How I transitioned careers with no experience

Last week I spoke to three separate people who wanted to transition careers into product management. It’s an increasingly common conversation I’m having so I thought I would write out some of the tactics I believe in.

This advice will be useful to anyone thinking of a major transition since the most common obstacle I’m going to talk about is not having experience, which is typical to career transitions. Ok, so...

Before you start

The single most important thing you can do in this search happens right at the start: choose your ’Top 5’. The ’Top 5’ are the five companies you would absolutely love to work at. Not kinda would like to work at, would LOVE to work at... your dream jobs. Now focus all your energy on them. What this does is makes sure you put a disproportionate amount of energy into these five places. If you have 100 units of energy and apply to five jobs that’s 20 per job. If you do the opposite and apply to any job you find (say 50 of them), you would put 2 units per job.

With no resume experience you're not going to get a job by sending in resumes. You’re an underdog and the underdog’s gotta work extra hard, and it’s a lot easier to work hard for that thing you really want. Those 'Top 5’ dream jobs will give you that drive.

Put yourself in their shoes

Imagine you’re the person hiring you… why should they give you (someone with zero experience) a chance over someone else (with more experience)? That’s the question you need to answer for them because you can be sure there are people with experience applying for that same position.

The rest of this post will focus on how to make your pitch, and before you start pushing for a job, you need to put together a story that is at least convincing to you – because if you wouldn’t hire you, why should they?

Two stages to getting the job

There are two stages to getting the job:

  1. Getting the interview

  2. Convincing them to hire you

The first is about getting someone’s attention and your foot in the door, and the second is about making your pitch compelling.

1. Getting the interview

The way I see it, what you do to get an interview falls on a continuum from standard >>> bold. All of them can work in some situations but because you’re aiming at your dream job, go for bold! Keep in mind that bold can come across as desperate so use your best judgement.

Getting a job interview.PNG

Standard

Standard includes things like:

  • Reaching out to your friends and asking them if they know anyone that can give you a warm introduction to. This is actually how I eventually got my first job. A friend of a friend knew the Director of Product at FreshBooks who agreed to meet me for 15min and hear me out

  • Going to industry meetups and networking with people

Serious

Serious includes things like:

  • Calling companies to get informational interviews (some companies will meet with someone interested outside of interviewing for a role to answer questions about what they’re looking for). These make a lot of sense especially to find out what a co. is looking for in a hire. I’ve never done one though

  • Cold-messaging people on LinkedIn or through company directories to ask if they’ll help you. I didn’t have any luck getting responses when I was searching, but always reply to aspiring PMs now that I’m on the other side. This could be hit or miss but the hits could lead to a new mentor

Bold

This is the Hail Mary of job searching. If a bold move doesn’t work there’s no more plays left for you. That said, if you make it it’ll be a legendary story. I used a bold move in one of my first applications.

  • It was a company making a connected bicycle, and as an avid cyclist, mechanical engineer, and techie, I had a good story. So I programmed a custom webpage on my personal site just for them, outlining exactly why they should hire me. They mentioned on their blog that they liked craft beer so I bought a few nice ones and attached a note saying, “Hey, my name’s Mark, I love what you’re doing and would love to work with you guys. For how I can help see markrabo.com/theirname”. Then I delivered it to the office knowing beer would make it to the CEOs desk even if I couldn’t. And it worked – I got the interview.

The custom website I coded that went along with the beer. It had my detailed pitch to them.

The note I took after making the beer drop at the company I wanted to interview at

2. Convincing them to hire you

The main concern for someone in charge of hiring is whether you can do the job. Choosing the wrong candidate costs time and money so most companies aren’t taking big chances on who they bring in. It’s important to be upfront with the fact that you don’t have experience and can totally understand their concerns about bringing you on, but they still should. Acting like you know while having never done it will make you look delusion. So be upfront and explain why it’s not as risky as it seems. Here are a couple ways to do that.

Look for an 'Associate Product Manager’ role

This is a relatively new, entry-level PM position many companies are creating. With a high demand for product managers and a relatively low supply, many companies are willing to hire people with potential and train them in-house. There’s no expectation of PM experience which increases your chances, but if the company doesn’t offer the role there’s not much you can do.

Get some experience

By far the best way to convince someone you can do the job is to show them. There's nothing stopping you from “being" a product manager. Take one of your product ideas and be the PM for it. Go through all the steps you would as an actual PM: user research, writing problem statements, "how have others” research, prototyping, user testing, etc. Document the whole thing in a way you can show it and bring it to interviews. Not only will you be getting practice, building a portfolio of work you can show, but also showing you really want the job and willing to work your face off for it.

Even better, take the actual product from one of your 'Top 5’ companies, audit and redesign part of it (onboarding is always a good one). Post it on your website and send/tweet the link to the director of product or CEO. You’ll get experience, build your portfolio, but also learn about the company AND… it'll make you stand out like crazy. Applicants willing to put in 30-40hrs of work for free are extremely rare. This’ll increase your chances 1000000x.

These are the doodles and sketches I turned into a portfolio when I was searching for my first PM job.

These are the doodles and sketches I turned into a portfolio when I was searching for my first PM job.

Other ways to stand out

Find natural fits

Find companies working in areas you already have a lot of knowledge in (the way I did with the bicycle company above). This knowledge and intuition takes much longer to learn than product management skills.

Work for free

This is bold too but working for free (or just offering) puts you in the top 1% of people. Two things happen when you are willing to work for free. First, it removes the cost barrier, making it harder to refuse. Second, it really shows how bad you want to work there.

I worked for free at a small company my friend had connections to. I offered to do any job, no matter how low (coffee/lunch runner, cleaning, note taker), with my only ask being being able to sit in on meetings to listen. They said yes and it was incredible. It was the first time I had actually seen and heard what product managers actually do and how. (Note: Big companies aren’t normally set up to have people working for free – it’s illegal in many places – so this is more a small company tactic. That said, getting ‘paid’ doesn’t necessarily mean getting money, it could be something like having you transportation covered. I was paid with a few stock options when I worked for free.

Closing thoughts

Transitioning careers into product management isn't easy, but it’s a lot easier than most fields. The fact that are no gatekeepers – you don’t need a degree or diploma or any certification – means it’s very open and merit-based (i.e. all in your hands). If you put in the work, have a basic knack for it, and stay persistent, you’ll get in eventually.

And finally, I just want to come back to the idea of why having your ’Top 5’ is so important… because you can't underestimate the value of enthusiasm. The people running companies/hiring know how rare it is to find someone who really wants to work there. Having spoken to many founders and being one myself, I can tell you that when you find someone with enthusiasm and work ethic, you immediately start thinking about how you can bring this person into your circle. So find those places that get you pumped and put all your energy into them. My search took me a year and a half but it was 💯worth it.

Becoming a PMMark Rabo