From Marketing to Product Management

In my blog post about Uber, I mentioned that I transitioned from Growth Marketing to Product Management. I’ve gotten more questions about this career transition than anything else, so I’m sharing a bit more about my journey along with some tips for marketers who are interested in making a similar transition.

A bit about me

My first job out of school was in Product Marketing at Microsoft, where I worked on global campaigns for Windows and Surface. While living in Seattle without a car, I discovered Uber. The product was so life-changing that I dropped my resume on their website. I miraculously got a job on their fledgeling growth marketing team. At Uber, we built paid marketing from the ground up. I learned and grew a lot from the experience and eventually transitioned into Product Management.

Why marketers can make good PMs

Many people are surprised to learn that I transitioned from Marketing to PM, and view it as a non-traditional path. I actually found that my career as a brand and performance marketer prepared me well for Product Management at both Uber and Facebook. Here’s why:

1. Marketing is rooted in a deep understanding of the customer and the market

Above all else, the PM needs to understand the customer and be the voice of the customer to the team and the company. Your can build the most beautiful, technically-advanced product, but if it’s not fulfilling a customer need, the product will fail.

Understanding customer needs, identifying target audiences, building value propositions, sizing markets, and positioning products are a marketer’s bread and butter. Marketers can bring unique perspectives on customer needs to product.

What marketers will need to work on: The main difference between thinking about customers as a marketer, versus as a PM is that the marketer usually comes in after the product already exists. As a PM, you will need to decide what to build from the ground up, so you need to have a deeper understanding of the people’s needs and motivations in order to identify what products and features to build.

2. Marketers coordinate across many parties to manage campaigns and channels

A marketer owning a marketing channel or campaign end-to-end and brings together multiple parties to achieve a desired outcome, whether that’s sales, awareness, or lead gen. To achieve that outcome, they work with designers on creative, research on messaging and targeting, finance on budget, data on forecasting and performance. A PM needs to have similar project management skills, working with engineering, design, research, sales and data to build products. An important difference is that marketers typically have less exposure to engineering.

What marketers will need to work on: Successfully partnering with engineering is a critical part of product management. Just because marketers have experience working cross-functionally, does not mean that building a great relationship with engineering will come easily, especially if they do not have a technical background. It involves investment in understanding the technology, workflows, and development of strong communication, understanding, and trust between product and engineering.

3. Using data to make decisions is a critical part of marketing and Product Management

Marketing is an extremely data-driven profession, especially performance marketing. From budget allocations across dozens of channels and thousands of campaigns and publishers to creative testing and conversion optimization to forecasting ROI and LTV, marketers make most of their decisions with data. As a PM, data is a critical component to making product decisions.

What marketers will need to work on: Balancing data with other sources of information about customer needs. It is often tempting to believe that metrics are the most important thing. When I managed marketing campaigns, I would look at customer acquisition costs across channels and adjust bids like second nature. It is less straightforward in product. What the data is telling you can at times seem at odds with what customers want. Optimizing for metrics alone without deep empathy for customer needs can lead to situations where you overemphasize short-term gains that erode customer trust in the long term. For example, when I was working on our driver signup flow, we found that removing the block of text above the form caused a large increase in signups, so we shipped it. However, it turned out that removing the text above the form also removed context for what people were signing up for, so people who were intending to sign up to ride, were signed up to drive instead. This could have been prevented if we had spent more time with customers understanding their thoughts and motivations throughout the on-boarding process.

Advice for aspiring Product Managers:

1. Understand what you’re getting yourself into:

A PM’s job varies from company to company, and team to team. People also have very different philosophies about what makes a good PM. Marketers have less exposure to the day to day of product development, which makes understanding the requirements of the role more challenging. When I started thinking about a career transition, I actually didn’t know what a PM did all day.

My advice to those interested in product management is first to ask people about the job. Ask people who are already PMs, as well as others involved in building the product — engineers, designers, researchers, data scientists, product marketers. Ask them what they think makes an effective PM and an ineffective one. What you learn may surprise you.

Then, if you can, attend meetings with PMs that you work with and just take notes. The act of taking notes will help you understand the different players, their motivations, their interests and positions and will help you when you are the one making decisions in the future.

2. Take initiative to get as much experience as possible

Even though there are similarities between marketing and PM, it is usually not enough to fully prepare you for a career in product. There’s no better way to get the experience you need than actually doing the job. However, most companies don’t have a clear path to transitioning from a function considered “non-technical” such as Marketing, Business Development or Operations to one considered “technical,” such as Engineering, Product Design or Product Management. In fact, if you express an interest in this type of career transition, you may get a lot of pushback. If your company doesn’t have a formal program for transitioning to PM, you will need to take initiative and be creative in order to demonstrate that you can do the job.

The best way to do this is to identify a problem that no one is is working on, and to execute on a solution that can have a lot of impact. Facebook has a popular saying that “Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem.” If there is a problem that is not being addressed by any teams, everyone has the opportunity to take the initiative try to solve it. Easier said than done, right?

I found that the best way to do this is by providing insights and potential solutions that are indisputably useful for the team.

  1. Identify the problem and the size of the problem using data and research. Talk to customers, dig into the data, to better understand the scale of the problem relative to other problems.
  2. Outline different options for addressing the problem with pros, and cons.
  3. Propose solution, explain how it would work and estimate the effort.
  4. Estimate the impact of the solution.

This is a win-win because your company will have more minds will be actively trying to solve the company’s hardest problems and you will be getting experience. Even if you don’t end up getting the resources to work on the initiative, the act of putting it together is valuable — as a PM, it is important to constantly be identifying problems, prioritizing them and designing solutions.

3. Build leadership and confidence

At the end of the day, a PM’s role is not to decide what exactly the team needs to build and how to build it, but it is to help guide a team towards an impactful outcome through whatever the world throws at them. Cross-team conflicts, inter-team conflicts, sudden requests from leadership, re-orgs, lawsuits, regulations, outages, competition, and upset customers are all things that a PM will have to deal with on a regular basis. Ensuring that the team stays focused, and making consistent, rational decisions that lead to impactful outcomes is one of the hardest, but most important parts of a career in product.

One of the major differences between marketing and PM is that as Product Manager, you will find yourself in uncharted territory more often than not. There will be no playbook or industry standard for the problem you are trying to solve, or product you are building. You may be creating a new market altogether. Having a generalizable process and principles for decision making, and building the confidence to make decisions and stick to them even with incomplete data is a crucial part of success.

This is a skill that takes time and experience to develop and you will continue to develop it for your entire career. You can also work on your leadership and decision-making skills outside of work: offer to organize a big trip for a group of your friends, start a sports league, serve on the board of a non-profit, teach a class. Feeling comfortable taking on responsibility and making decisions comfortably in different aspects of life will translate through your personal and professional life.

I hope these tips help anyone interested in making a career transition. I would love to hear your own stories as well and am happy to answer any questions.