I had a chance to sit down with my friend and former colleague, Zeya Yang, to talk about his many career transitions.
Zeya is currently in his first year at Harvard Business School. Prior to HBS, he was a Product Manager at Dropbox. Like me, he transitioned into the PM role. Before becoming a PM, he was on the Strategic Finance team at Dropbox, which was the team he first joined after transitioning into tech from Bain & Company, a management consulting firm.
Zeya has great advice about making transitions into and within tech, especially for consultants and MBA grads. However, his advice is generalizable for any one who is interested in landing a job in the tech industry.
You can watch the full interview below. In addition, I’ve compiled highlights from the interview.
Highlights from Zeya
On transitioning from Consulting to Tech
Zeya’s first role in tech from consulting was on Dropbox’s Strategic Finance team, which tackled large, nebulous business problems like pricing strategy.
The way he targeted this role for his first job in tech was by looking at what roles people with a similar background were doing in tech.
I think the responsible path is, okay let’s find some teams that have people who look like me…Maybe you don’t totally know what you want but you know that there’s this program that actually targets people with your background…so it’s worth doing some exploring there.
Zeya leveraged his existing skill set and experience to initially break into tech from consulting.
On why consulting experience is valuable in tech:
You can basically throw at them [consultants] any problem, completely unstructured, no guidance…In a couple of days, they’d figure out how to give that problem a structure. They’ve given what a good outcome looks like and they’ve broken down the problem into pieces that are very digestible and they know what data they need to dig into … and then they will give you all the analysis themselves, and ultimately come back to you with an answer.
And especially in the startup world where you really don’t know what you’re looking for and you might not have real structured data…these people [consultants] are pretty useful.
Although Zeya knew he wanted to be in tech, he wasn’t going to jump at the first tech job offer. He was thoughtful about looking for roles and companies that would know how to set him up for success.
You want to find a team that knows what to do with you for you to be able to learn properly, get the mentorship, be able to adjust from professional services to an actual company properly.
On transitioning from Strategic Finance to Product Management
As a side note, Zeya has a fantastic article about how to transition into Product Management. I highly recommend it, I probably send this article out at least once a week to aspiring Product Managers.
Zeya internally transitioned into the Product Manager role at Dropbox, just like me.
On why a lot of Product Managers are internal transfers:
It’s very useful for a PM to already understand the product that they’re going to be working on. I think, this is why internal transfers work really well. Because people who’ve already been working at their company, already understand generally what the product is about – major user pain points and how to get work done at that company. That’s pretty important as a PM. Knowing folks in the company, having a network inside of the company. That’s very important in terms of how PM has to get work done.
Basically, almost anyone on any team can internally transfer to PM because PM is that diverse of a role….I think the thing that is common amongst everyone regardless where they come from is that they had previously worked very directly with a PM, right?
So, those people naturally have a very real understanding of what the job entails.
Zeya goes on to give advice on how to internally transfer into PM.
Make it known that you want to be a PM:
Help others help you. If you want to make the transfer internally, the other PMs at the company can’t really help unless they know that’s what you want to do.
Take on additional projects where you get a chance to directly work with a PM:
By having that work experience, you’d probably have an internal champion who can walk you through the company process.
For MBAs looking to get into tech
Tech recruiting for MBAs can be difficult to navigate. Here’s great advice from Zeya who has seen it from both sides of the table.
There’s just no formal processes [MBA recruiting] until you’re at the scale of Facebook and Google. There’s just no dedicated human being, time spent on how do we hire MBAs, right? That just doesn’t exist. And so, it’s really up to the candidate to find out what companies they’re interested in, figuring out who they can reach out to in starting the conversation for the company to be like, oh this makes sense to hire this person.
Yeah. So, step number one is filtering yourself. Find a set of companies that you’re interested in, right? I think the two biggest filters are size of company and geography. That will get you down a lot. And then type of product, probably that gets you another pretty good dropdown.
Hopefully those major filters get you down to more digestible number of companies. I would guess maybe like 20 to 40. You should get down to that point. And then, at that point, you can actually just read about those companies…
…articles, their websites…And you should be able to eliminate the ones that you clearly wouldn’t want to go. And I think the goal is probably to get down to 5 to 10 companies that you then look in LinkedIn to see what connections you have to those companies and then start reaching out from there.
On natural role fits in tech for graduating MBAs:
BizOps, Product Marketing, even if there are no MBAs at the company, see what roles at companies of a similar stage that the past MBAs have taken on. I think hopefully you can find someone at the company who has had experience working at another company that did hire MBAs, so they’re more familiar with how to manage that talent.
On bad career advice
I asked Zeya what bad career advice he’s heard.
On getting a PM job:
I don’t think you should take a PM job at any cost. [If you join a failing company] You got the PM title but did you really learn and is that really going to set you up for a longer term stay as a PM? I don’t really know.
On how to determine what company to join:
The other thing I wrestle with when it comes to career advice is I think there’s one camp of people who say join a fast-growing company in whatever role. Like when you see a rocket ship, just get to rocket ship.
And then there’s another set of people who I think prescribe the manager you work for is much, much more important and that’s what you should be optimizing for.
I really think that when you see a rocket ship, get on the rocket ship.
It is just so risky to bet your career on another person. Especially in tech. It’s very possible that person leaves in three months after you joined. So, unless that person’s name is Sheryl Sandberg, I just have a hard time betting yourself on another human being.
These are just a few highlights from my conversation with Zeya. I encourage you to set aside the time to watch the full interview, it’s jam packed with actionable advice.
Also, here’s a link to the full transcript (I used a 3rd party transcription service, so apologies if there are typos!).
Special thanks to Zeya! You can find more of his writing on Medium.