by Brian DeChesare Comments (9)

From Finance to Product Management: How to Escape the Dungeon and Move into the Technology Industry

Finance to Product Management

Can you quit finance and move into technology?

It seems to be the trendy thing to do.

After all, news articles repeatedly tell us that “the best and brightest” no longer go into finance, and that Google and Facebook are now more appealing than Goldman Sachs.

But if you want to make this switch, it’s not quite as simple as showing up at a technology company and saying, “Hire me!”

To succeed, you have to spin your experience into sounding relevant, and then network and interview successfully – the same things you must do to get into finance.

A reader – Bowen Li – recently went through this process at TaskRabbit (now acquired by IKEA) and volunteered to share his experiences:

Origin Stories and Finance to Tech

Q: Can you start by summarizing your story?

A: Sure. I studied math and finance in college and completed several co-ops in corporate finance, asset management, and hedge funds.

I had an asset management offer upon graduation, but I wanted to do something different, so I joined the data analytics team at a large insurance firm and worked in predictive analytics.

I stopped enjoying the corporate life after about a year, so I left to start my own company in the on-demand food delivery space (similar to the now-shut-down Sprig, SpoonRocket, and Maple).

We ran the company for a year, “pivoted” a few times, and raised outside funding, but we couldn’t make the business model work.

So, we shut down, and I moved to San Francisco and attended a 3-month design and growth training program to learn about product design and user acquisition/growth.

From there, I started networking and won an offer as a product manager at TaskRabbit, which had raised funding up through Series C when I joined (shortly after I joined, it was acquired by IKEA).

Q: OK. Why did you focus on product manager roles instead of sales, business development, or finance jobs?

A: A product manager is “a jack of all trades, but master of none,” which fit my personality best: I knew about finance, data analytics, and sales, and I had learned about UI/UX and user acquisition in my classes.

The other roles you mentioned have more in common with the finance skill set, but they also involve doing the same tasks over and over – and I wanted variety.

Also, the average product manager role often pays more than the average sales or business development job, at least at venture-backed startups.

Successful and more senior salespeople can earn a lot more than product managers, but I’m talking about the average entry-level compensation.

Finally, not all startups necessarily need large finance teams; the one I joined had last raised funding years ago, so they weren’t looking for new finance staff.

Q: I see. And what do you do as a “product manager”? The term is quite broad.

A: In this role, I have three main responsibilities:

  • Driving Business Metrics – If we want to boost the “free user to paid user” conversion rate in one month, I’ll come up with ideas for how to do that.
  • Prioritizing Different Requests – For example, the engineers might want to optimize the code, but the sales team might want a new feature that a top customer has been requesting. I make decisions about which requests to pursue first.
  • Coordinating with Engineers and Designers – When we’ve decided on a feature or product, I coordinate with the technical team to roll it out and make sure there’s no downtime.

There are different types of product managers as well; some focus on growth, others focus on the product, others focus on technology, and others do a mix of everything.

The biggest misconception about product management is that you “manage people.”

But you don’t – you manage the product.

The Job Search

Q: Thanks for clarifying that. Once you had decided on product management, how did you search for jobs?

A: I started by applying for “growth” (user acquisition) roles, and I won one in less than a month. I had a finance background, I was analytical, and there’s high demand for growth PMs.

But I turned it down because I was more interested in generalist product management. I started recruiting for those roles by reaching out to PMs at different companies and conducting informational interviews to find out more.

Then, I rewrote my resume to emphasize my business, engineering/technical, and design experience, as well as my ability to work with people in all those departments, which are the most important qualities for these roles.

I used keywords and phrases like “collaborated with designer to produce UI sketches” and “adapted agile development process with engineers to shorten the release cycle.”

Next, I reached out to over 250 people via LinkedIn, email, cold applications, warm introductions, and referrals.

The percentage of first contacts that turned into interviews ranged from 10% to 80% depending on the company and method.

I won interviews at a few companies, went through multiple rounds, and finally won my product manager offer.

Q: An 80% conversion rate sounds incredible. How did you do that?

A: Before explaining that, I want to note that most of the “normal” methods – cold applications, cold emails, and even warm introductions – resulted in far lower conversion rates.

The method that produced an 80% conversion rate only worked under specific conditions.

