A picture of Sequoia's Zoe Hewitt.

How To

May 1, 2024

How can I become a product manager?

Sequoia's VP of talent Zoe Hewitt shares her tips for those considering a career change

Zoe Hewitt

5 min read

‘I’m at a turning point in my career and am interested in pivoting into the product management function from a customer role. Should I play it safe and stick in my current field or pursue the new route? How could I make the move?’

Product management lies at the core of every tech company — and good teams are consistently building their bench of skilled product talent. 

Transitioning into product management, however, can be hard to navigate. Unlike software engineering, which offers more structured career paths, there’s no defined route into — or through — product management.


That means product managers come from various backgrounds, especially in Europe — and there are still fewer pools of trained product professionals to pick from, compared to the US.

That comes with its pros and cons so, before taking the plunge and pivoting into product, make sure you understand what a role in product management involves and the personal advantages, challenges and risks at play for you.

Understand the role

A product manager defines and implements the strategy for a product's development, launch and growth. Those who excel in product management roles usually enjoy collaborating with others and problem-solving. They also possess strong execution and strategic thinking skills, are commercially oriented and passionate about delivering exceptional user experiences.

Coming from a customer-centric background offers a significant advantage: you have firsthand insight into what end users think and desire. Your instincts are honed by direct experience with user feedback on products or services, providing a crucial level of empathy. This deep understanding of the customer is invaluable in product management, guiding decision-making and keeping development teams aligned with delivering value. Numerous company onboarding processes begin by placing their new hires on the front lines, addressing customer enquiries and tickets, to gain the exact experience you already have.

Other skills and abilities you’ll probably need to learn. A key characteristic of successful product managers is their ability to simplify complex problems through first principles thinking — breaking down intricate ideas into fundamental truths. Rather than immediately addressing new requests, product managers delve deeper by asking "why" repeatedly to fully grasp the issue before crafting a strategy. This shift in mindset may entail moving from swiftly tackling surface-level customer issues to meticulously analysing the root cause of a problem.

Several other essential skills for product managers centre on people and relationships. Influencing without authority is a necessity. Clear communication and building trust are vital for effectively leading and motivating a cross-functional team. Managing and prioritising the needs of various stakeholders is essential.

Is it right for you?

Consider the less glamorous aspects of a role in product too. Numerous product managers have shared with me that on bad days it can be a challenging, sometimes thankless job. You may encounter more ambiguity compared to the clear, well-informed decisions associated with customer-centric roles. 

Lastly, consider your long-term goals. How do you see your career panning out over an extended time horizon? If you were to remain in your current function, what is the greatest peak you can imagine reaching? Careers in product can open up lots of exciting avenues along the way — including important leadership roles, the opportunity to spin up new products from scratch and starting your own company as a founder. In a previous column I discussed evaluating the career opportunity cost associated with role switching, which is something to consider as you think about what is important to your future.

How to break in

If you do decide to pivot into product, here’s my advice on how to break into that first role:

Get closer to the product team. If you're employed by a company with a tech product, your simplest and least risky route would be to align yourself more closely with the internal product team. Forge new relationships with product managers. Seek out an advocate, preferably someone in a leadership position, who can support your transition, whether it's a partial or full role change.

Join a startup. Securing a junior product manager position at a major tech firm can be challenging for newcomers due to intense competition. While there might be more entry-level openings at larger corporations, consider joining a startup instead. Founders will be more inclined to take a chance on your relevant skills and proactive mindset over years of experience. Embrace opportunities for versatile, 'wear many hats' roles that could fast-track your journey into product management as the company expands.


Find great product mentors. Operators in product tend to be welcoming and community-oriented. Reach out to a respected product professional within your current company and invite them for coffee. Learn from their experiences and how they got into their role. Extend your search to companies known for their inspiring product cultures. Find individuals who share similar experiences to yours and ask to meet. Tune into podcasts and interviews featuring influential product leaders, such as 20Product, to learn from their expertise.

Close your skill gaps. Look for opportunities in your current role to develop the essential product skills you need. Ask your network for honest feedback, especially from those in product roles who can offer valuable insights. Explore resources like Lenny’s Newsletter, a favourite among product managers for its practical content and career advice. Though not essential, consider courses from institutions like Product School for recognised certifications that may build your confidence as you commit to this new career path.

Zoe will be answering questions from Sifted readers each month. Have something you want to ask? Reach out at askzoe@sifted.eu.

Zoe Hewitt

Zoe Hewitt is VP of talent at Sequoia.