Finding the Right Role in Tech
What I learned from working within data science, product, strategy, and growth
This post is not meant for those looking to enter engineering or people management roles.
Credit: Jared from Silicon Valley — HBO When you click into the “open roles” tab on a tech company job page, you may at first be overwhelmed by the sheer number of niche positions. Which one should you apply to? Or should you simply apply to all of them and see which ones extend an interview? Maybe you somehow know you want to go into, let’s say, product. But is this the right role for you?
Over the past few years, I worked across both the business and product sides of tech, which gave me a holistic view of how these teams interact with each other and what the benefits are for each. I’ve had countless phone calls with classmates, colleagues, friends and acquaintances who have reached out asking about which role they should choose or whether they would enjoy working on a certain team.
It’s stressful thinking about what job to pursue — who wants to get stuck in role they don’t like?
These conversations, as well as my personal feedback from past managers and mentors, sparked me to share my insights such that others can benefit as well. When I started my senior year in college, I was constantly irritated thinking about which roles to apply to. Most of my classmates flocked to finance and consulting jobs, which never really appealed to me. The e-commerce venture I had started in college renewed my entrepreneurial spirit, and I was determined to get a job in tech. Since many of my peers didn’t share the same sentiment, there was few people I could go to for advice.
I went into the industry blind. At that time, I optimized for acquiring as many diverse skillsets as possible to start my own venture again (which I would realize later is not my goal).
Over four years, I would work as a data scientist, a product manager, a business strategy associate, and a growth manager (on both the product and marketing sides). I joined two companies pre-IPO (Dropbox and Lyft) and witnessed both companies change after the public offering. I’ve taken on a new role almost every year, which is not very common within tech, and it taught me a lot about the functions of each role, as well as its merits and limitations.
Cost / Benefit of Roles
Keep in mind that roles are unique to that company, and each company is different. For example, a growth position at Lyft may not operate the same as a growth position at Facebook, and a growth position at a startup is like a foreign planet compared to the other two.
Before you decide to take on a role, it’s important to ask the hiring manager which projects and/or products you would be held responsible for. What you own inside a company will vastly influence your experience. Here I’ve summarized the high-level merits, limitations, and skills gained for four roles across business and product. It’s a reflection of my personal take on the roles, and hence, you should also form your own judgement based on your preferences.
Business Strategy & Ops
You would enjoy the role if you like…frameworks, writing docs, alignment meetings, presentations, consulting, constant people interaction, senior-level and cross-org exposure
You would not enjoy the role if you prefer to…execute on any part of the strategy, specialize in function-related skills, have ownership within the company
You would enjoy the role if you like…writing docs, alignment meetings, high responsibility and pressure, constant people interaction, context switching, senior-level exposure
You would not enjoy the role if you prefer to…specialize in function-related skills, actually build out the product features, gain cross-org experience at the start (you will once you become a senior PM)
You would enjoy the role if you like…stats, modeling, numbers, large blocks of problem-solving
You would not enjoy the role if you prefer to…lead cross-functional teams, be exposed to senior leadership, gain cross-org experience
You would enjoy the role if you like…writing docs, alignment meetings, high responsibility, constant people interaction, context switching, senior-level exposure, fast-paced environments
You would not enjoy the role if you prefer to…specialize in function-related skills, work on core products that are not growth-related, diversify product intuition, gain cross-org experience at the start
You would enjoy the role if you like…writing docs, sending emails, alignment meetings, rapid experimentation, constant people interaction, context switching, senior-level exposure, behavioral economics, marketing
You would not enjoy the role if you want to…work on building products, specialize in function-related skills, have a dedicated team of designers and engineers
Key takeaways from my experience
Data is the foundation for practically every decision and subsequent experiment. Whether I was working product, growth, or strategy, I had to frequently leverage my SQL knowledge and data visualization skills to align with cross-functional teams, influence leadership, and evaluate the experiment efficacy.
Working in product can be rewarding, but beware. As a product manager, you are like a mini entrepreneur with your own team of designers, engineers, scientists to help fulfill a vision. If you’re working on an early stage product, it can be exciting to start from scratch and determine product-market fit, talk to users, and continuously iterate on the MVP; but if you’re working on a fairly established product, you may find yourself limited to optimization features and tactics.
