product design intern first introduced to the role of product management.
Within MongoDB, there’s a bit of overlap between product design and product management. When I honed in on those overlaps I realized those were the bits I enjoyed the most about product design. At MongoDB, our product designer and product manager both have hands in research, interacting with customers, identifying ways to measure success of a product, and setting a vision for the product (albeit in different ways). It was these conversations and this type of strategy development I wanted more of.
I hadn’t initially considered product design, but I knew I wanted to be in this emerging technology space. I landed in design quite fortuitously when I couldn’t find an internship after sophomore year and a colleague of mine (an actually talented designer, Charles Shin) hooked me up with an incredible gig — doing product design for Desai Accelerator for 6 different early stage startups. 12 weeks with a bunch of companies with an idea and a slightly developed product was like gold for a resume. I eventually wound up in a position where I was helping campus startups as well doing some basic design work to help get them off the ground. I found myself at a hackathon alone (see: A Non-Hacker Hacking Away At A Hackathon), met MongoDB, and well the rest of that story is history.
Ultimately my ability to maneuver the switch came down to 5 major themes:
Spread the word
At MongoDB during my product design internship, I started putting feelers out there for how to transition to product management. Anyone who remembers me during my internship may be able to recall just that. When I returned full time, I made it my mission to make the transition happen. I let everyone and anyone who asked what my goals were know that this was my plan. In some ways, if you say it enough, it might just have to happen.
Do my current job well
In order to find advocates, mentors, and risk takers, I had to build trust. Simply the best way to do that is by doing my current job well. My expedition to become a product manager should not come at the cost of the job my company is actually paying me for. Arguing that you’re really bad at your job because you should be doing something else — I suspect — will more likely get you fired then transitioned. I sought opportunities to take on more work, more challenging projects, and even tasks that use more of the product manager mindset rather than simply good visual experience. Use your current role to your advantage when trying to make a switch.
Find advocates who believe in me
Since I found myself in a position where I was doing well in my current role, I was able to advocate for myself in conversations with coworkers, peers, managers and directors. I identified where my strengths overlapped with product management and used that as a tool to persuade my colleagues that it made sense. An example being my nature to look at how the part of the product I worked on fit into the larger ecosystem of our products and related to company goals instead of a feature in silo. Additionally, there is a tightly knit relationship between user empathy that both product designer and product managers overemphasize through their processes.
I frequently raised my goal of becoming a product manager to my manager and skip level. As advocates for my growth and career, they helped me seek opportunities to learn more about product management and explore mini-internships in the role. They raised my aspirations to the highest levels of executives in the company and campaigned for me to have this opportunity. When it came down to it, these were the people who came to bat for me when the company was considering me for an internal transfer. Without them, who knows what I’d be doing.
Find mentors who can teach me the basics
As a part of building champions for myself within the company, I also sought opportunities for mentorship from product managers that I looked up to. It started with an hour conversation of myself stating my case (why PM? Why not design?) and resulted in a regular cadence meeting that I still have to this day around how to tackle new challenges with many of the product managers across the company. Before I made the switch, a few of the product managers gave me a couple tasks to tackle that mimic some of the duties a PM faces in their normal day-to-day work. This was an opportunity to fail-forward, test the role, see if it excites me, see if it excites them. Finding chances like these are a great test for if this is the right decision.
Find risk takers who want to take me on
This transition all culminated into one final step. I found an open role within the company within a department of a VP I already had a relationship with. I reached out and given all of the work I had been doing to lead up to this moment, they knew of my ambitions and within a few conversations felt willing to take a risk on me. The risk being letting someone with little to no product managerial experience transition into their open role.
If you find yourself in a similar position looking to make a switch in careers, these themes would make up my advice to you. You are always your biggest advocate. Things I didn’t mention above to help make this happen — I took a couple online “product” Udemy courses to “learn the lingo”, I helped with the hiring of a backfill, read a few (but not many) product books, and made a lot of mistakes.
** Since posting this story, there has since been a promotion of one of the women Product Managers, she rocks and I’m extremely excited about this