In with the New
Thoughts on Transitioning to a New Industry as a Product Manager
At the best of times, company transitions are exhilarating — fear, excitement, hesitation, confidence, nostalgia, and more swirl around your brain. A cocktail of adrenaline, endorphins, and neurotransmitters course through you, even before you begin your first day, as you try to think about how you’ll land, whether the company will be different than what you thought from the interview process, how your new colleagues will react to you. You lay awake at night a few days before you start, and even if you took time between roles, you never truly relax.
Then the questions start: I was comfortable at my old job so why did I leave? What if my new boss immediately dislikes me? Should I try to change anything right away? How long is my runway? Is the learning curve going to be steep? What tech and tools does my new company use, and do I have experience with them all? If you’re like me, you also get a fun smattering of impostor syndrome questions. Why did they hire me? Am I really good enough to handle this job? Why would I get myself in over my head like this?
These kinds of things are natural, and nothing at all to worry about. When you change roles or get promoted, you’re inherently dealing with the unknown, even if it’s a promotion or lateral move within your existing company! It’s exacerbated further when the company itself goes from large → small or established → startup, and even more so when you change industries.
It’s that last piece I want to focus on, because it requires a seismic shift in how a Product Manager goes about their day to day. After all, we are expected, and in many cases required, to have significant domain knowledge. We understand our market, our competition, our users, our colleagues, our stakeholders…you get the picture. But what happens when we start over in a brand new industry, say, moving from ad tech to fin tech, or B2B software to B2C software?
The frameworks may transfer easily enough (assuming you’re still firmly within the same universe, i.e. the ‘tech/software ’ part) but all of that carefully curated industry content, the google alerts, the years you spent building up a network of customers and current/former colleagues to bounce ideas off at a moment’s notice? All of that remains behind. While you aren’t necessarily starting from scratch, is it really that bad if you approach the situation like you are? Here are some tips that worked (and are currently working!) for me.
- Stay Humble
This is good advice for every PM at all times, but it is especially true for those changing industries. You may be a titan in your former kingdom, but you’re starting fresh here. Talk to, learn from, and listen to everyone…everyone… at your new company, and digest as much of their advice, thought processes, insight and feedback as you can. They’re all more experienced than you in this domain, so coming in thinking your knowledge outpaces anyone is a huge mistake that is going to cost you dearly in the long run. Ask your new colleagues some key questions:
- What do you wish you knew when you started in <industry>?
- What mistakes did you make when you started in <industry>?
- What’s the biggest “aha” moment you’ve had since you started in this field?
- What assumptions about this industry did you have that were proven true? Which were proven false?
- How do you like to work with PMs in this space?
By the way, it is perfectly fine to be confident in your product management skills, because that’s why you were hired. Make sure you balance that confidence with the knowledge that your new bosses are taking a chance on an unproven PM in this (unfamiliar) field!
- Remember How to Learn
Why do people go to university? It isn’t about getting hard skills in your chosen industry (or stealing the mascot of your crosstown rival). The primary value prop of an undergrad education is really gaining skill in how to learn, with building a network following closely behind that. Similarly, in karate, the understanding is that a first-degree black belt is now a competent student, not a master. The years you spent at the top of your game in your previous industry probably didn’t dull your curiosity, since that’s the bread and butter of a PM, but it may have blunted your skills in the act of learning itself. Many of us face this challenge when we try to pick up skills in adulthood — we forget that it’s ok to be a beginner again! When starting in a new industry, leverage these proven techniques for learning:
- Actively read everything you can get your hands on! We are living in a content utopia, and I guarantee that there is are at least 10 newsletters, a Twitter microverse, a subreddit, several books, and if you have access, a few Clubhouse rooms, all dedicated to innovations in your new industry.
- Take notes on the above by hand.
- Ask the right questions of your coworkers (see above) and your new customers/users.
- Teach someone else what you’re learning. My wife is relentless about this and because of it, I know more about pedagogy than I thought I ever would. But what I know pales in comparison to her body of knowledge and more importantly, to her retention of what she learned in her classes and professional development workshops.
- Cut Yourself Some Slack
It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re in the early phases of learning a new industry. Being a beginner is really friggin’ hard, and many of us have forgotten what it’s like to be bad at something! This is a wonderful time in any professional’s life because there is an expectation that you are on a steep learning curve, so take advantage! Karen Rinaldi says way more about this way more intelligently than I ever could in her excellent book (It’s Great to) Suck at Something.
Further, when you’re new to an industry, you have an outsider’s eyes, which can be insanely valuable. Don’t discount your ideas because you’re green in this domain — but remember you aren’t an expert either!
Hopefully you’re journey into a new realm is smooth, but if it gets bumpy, the advice above can hopefully make things a bit easier. Leverage your new colleagues, remember how to learn, and know that it’s ok to be less stellar than normal during your ramp up time. Transitions are incredibly exciting, and you’ve got this.