It’s no secret that people in finance are flocking en masse to the tech industry in roles like operations, business development, and even harder pivots like engineering.
But after this article came out in the Wall Street Journal, the chatter in the finance exodus began to converge towards product management specifically as the “new hot career,” for good reason. Since I have my feet in both worlds I routinely get questions from undergraduates and present-day financiers, such as “Do I need to go back to get an MBA,” “Does my banking job put me at a disadvantage against engineers,” etc.
A Hidden Advantage
Let me reassure you: for those of you either already in or entering into the finance industry, you’re much better off than you think.
Just to get on the same page, consider Marty Cagan’s succinct definition of a product manager’s job: “to discover a product that is valuable, usable, and feasible” (emphasis mine):
- You need to know how to think like an engineer to assess feasibility, and that can come from knowing how to code.
- You need to understand good design and storytelling to simplify usability.
- But of all the areas a Product Manager needs to own, a strong business sense is one of the most difficult ones to acquire without any practical experience, and that’s precisely what you need in order to assess value, which comes before all else.
Consequently, your finance background is a fantastic step towards becoming a product manager.
Okay, Why Is That?
While on the job, here are some points you should be thinking about:
First of all, people with a finance background are deeply fluent in data and statistical analysis. Data plays an important role in the decision-making process, but it’s about as useless as a bicycle without wheels if you don’t know how to use it! In the product world, you need accurate user data in order to identify the exact challenges you’re trying to fix, and to construct a story about how your product helps your customers win. In finance, whether it’s finding the right portfolio allocation to balance a client’s risk-reward ratios or identifying the most efficient way to raise capital, we deal with constructing fluid stories from heaps of ambiguous data day-in and day-out. Bonus points: get fluent in Python or R to jump-start your analytical capabilities and engineering chops!
Secondly, those in finance (banking or buy-side roles, especially) get a crash-course in time management and balancing multiple deadlines. As a PM, you represent the voice of the user, but need to be able to represent the user in languages that engineers, designers, sales reps, the executive team, the client – literally all the stakeholders – will understand. This requires a lot of flexibility on your part and, most of all, a lot of meetings. It’s a soft skill, but you’ll find that even though your schedule may not be 100% in your control, you have a sprint plan to stick to, a ship date ahead, and the whole team counting on you to keep the process moving smoothly. Think about that the next time you’re at the office until 5am getting the books for the client finalized and printed, with at least two more projects in your backlog due the next day (of course the hours are usually better in tech anyway).
Finally (and this I believe is the most important of the three), financiers are trained to always consider the business. Bankers are trained from day one to intimately understand their clients’ strategic and business goals, and it’s up to them to be able to demonstrate how their recommendations will help their clients win. Are they trying to grow? Trying to get to profitability? Or is this just a fluffy recommendation? As a PM, a keen prioritization engine is crucial when it comes to evaluating stories in the backlog – time is a resource, and your team can only complete so many stories in one sprint, so you need to focus on the stories that you’ve identified as major business drivers. Ask yourself: are we trying to grow, trying to reach profitability, or both? Or is this story just a nice-to-have, something that’s pretty?
But Where Do I Start?
For those of you who are currently in finance roles and interested in product management, start by thinking about these points in your daily grind. Keep your eyes open and you’ll find there are opportunities to “intrapreneur” even at the largest of places: whenever it’s made sense within the context of an upcoming meeting with a technology company, I’ve built all sorts of things from prototypes to natural language Twitter bots on top of the traditional PowerPoint and Excel we deliver. Sometimes these add-ons creatively address problems the client is trying to fix, other times to differentiate our franchise from the rest of the Street. In every case these projects have been excellent product management exercises.
Go to meetups and hackathons, start reaching out to people you may know currently in the industry. You can even get involved with a hands-on course in product management like Product School, where you can sharpen your PM toolkit and work with real companies to prototype and present solutions they may not have even considered before!
The bottom line is, if you keep waiting for somebody else to tell you what to do, you’re going to be waiting a long time before you start doing something you genuinely like. If you have the desire to build things that can make a difference in people’s lives, that people love to use, then go make it happen. Your finance and business background lays a solid foundation, and the next step is finding the right people and learning the toolkit you’ll need to sharpen your other skills. So get out there and crank your way into product management!
Written by Ryan Cunningham.