How to Change Industries as a Product Manager
3 Insights to Navigate a Big Career Change
Making a career change can be daunting. It can be exciting. But sometimes it’s simply necessary. This is especially true in the sea of recent layoffs (800%+ increase in 2022).
I personally have gone through six major career pivots:
As a young adult, I spent five years as a top 40 billboard musician with the rock band Dance Gavin Dance.
After I made the decision to leave the band, I went back to school and then spent a year writing grant requests and business plans for early stage renewable energy proof of concepts.
From there, I spent nearly a decade as a video game product leader at three high profile companies, creating over $2,000,000,000 in gross revenues.
I continued to explore new ground by spending a year as the VP of Product and Business Development at a pre-seed computer vision startup backed by Amazon.
More recently I spent a few years as the VP of Product and Design at a charitable fundraising platform where we raised over $50,000,000 in charitable donations.
And over the last year I have served as a product consultant and an executive coach.
Each career shift has made me who I am today. The net result is a being that is secure in his own abilities and his capacity to learn. Confident of jumping into the unknown. To opening a door without seeing what’s on the other side. Someone who’s liberated. Open. Adventurous.
With this experience under my belt, I thought it would be worthwhile to shed some light on how I approached these major career changes.
Below are 3 insights that were instrumental to me, and I hope they are helpful in guiding you through a big career shift of your own.
Find Your Ikigai
Ikigai is a Japanese concept which means “a reason for being”. It can be a helpful tool when considering which direction to head towards when choosing a new career. Ikigai is broken into 4 areas: What you love, what you’re good at, what you can be paid for, and what the world needs.
You feel most in Ikigai when what you’re doing satisfies all 4 areas. That means you’re at the very center of the 4-way venn diagram. When you are only satisfying a couple areas, then you are in parts of the diagram where only a few circles overlap.
For example, if you’re doing what you’re good at and what you love (let’s say creating art) but you’re not getting paid for it, then you are pursuing a Passion. If you’re also getting paid for it, then you likely find it even more satisfying - you’re closer to your Ikigai. If you could adapt your approach so that your art is also satisfying a world need, then you could be on the cusp of satisfying all four areas and reaching a deep sense of Ikigai - a reason for being.
I’ve used the Ikigai framework to reflect on how I am currently experiencing the world and where I’d like my life to head. It’s been a tool to help me move through high-risk big life changes. A tool to foster conscious awareness. To answer questions like: Why is my current job not satisfying? How would I like to spend my precious time? What do I want my life’s purpose to be? How could I make the most of my passions? Where does my current career sit within the Ikigai framework? How might I adapt my life to reach a sense of Ikigai?
When we find ourselves in Ikigai we experience a motivating, galvanizing force that drives us forward. It lights our soul. It creates energy. We clear internal blockages and are more at peace. A lack of Ikigai is then, not surprisingly, proven to have a significant negative impact on your health. Multiple studies (1, 2) have shown that people who do not feel Ikigai are more likely to experience cardiovascular diseases. In fact, National Geographic writer Dan Buettner believes that one of the main reasons Okinawans are among the longest-lived people on the planet is because they have a high sense of Ikigai.
Recognize the Learning Curve
The scope of jumping into a new industry or career cannot be understated. You will feel like a fish out of water. Or maybe, a fish in milk. Warm milk. There will be a whole lot to learn. Across more areas than you might initially expect. You’re dealing with a completely different market, tech stack, metrics, monetization strategy, acquisition strategy, legal regulations, company funding & stability, and company culture.
On top of that, I’ve found that the way Product Managers are leveraged across industries is quite varied. To illustrate, here are three examples across gaming, e-commerce, and deeper tech.
In AAA video game development, a Product Manager serves often as a consultant. They have little authority and therefore get things done mostly through their influence skills. They may only be responsible for a sub-section of business metrics. Often they are the money person, consulted when necessary.
In e-commerce, the Product Manager may be more beholden to the marketing team’s direction than they would in other industries. Additionally, e-commerce products have a more limited technological surface area because there’s less depth to the user journey. This results in the Product Manager’s sphere of customer influence being limited to primarily discovery, conversion, and re-engagement. Often e-commerce platforms and companies live and die by their marketing strategy, and as such the Product Manager’s sense of control may fall into a similar hierarchy.
Alternatively in more complex technological organizations, for example Amazon, the Product Manager may take on a larger full-spectrum role as an overall business owner or mini-GM. This means owning all aspects of the user journey and having a lot more control over the broader roadmap and product strategy. While this means more autonomy, it also may come with a greater degree of responsibility.
In looking at these three roles you’ll notice considerable differences in control, autonomy, and responsibility. Differences like these are important to keep in mind when considering a career change, and facing them will be an important part of your learning curve.
Your first handful of months will likely be quite confronting and challenging, filled with highs and lows. I’ve found this experience to be similar to other types of learning, and that it can be expressed with a bipolar learning graph: An initial build of confidence, a period of doubt, followed by an elongated plateau and depression, then finally an inflection point towards proficiency.
Knowing that these ups and downs are natural can make all the difference for maintaining a stable mindset, and for persevering through new-found difficulties.
Challenge Equals Growth
The degree in which your first few months are challenging is directly related to how big of a change you’re undertaking. How different is the tech stack, monetization strategy, product culture, and other aforementioned factors? 20% different? 50% different? 80% different?
The bigger the change, the more you can expect strong confronting feelings to come up. You’ll be that much more out of your element. Feelings of insufficiency and imposter syndrome may creep in.
I learned this the hard way, making a big 80% change some years ago. I went from being a senior B2C product manager in gaming at a well-funded Series C company to leading business development for a B2B pre-seed computer vision SAAS platform. There were very few things I could pull from in my existing toolbox, which sparked feels of inadequacy. I felt like I was newbie just out of college.
The first six months of that role were the hardest I’ve ever experienced in my professional career. Daunting. Exhausting. And often defeating. I learned new ways of managing my anxiety. I shifted my perspective to focus on what I could control, and I let go of what I couldn’t. I embraced every challenge as an opportunity to grow rather than feel defeated. One quote from Marcus Aurelius became my mantra during that time:
Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it… Because it was within me, in my own perceptions, not outside.
The value of going through a big career change like this is towering. It won’t feel like it, but these are the moments you transcend. Every move you make, especially the challenging ones, will make you a stronger, more seasoned, and a more diverse product leader, which in turn will help you stand out from the rest of the job market and make you more successful in what you do.
In taking a leap into a new career you’ll be confronted with fears and anxiety, but it will bear fruit over the rest of your career. You’ll find ways to cross-pollinate and leverage your past learnings. To approach problems in novel, more effective ways. You’ll stand out in your field, all due to your unique experiences. Your courage to explore something new will make you more distinctive, more creative, and more effective. You may not see it immediately, but trust that every bold move will make you stronger.
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