Paths to product
Career Pivots
 • 
May 14, 2021

Paths to product

Sheldon Smickley
Sheldon Smickley
Product Director at Resilia
Sheldon Smickley
Sheldon Smickley
Product Director at Resilia

"PM's come from a myriad of experiences. They usually have a T-shaped skillset, meaning they know a little about a lot of fields and generally a lot about one specific area. They are also drivers, in terms of keeping the company agile in delivering product, removing ambiguity, and analyzing the tradeoffs."

Sheldon's foundation is in analytics and data technology. Recently, he's taken on leadership roles to help drive teams forward to ship products which solve complex problems. He's currently helping to lead the product management team at Resilia, a SaaS product that helps nonprofit organizations become high-performing and enable Enterprises (corporations, cities, and private foundations) to measure and scale the impact of their grant deployment.

I'm frequently asked how folks can break into their first Product Role, so I wanted to lay out the different paths that I've seen in my experience.

PM's come from a myriad of experiences. They usually have a T-shaped skillset, meaning they know a little about a lot of fields and generally a lot about one specific area. They're also drivers, in terms of keeping the company agile in delivering product, removing ambiguity, and analyzing the tradeoffs. 

It's worth mentioning, PM's at different size orgs and business models are pretty different, but the below advice should apply for most roles. In my experience, you either come from a very technical background (engineering / analytics / consulting) or a design focused background (UX). However, I think the most important skill set is having a high EQ and being able to listen. Empathy is more important than intelligence.

Path 1: Lateral move from Ops, Customer Success, Sales Engineering, Engineering, etc. 

This is probably the easiest path. You likely have some experience in technology, you can start shadowing the PM function, learning more about sprint planning, making product decisions, etc.

Path 2: Consulting or Business School

A lot of the PM's I worked with in the past came from a top-tier b-school or management consulting background. I would say this is perfect for joining a Series B+ company, because likely most of the ambiguity is removed from the company at this point. You're more working on making long-term strategic decisions and short-term pivots aren't a usual experience.

Path 3: Straight from college with a CS Degree

Majority of entry level PM roles within FAANG require a CS degree. These are the typical associate PM roles that shadow different parts of the org and will eventually find you a specific role.

Path 4: Entrepreneur

Starting your own thing gives you a lot of credibility, probably because you will be exposed to more problems than you ever would at someone else's company, and for the most part you need to turn to your advisors, users, or google to figure it out. It's why some of the best PM's come from venturing out on their own.


Hopefully this gives you some examples of how best to break into Product. If you ever have more questions, you can always reach out to me!

If you're interested in joining a group of peers who find champions to help them pivot, get in touch!

Back to Top