I sent an email like this to the person:

“Hi [XX], I found you on LinkedIn.

It’s really interesting that you [made comment YY in a presentation or talk that I saw.]

From my own startup, I also learned [ZZ – related to their presentation or talk]. And I completely agree with your opinion.

Incidentally, I noticed your company is looking to hire a PM. I would love to chat and learn more.

Looking forward to hearing back from you. I would love to hear about your experiences with the company. Speak soon.”

I signed it with my name and didn’t attach my resume.

This tactic only worked if I had something real in common with the person.

Referencing a university class from 5-10 years ago or a friend-of-a-friend-of-an-acquaintance never worked.

I won my current job by using this tactic to contact the Hiring Manager and commenting on a specific talk he gave at a design school.

Hardly anyone puts this much time and effort into the process, so this strategy can yield great results.

Q: Thanks for sharing that. What was the interview process like?

A: There were usually three rounds. The first round was the “screening,” where they look at your resume and decide whether or not you’ll advance to interviews.

They conducted the second round via the phone, and I spoke with HR or the Hiring Manager. The questions were very standard: “How do you think of Product X?” “Tell me what you associate with this product.” “How do you prioritize your work?” “How do you work with engineers and designers?”

And then the third round consisted of on-site interviews with all the team members.

The questions became more in-depth, but the main difference was that I needed to emphasize different aspects to different people: Senior team members cared about business metrics and growth, while the junior team members cared more about my process.

Some tech companies also ask you to analyze data or come up with product ideas that fit a specific need. They might even ask you to write an entire product specification!

These “product specs” go far beyond 2- or 3-hour financial modeling tests; some could take days to finish.

Personally, I never continued the process with any company that asked for that much work because I thought it was unreasonable for full-time candidates.

Q: Which specific questions were the most common in these interviews?

A: The #1 question was “How would you prioritize the features of this product?”

They’ll give you scenarios where different teams request different features and ask you to walk through your thought process.

With those questions, I usually said that I prioritized features based on 1) Revenue, 2) User Experience, and 3) Development Effort. The best features are ones that improve both revenue and the user experience and require little effort to implement.

If two features required the same development effort, but one feature improved the user experience only a bit while boosting revenue significantly, and the other one did the opposite, I would prioritize the first one.

Other common questions relate to your style of working with the developers and designers.

For example, they might ask how you would speak with the developer if he/she were falling behind, or what you might do if the developers were not working well with the designers.

Finally, the “Tell me about yourself” question is still common.

Your templates and examples are good starting points, but you should be even more specific about how your plans fit into this company’s products and services since each tech company is very different (whereas banks, despite some differences, have similar work styles and cultures).

Q: Going back a bit, can you give us examples of shorter case studies you received in interviews?

A: In one case study, they gave me a 3-page product spec for an online education platform and asked me to expand on it and identify the top usability and development challenges.

In another, a food delivery startup gave me order data in Excel format and asked me to analyze it and make 2-3 product feature recommendations based on my findings.

And then in a third case study, a mobile gaming company asked general questions about entertainment platforms and narrative experiences I liked, and they asked me to break down the elements that made platforms compelling or not compelling.

On the Job, Moving Up, and Moving Out

Q: Thanks for that. Now that you’ve started, what has your average day been like?

A: I work from 9 AM to 6 PM in the office each day, and then another ~2 hours from home.

During the day, I have around 4-5 hours of meetings, so I have little time to write documents such as new product specs.

The meetings during the day are with the business team, designers, and developers, and I spend a lot of time making sure that everyone is aligned with each other and senior management.

When I work from home, I spend my time writing documents such as product specs, outlines for rollouts and launches, and development plans.

Q: How easy or difficult is it to advance?

A: It depends on what you want to do. Product management roles rarely lead to C-level executive positions, so if you want to become CEO, CFO, or CMO, you should work in a different group.

But you can definitely advance within product management, and the rough hierarchy is PM –> Senior PM –> Director of PM –> VP of PM –> Head of PM –> Head of Product.

The ease of advancement depends not only on your performance, but also on on the company’s growth – if the company is growing quickly, you can also advance quickly, even if you’re just average.

But if the company isn’t doing so well, advancement will be incredibly tough.

