making a career switch

I’ve received questions here and there about how to transition into a new role or industry. I’ve repurposed a particularly detailed answer below.

The original poster shared their skills and how they were more interested in account management, project management, or consultant services. They had more detail than they let on.

My advice about how to approach the transition stayed the same.


I recommend you get more specific on what your strengths are, and what specific positions interest you.

You mention account management, project management, and consultant services, but in what industry? With companies of what size, with a mission of doing what? Or do you want to work for yourself? What kind of clients do you want to serve, and what kind of problems do you want to solve?

Instead of "consulting services", if you say, "I want to help small businesses with 5-10 employees in the sports equipment e-commerce space negotiate supply contracts," you just made it much easier to target who and what you want to do. The more specific you are, the better you’re able to converge on the specific problem your skills are best at solving.

When talking about yourself, be ruthlessly specific as well.

“Good at learning” - everyone learns, how did you adapt quickly in your previous position to achieve results?

“Good at problem solving” - everyone problem solves, can you give me a unique example of what specific problems you've solved with past clients?

“Good at building relationships” - show me, don’t just tell me. How did you influence others to come onboard with you? How did you address their concerns? In your previous position, what were some difficult people situations that you overcame? How did you successfully advance a relationship and eventually convert stranger to lead to customer?

With these specific answers you will clearly see how much or how little overlap you have with where you are and where you want to go.


I made a couple of pivots myself, from public health to data science to product analytics, and then finally, product management. I’m still exploring product, so perhaps I’ll take a chunk of my own advice and end up jumping to something else in the future.

Basically there's two parts to your transition - the first is showing, not just telling people about your interests in the position (which means doing the work), and second, finding the correct people to talk to and getting a response from them. This is why getting specific is important.

If you haven’t done so, start talking to people to get a clear picture of the day to day. Ask them for their experience and advice. In this process, people usually put me in touch with folks who had opportunities, and in the meantime, I immediately started to "be the position" I wanted to be in side projects, freelance work, and my full-time job. This means applying their advice.

The first thing I did was to talk to every single product manager I currently worked with. What I was looking for was what it felt like to be them, to be in their position. Since these were my coworkers, I listened very carefully for any kind of opportunities and pains that they had. Maybe they were annoyed with several clients, or they couldn't find a complete set of information on how a new product release was going. So, the two primary questions I honed in on were "would I be interested in eating this shit sandwich?", and "how can I help them with XYZ situation?"

The shit sandwich test ensures that even if you have the skills, you don't go down a path you'll ultimately regret. If you turn back now, you won't have suffered much. But if it's what you want, and you’re okay with scarfing the product shit sandwich, then it's time to pay attention to the opportunities.

This meant doing the work. On top of my data responsibilities, I was also compiling information in a database for said product releases and trying my hand at meeting with those frustrating clients. I reported back to the product manager I originally talked to and presented my work. “Last time we talked, you said you couldn’t find this information, and those clients you hated, well, I smoothed things over. Thought I’d give it a shot since I was interested in trying out some product tasks." It wasn't complicated, really. Someone has an annoying problem and you went out of your way to fix it, ensuring that your work aligned with what you want to do on a daily basis. The next time a product opportunity opened up at the company, who do you think they're going to look to first? The guy who actually did the job already or someone who says they can do the job?

Plenty of people who “meet for coffee” just hear, "I'm looking for a product job." It's basically one step away from "let's do some shitty small talk and I’m assuming you’re nice, so you'll give me an opportunity." But if you show up and you've already done the work or alleviated some of their pain, then you're already past 99% of people.

Doing the work is another way to ensure that you’re really okay with eating the shit sandwich.

After I locked down the initiatives at work, I started exploring opportunities outside of my current job. Same things apply when reaching out to people outside your company but with some caveats. You can go through a warm or cold introduction, warm meaning you know a friend who can introduce you, versus cold, where you have no introduction. Find out their true problems and needs will also be more difficult. I've written posts on how to approach these conversations to get a good success rate:

using a warm introduction

using a cold introduction

Once you get a conversation, think very carefully about who it is you're talking to. The main question now is "what do they get out of it?"

If you lean heavily on discovering the shit sandwich, then what they get out of it is the fact that you can take their advice and run with it. Report back on how you've implemented their advice and made gains. People love mentoring, as long as you don’t ghost them.

If you lean more heavily on discovering opportunities, really listen and ask probing questions on what their current problems are. This requires in-depth research on what a company or client's challenges are. This information will form the basis on how to "be the position."

You can indeed solve problems for companies you don’t work for. After I had a conversation with an external company, I was able to construct a deck outlining where the bottlenecks in their business were and several product improvement paths I would take to alleviate said bottlenecks. While it didn’t lead to a job, it lead to several follow up conversations, an expanded network, and honestly, it just felt good to do some exploratory work.

The whole process is just figuring out the problem space and using your existing skillsets to identify key pain points in order to recommend the beginning 30-40% (or even 100%) of the solution. Most people expect a normal conversation, but they come away with less pain and frustration. No one loses here. You get experience "doing" the job, they get new ideas & solutions, and job or no job, you make a highly positive connection.


Summary:

  1. get specific on what you want and what you can offer

  2. make sure you want to eat the shit sandwich

  3. take action on advice and report back

  4. apply your skills and do pre-work

  5. be the position you want to be