Business strategy & ops provides a holistic view of many different organizations within the company and also exposes you to senior leadership. For example, at Dropbox, I worked closely with the Head of Product, COO, and Chief Customer Officer on numerous high-level projects. However, you do not have ownership of products and/or metrics, nor can you execute on the strategies.
Evaluating the company
If you have a company you want to work for, first evaluate the core focuses of the company. If product robustness and experience is the centerpiece, maybe the product team would be good to join; if the company is in the middle of hyper-growth, then the growth team would be a good option. Understanding which stage the company is in and what they value will help you get a sense of the amount of influence, impact, and growth opportunities your role will have.
If you want to work on a startup in the future, there is no better way to learn how to start a company than to start it yourself. If you’re still unsure and want industry experience, then two areas I would look at are strategy roles (get exposed to high-level thinking and see how everything inside a company works) and product roles (build our your own product with a team). However, don’t succumb to herd mentality and start a company just because. Think carefully about what you’re passionate about and what the long-term vision will be.
The role you choose does matter for your next job. So if you have something in mind as to where you want to end up, prioritize interviewing for roles that inch you closer to that team. Especially if you’re looking to switch companies and roles, recruiters are especially keen on your current role and experience level.
So how do you approach role-changing?
Finding the best fit may take time, and it’s okay to engage in some trial and error. Even after four roles (or five, if you count my time working on economics research within tech), I am still on a quest to find the role that I want to dedicate the next few decades towards. But so far, I’m enjoying the learning journey across different teams and am very grateful for the opportunity to do so.
There is no wrong role — every role will teach you something new, and as cliche as this sounds, it’s the learning process (about the job and yourself) that really matters. Depending on who you are, here’s some recommendations on how to approach roles:
If you are…
a) A college grad looking to enter tech
Jobs in tech can be limiting for new grads, but there are ways to get around it. First, look at new grad programs you can apply to, such as Google APM, Google APMM, Facebook RPM, Dropbox New Grad PM Program, Lyft APM, Uber APM, LinkedIn Business Leadership Program, LinkedIn APM. Most large companies offer some sort of new grad rotation. I would check their websites directly for opportunities.
Optimize for skills and network rather than role. Your career is very very long, so no need to worry if you don’t get your first choice company or the role you want. Focus on acquiring a strong analytical foundation early on in your career; this is will allow you to succeed in many other roles that you pursue in the future.
If you have a startup idea, work on it. No better way to learn than to just do it yourself. If you know you want to go into product but lack the background necessary for it, then look at joining other roles inside the company first, and then switch into product after 1–2 years.
You can also cold e-mail startups and smaller companies. It’s a great way to increase your optionality, and many teams are thirsting for talent and an extra helping hand.
b) Looking to switch from another industry into tech
Leverage the skills you acquired from your current industry and first find the roles that best encapsulates those skills. Think about getting your foot in the door and then switching roles once you’re inside.
Search within your network to get a referral to a role. Your chances of getting an interview is much higher that way.
Here are some examples of what my colleagues in other industries have switched from:
Consulting → product management, business strategy and ops, growth product / marketing
Finance → corporate development, financial planning & analysis (FP&A)
Analyst somewhere → data science, product / data analytics, FP&A
Startups → product management, growth product / marketing
Marketing → growth marketing, brand marketing, product marketing
Architecture → product design
c) Looking to switch roles within tech
Switching within companies: this is relatively easier to do. If you have a role in mind that you want to switch into, start talking to people on the team to see if there are opportunities to work on a small project with them alongside your work. Speak to your manager and see if he/she can make an introduction or help you will the transition. Your manager’s responsibility is to ensure your career success, whether that on your current team or elsewhere, but if you’re uncomfortable talking to your manager, that’s also understandable. Start by getting the other team to vouch for you.
Switching between companies: this may be a bit harder to do, but not out of reach. You won’t have the opportunity to work on a project with the team you’re looking to switch into, and hence you’ll need to rely on the interview process. I’d recommend getting a referral and switching into a role that is more analogous to the other (e.g., data science to business strategy, analytics to growth)
Keep in mind if you are switchings roles, you may need to down-level. If you hare a Level 5 business strategist, you may down-level to a Level 4 product manager.
I’m only speaking to the roles I’ve personally worked in. There are plenty of other roles within tech that not covered in this post (e.g., FP&A, product design, product marketing, user research, partnerships, and so forth).
Good luck, and hopefully this adds a bit of color to your role search!