Product School

How to Break Into Product Management During a Recession

Kyle Elliot

Kyle Elliott

January 09, 2023 - 8 min read

Updated: January 24, 2024 - 8 min read

The current economic downturn has many workers reevaluating their jobs and considering new career paths. While Product Management is a rapidly growing industry that has piqued the interest of many job seekers, the space is competitive and can be difficult to break into, particularly during a recession.

I spoke with five Product Leaders and hiring managers to gather their insights on making a pivot into the industry, as well as any mistakes to avoid along the way. The following is a breakdown of their top recommendations.

5 Steps to Break into Product Management During a Recession, According to Hiring Managers

Tip 1: Do your research 

person sitting in front of laptop looking down at pieces of paper in their hands

To begin, you want to spend ample time on the research phase of your job search. Charlotte Shimko, a Senior Product Manager at Amazon, explains that “it is even more important to research the companies you are looking to apply to” during a recession. Shimko proposes “consider[ing] industry verticals that are more ‘recession proof’ than others.” You also want to try and stay clear of companies that are making cuts right now. Shimko clarifies that “there is an added complication of companies making adjustments post-Covid with layoffs.” Keep this front of mind as you decide which companies you target.

As you build out your target company list, look to employers with a history of hiring recent graduates. Stefany Martin, Vice President of Marketing at Synergi Partners, explains that larger organizations tend to have programs for new graduates and “are great training grounds to learn the skills required for the job.” Martin argues that “understanding the fundamentals will make it easier if you want to move into start-ups down the road where you will be more comfortable being nimble and adjusting on the fly to rapid changes.”

Tip 2: Harness the power of networking

group of four young professionals smiling and talking

Once you build out your target company list, it’s time to begin networking, as many Product jobs are landed, in part, by contacting people you know. Sarav Subramani, a Product Leader at Amazon, recommends networking as much as is feasible. This includes leaning into your existing network, he says, as well as cultivating a new one. Subramani explains that he successfully “navigated both recent big recessions [2008–09 and 2020] because of [his] alumni network.” If you do not have an alumni network, however, you are not out of luck.

Nikki Werner, Principal Product Manager for subscriptions at Walmart, notes that networking can also occur within your current organization. Begin by informing your manager that you are interested in learning about Product Management, she says. She recommends that you ask to be introduced to someone in the Product Department to learn more about their role and see if it may be a good fit for you. Werner highlights that many of her non-Product Management colleagues have approached her to learn more about Product and how to become a manager, and says she is always willing to create a mentorship opportunity for them “because the skillset benefits the entire team.” Check whether a similar opportunity exists at your own organization and if one doesn’t, create it.

Tip 3: Look for internal Product roles 

Speaking of networking within your current organization, you can also pursue internal transfer opportunities. Zac Hays, Chief Product Officer at Luxury Presence, explains that “hiring managers are trying to reduce risk right now [during the recession].” As a result, you will have a better chance of landing a Product role if you can support your company in mitigating risk with their hiring decision. Hays shares that one way to do this is with “an internal transfer from another team in the company,” as you can demonstrate that you bring knowledge of the product and teams you will be working with. Hays explains that a lot of his most successful hires have been transfers from departments, such as Customer Success and Implementation.

Importantly, these internal Product opportunities can be either a formal role or an ad hoc project. Werner suggests being bold and letting Product colleagues know that “you are willing to assist them or their team with tasks in exchange for the opportunity to build your acumen.” She further highlights that “Product Managers never have a shortage of data to comb through, requirements to document, and competitors to analyze, and they will likely be happy to have an extra set of hands, even if you’re a beginner.” These ad hoc projects are just one step you can take in building your Product knowledge and skills.

Tip 4: Pursue self-education

bird's eye view of someone seated on a bed with several books and a laptop open

If your organization does not have an internal Product Management team or department, Werner recommends taking the route of self-education. She suggests looking for Product Management openings on LinkedIn that ask for one to three years of Product experience and making a list of the recurring competencies, such as creating a roadmap, developing and delivering product milestones, and tracking and improving key product metrics. Then, read articles, listen to podcasts, and watch videos to learn about these topics. Werner explains that “the more various perspectives you hear, the more these concepts will click.”

You may also find it helpful to try project-based learning. Werner recommends putting your new Product knowledge to use on the websites and apps you use daily to further develop your skills. For instance, you can “try identifying and prioritizing 10 features you would build for TikTok to increase user retention, or Instacart to drive internal cost-efficiencies,” she explains. The key is to begin thinking like a Product Manager, even before you land a role as one.

To dive deeper, check out this PLG Micro-Certification!

Tip 5: Learn to interview like a PM

two people seated and talking at a round, sunlit table in an office setting

Once you land a Product Manager interview, come prepared with strong answers to common Product questions such as “tell me about a time you had to convince someone of a strategy/decision without formal authority” and “tell me about a time when a launch did not yield the results you wanted,” says Werner. Before diving in and practicing your answers to these questions, she recommends watching online videos of how people interviewing for top tech companies tackle these topics. She explains that this will teach you how to effectively answer these questions and build your confidence. Notably, Werner shares that “a prepared candidate can often outshine someone with a more robust resume” in her experience.

Your interview is an opportunity to display your fit for the organization and role. Hays believes “coming up with new products and ways to improve existing products is only a small part of the job.” He explains that “the real skill is in identifying the right problems worth solving.” Once you get to the interview, he recommends, “tak[ing] the time to understand why a problem is worth solving before you look for solutions.” Conducting research on the company and typical users can help you perform better in your interview.

While most of your Product interview will focus on your strengths, Shimko explains that you need to also prepare to speak to your weaknesses. She has noticed a recent trend of people only focusing on the positive and their wins, which “can sometimes reflect badly in an interview if [they] aren’t able to be self-reflective and grow from it.” Shimko urges that you try not to “be afraid to talk about your mistakes and how you learned from them.” That said, never highlight a weakness related to a core requirement of the role.

Mistakes to Avoid when Transitioning to Product

person seated outside in a park with a laptop. the person is in focus, looking down at the laptop screen and holding their head with a worried look on their face

While the Product Leaders and hiring managers I spoke with provided a lot of great tips, they also suggested being on the lookout for a few common missteps along the way:

Mistake 1: Fixating on titles

Although you may be focused on landing a role in Product, avoid fixating on the title. Shimko advocates looking for positions in both Product and Program Management, as these roles sometimes overlap, particularly if the organization does not understand the difference between the two functions. She also notes that “Program Manager” can be a catch-all title at some organizations, so you may consider looking at these roles too. Additionally, you want to read the job description before applying, then ask clarifying questions about the role once you’re in the interview, urges Shimko.

Mistake 2: Cold applying

While Product is a rapidly growing industry, you may want to refrain from cold applying if you lack Product Management experience. Hays elaborates that “cold applying to PM job postings without Product Management experience is probably a fruitless effort right now.” The job market and industry are saturated, so there is a lot of competition. If you do opt for this route, Hays recommends finding “an internal referral to vouch for you,” as it will increase your chances of securing an interview.

Mistake 3: Moving too fast

Finally, be strategic and intentional with your transition to Product. Rather than “jump[ing] from one adverse situation to another,” Subramani recommends “tak[ing] time to evaluate your options.” Create a list of your must-haves and deal-breakers in your next role. When presented with an opportunity, complete your due diligence to ensure the role is the right fit for you; otherwise, you may land in the same situation you are in now, sooner than anticipated, he warns.

On a final note, many of these tips are applicable regardless of whether there is a recession, according to Hays. However, if you are considering a transition to Product, why not do it now? You’ve got this!

Updated: January 24, 2024

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