There are a lot of articles making the argument that Product Managers don’t need domain knowledge. By domain knowledge, I mean specific experience in an industry or vertical. For example, experience in eCommerce, Energy, Finance, Healthcare, etc.
These articles claim that as long as a PM knows how to understand users, prioritize features, create a roadmap, and work with engineering, then they are covered.
If it is true that Product Managers don’t need any industry experience, why does this topic keep coming up again and again in forums, blogs, podcasts, and meetups?
Well, it keeps coming up because lots of Product Managers continue to lose job opportunities to candidates with industry experience.
Now, it is possible to get a PM job without industry experience, but all things being equal, candidates with that experience will always have the upper hand.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at it from the perspective of the hiring manager.
Hiring Manager’s Perspective
As a hiring manager myself, I do prioritize Product Management experience above industry experience. But as our profession evolves, having strong PM skills is becoming a basic requirement. To stand out, you (ideally) also need technical, business, and domain expertise.
During the recruiting process, the hiring manager needs to weigh the skills the candidate brings to the table with the effort it will take them to ramp up. And yes, this is where industry experience makes a difference.
Not having industry experience will make your ramp up a lot slower in many ways. Here are two examples that happen to be at the core of your role as a PM:
- Building credibility with other teams: Not having industry experience has an impact on how fast you can build credibility with engineering and other subject matter experts across the company.
- Leading product strategy: Not understanding basic user needs, and not knowing who the main players in the industry are, will slow down your ability to create a competitive product strategy and roadmap.
In these cases, the hiring manager needs to decide whether industry knowledge can be picked up fast enough. They’ll also decide if the PM organization or company as a whole has the ability (i.e. time, money, inclination) to invest in bringing new employees up to speed in their industry.
Some companies simply don’t have the time or resources to provide industry training to new employees. They need someone who can hit the ground running today.
7 Ways to Make Up for a Lack of Industry Experience
Does this mean you won’t be able to get a job in a different industry? Not at all! In fact, most of us will switch industries several times throughout our careers.
The important part is to have a game plan for how to position yourself as a strong candidate. Here are 7 ways you can do it:
1) Acknowledge that industry experience is important
OK, this might be hard to swallow, but you have to start by acknowledging that industry experience is important and as long as you don’t have it, you’ll be at a disadvantage versus other candidates. That’s just a fact. Once you make peace with this, then you can move on and start working on a plan.
This is especially important when talking to the hiring manager and subject matter experts in the company you’re interviewing with. Telling these people that industry knowledge is not important is a slap in the face. These people have probably spent years building that knowledge, and they are proud of it. Negating their expertise is not going to go over well.
2) Make sure your other skills are rock solid
If you don’t have industry experience, the only way you will stand out is if your other skills are extremely solid and they can compensate for your weakness in this area.
I believe Product Managers should be strong in the 4 Pillars of Product Leadership. These pillars are:
- Soft skills
- Business acumen
- Technology & UX skills
- Domain knowledge
The Technology & UX pillar might be a good one to focus on. For example, you might be moving from managing an eCommerce product into a CRM product. Although these are different industries, they both share Cloud as the technology backbone. If you can demonstrate that you are effective at managing all the nuances of a Cloud product, then you’ll be ahead of the game.
This is also true for IoT Product Management. If you have IoT business or technical experience, then you should play that up as a strong point in your resume even when changing industries.
3) Understand the hiring manager’s pain
It is imperative to understand the pain the hiring manager is looking to solve. Why is she hiring for this role right now? What is the first project she’ll need you to tackle? That can give you an idea of the core skill set she needs and is an opportunity to position yourself as the solution since the pain might not be industry-specific.
4) Understand the team you’ll be working in
Heads of Product understand that they need to build a strong team. The team as a whole needs to be well versed in all the pillars of product leadership, but it is expected that each team member will be stronger in some areas and not as strong in others.
By understanding the current make of their team, you might learn that they already have a PM with strong industry experience, but they have a gap in customer development or interfacing with technical customers. That can be another opportunity to demonstrate how you are the best candidate for the job.
5) Position your outsider experience as an asset
After working too long in the same industry, product teams can become blind to what’s going in the rest of the technology or product world. The problem you are trying to solve might already have been solved in a different industry and there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
Your experience in other industries is extremely important, so make sure you highlight how your previous experience can give your new company an edge.
6) Show that you’ve done your homework
Even if you don’t have hands-on industry experience, you should be able to articulate why you are interested in the company and solving their customers’ problems. You should be familiar with what the state of the industry is, who the key players are, and what some of the basic pains are.
Read industry news, take courses, attend trade shows, and connect with people in the industry. This will also help YOU understand if you really want to be in that industry.
I’ll never forget one interview for a role in which I had no industry experience. The hiring manager asked: “What have you done to get familiar with our industry?” The good news is that I was prepared. I had taken a couple of courses online, attended several Meetups and conferences, and had been following the industry news. That was enough for the hiring manager to feel confident that I was serious enough to get the job.
7) Have examples of how you ramped up in other companies
Hiring managers want to know that you’ll be a self-starter who is willing to invest the time (even outside normal business hours) to get up to speed. Fast. Come to your interview prepared with examples of when you joined new industries and how you got up to speed.
The Bottom Line
My goal with this post is to debunk the myth that industry experience is not needed at all. That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get a job. It just means you’ll be at a disadvantage versus equally skilled candidates who also have industry experience. As long as you have a plan to account for your gaps, you’ll be ahead of most PMs out there.