The process is very different from advancement at a large bank, where you move up every X years if you’ve done well enough.

Q: Do you think product management is a good option for finance professionals who want to switch into technology?

A: Potentially, yes, but it depends on your background and goals.

You will not have an advantage coming from a finance background because PM teams mostly recruit people with design, engineering, or industry experience.

That said, finance skills can be useful in growth-oriented PM roles when you need to understand the financial impact of new marketing campaigns and promotions.

If you have a finance background, you might want to focus on PM roles at fintech companies since you’ll understand the market far better than engineers and designers.

To do well in this role, you must be good at multitasking, keeping your composure, and communicating with different parties.

If you’re the highly analytical type who likes to scrutinize company’s filings for hours or build complex models and focus 100% on a single task, this is not the role for you.

But if you enjoy the “teamwork and communication” parts of IB, it might be a better fit.

Also, you have to accept a not-so-clear advancement path. As with other non-finance companies, you won’t see big jumps in compensation or equity unless you start a company or join a startup as an early employee.

Q: And is that in your future as well?

A: Yes, eventually I want to take another shot at starting my own company.

I picked a poor market the first time around and didn’t have much experience, but I’ve learned a lot about product development here, and I feel more confident now.

I still enjoy what I do every day, so this plan is at least a few years away.

Q: Great. Thanks for your time!

A: My pleasure.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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Comments

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  1. good interview, thank you. just wanted to respond to a few points:

    “Product management roles rarely lead to C-level executive positions, so if you want to become CEO, CFO, or CMO, you should work in a different group.”

    if your goal is to become CFO or CMO, this is true. If your goal is to become CEO or CPO however, this is not true. many successful startups were founded by former product managers from larger companies.

    “Personally, I never continued the process with any company that asked for [product specs] because I thought it was unreasonable for full-time candidates.”

    this isn’t typical, so i’m wondering if they asked for product specs because he didn’t have previous PM experience.

    “Finance skills can be useful in growth-oriented PM roles when you need to understand the financial impact of new marketing campaigns and promotions.”

    yes, absolutely. in addition, the tech industry has been in expansion mode for the past few years, so companies are aggressively hiring for new talent. for anyone considering a move from finance to tech, this is a great time.

    1. Yes, I think the full product spec might have been because he did not have formal PM experience. But I have seen other companies attempt to give similar tests, especially with technical (programmer) hires, so I don’t think it’s out of the question. There have been a few threads on Hacker News with programmers complaining about the amount of work required for job interviews…

    2. Hey Ben, thanks for your comments, and totally agree on some of the things you pointed out.

      For the product specs scenario, it’s really dependent on the company’s application process, less of the candidate’s experience. Some companies would ask you to create a product spec to recommend a product feature, and you would spend 10+ hours to put it together, and not even being offered a phone interview afterward. This is the particular scenario I would recommend candidates to avoid. The time commitment for it is just not worth it. You could have used that 10+ hours to reach out to other companies and end up with several PM interviews.

      On the other hand, if you passed the initial screening, and you are asked to prepare a spec and to pitch the product feature during your onsite, you should certainly do it

      1. maybe certain hiring managers use a product spec as a test to see how passionate you are about joining their company.

        re: the Airbnb situation, i think it’s likely a combination of multiple factors: 1) ML/AI is very much in-demand, 2) the PM likely has significant experience, and 3) probably has multiple offers. just a guess, however.

  2. Can you expand on compensation a bit? I understand it depends but what would be a fair range? Thanks

    1. We didn’t discuss that one, but the average is probably $100-$120K and more like $150K at the large tech companies. Before the VP level, you probably max out at the $200-$250K range.

      [Note: These figures are guesstimates. Anyone with more accurate numbers, feel free to contribute.]

      1. $100-$120k is generally accurate for a PM role, while $150k is more likely for a senior PM role. and yes, larger companies pay more cash while startups and smaller companies provide more equity comp.

        1. Great, thanks for confirming that.

        2. The range of PM salary can vary quiet drastically depending on the product that you are on and the company that you are working at. Generally speaking the average salary of a PM in SF would be around $135K. That being said, I know someone who is a PM in Airbnb’s machine learning team, and his base salary is $200K+, after stock options and bonus it would be around $300K+ / year. go figure

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