Breaking into Product Management from a Non-Technical Background

Exponent Alumni
Mitchell KimMitchell KimLast updated

We talk to Azi, an Exponent alumni, on his journey to breaking into product management from a non-traditional/non-technical background. Azi is currently PM at LinkedIn, working on Onboarding and Retention for its online education platform LinkedIn Learning.

Q: How would you answer the “Tell me about yourself” question?

  1. I’m insatiably curious about a variety of disciplines. I am always learning something, whether it’s about product management, design, math, philosophy, economics, or cognitive science. No field is too esoteric for me.
  2. I enjoy pursuing excellence in everything I do (in fact, I have the Greek word for excellence – arete – tattooed on my wrist). In practice, this means that I’m always looking to hone my craft, whether it’s lifting weights, playing instruments, cooking, or making product decisions.
  3. If you weren’t able to tell from the first two points, I’m a pretty intense guy :) I bring this intensity to my work and relationships. When I commit to something or someone, whether it’s a project or a new friend, I really commit.

Q: How did you first hear about Exponent?

I was interviewing for PM roles and googled product management interview coaching. In my opinion, having a coach (even for "soft skills") is underrated. There is a reason why some of the top executives sign up for executive coaching.

Q: What was the most difficult thing when you were recruiting for product roles and how did you overcome it?

The hardest stage for me was getting my foot in the door during the application phase. I don't have a typical PM background. I didn't go to a popular school for PM recruiting, nor did I study CS or engineering, so I wasn’t as compelling of a candidate to recruiters at first blush.

Instead, both of the PM roles I have gotten came from my network. I don’t necessarily recommend networking in the traditional sense. Rather, I encourage you to find a relevant role in tech, do great work, and find a mentor. The people who you work with in close contact over an extended period of time are much more valuable connections than people who you cold call and grab coffee with. My current manager is actually my manager from my first company out of college. He was a massive advocate for me throughout my career and throughout the LinkedIn application process.

Q: Was not having a traditional, technical background an obstacle during the process? If so, what did you do to work around that?

Employers and recruiters definitely had a perception of me not having the technical skills necessary to interface with engineers or make the right product decisions. First, I worked hard to develop technical chops including:

I did most of these on the side while working full-time. All these things not only helped me be more comfortable with the technical aspects of the work, but also signal to employers that I had the technical chops required.

Q: Is “you must have a technical background to become a great PM” a myth? Why and why not?

It depends. For some roles it is not necessary, but for other PM roles dealing with technical products, it is. Having a technical background won't ever hurt, and it usually helps. All else equal, I would choose the candidate who has a technical background.

Q: How did Exponent help with your interview process? Were there specific things that you learned from the course materials, coaching sessions, and the community?

Exponent sessions helped me a) apply more structure to my responses, b) improve my ability to perform rapid estimations, and c) helped me be comfortable with thinking out loud on my feet in front of a very smart stranger.

Q: Any advice for aspiring PMs applying, interviewing, and considering offers?

First, make sure you want to be a PM. Being a PM is not for everyone. As a PM, you have to rely on other people to get things done, which can be stressful for type A “doers.” And as a PM, ultimately the buck stops with you — you must take responsibility for whatever happens, bad or good, even if outcomes are outside of your control.

Also, think hard about what type of PM role you want. Being a PM at smaller companies is different than at bigger ones -- typically you have less structure and fewer resources at a smaller company, but you get to act without bureaucratic hurdles.

The role also varies by product: PMs working on more technical products will typically need to be more technical themselves, and may not ship very many user facing features, whereas a role like mine (PM for User Onboarding/Retention) will likely have a much larger design component. Do some research and find something that aligns with your preferences and skills.

Lastly, being a good PM means doing a lot of different things pretty well. Understand what those things are, evaluate yourself honestly, find out ways to improve on your weaknesses, and double down on your strengths. Take a look at this article for a breakdown of common skills by level of PM seniority.

Q: How was the transition from Zenysis, a smaller startup, to LinkedIn, a much bigger company? How did you position yourself differently while recruiting for these roles?

The transition wasn't bad, mostly because I work for a part of LinkedIn (LinkedIn Learning) that is much younger and scrappier than the flagship product. It's much more like a startup environment, except with more resources, which means we've actually been able to move faster than the startups I've worked at.

Because of the scrappier nature of LinkedIn Learning, they actually appreciated that I had a startup background, so I definitely doubled down on that.

Q: Favorite PM resource or blog?

My advice: don’t follow PM resources or blogs. You will pick up common frameworks on the job since everyone else is already consuming those resources. If you want to differentiate your thinking as a product manager, then consume content that is differentiated from what other PMs consume.

Some of my favorites informational sources:

Q: What is your favorite product and why?

My GORUCK GR1 backpack. Best backpack ever: roomy, ergonomic, modular, and is great for rucking (i.e. putting heavy weights in your backpack to lug around).

Q: Who’s a product manager you admire?

Brian Balfour. I’m currently taking one of his Reforge programs on Retention and Engagement, and it is excellent.

Q: Would you be willing to share your resume?


That's a wrap! Thank you so much for reading.

You can find more about Azi on LinkedIn.

Interested in breaking into product management like Azi with the help of Exponent's expert interview coaching? Visit Exponent's Interview Course and website to learn more.

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