When I was at Twitter, a number of the early product managers had been converted to product from other functions (design, sales, business operations, engineering, partner services, etc.). While a number of these individuals ended up having a thriving career in product management, others flailed poorly and had to leave the role once the organization was upgraded.
Before considering the conversion of a non-PM into a PM role, you should optimally have (1) an interview or trial process to check if someone should convert, (2) core product management processes in place so the new PM will have guardrails on how to function, (3) a VP product in place to manage the individual and ensure they are trained, and (4) some seasoned senior PMs in place to mentor and support the development of the new PM. Just as your company provides some onboarding and mentorship to junior or new sales people or engineers, the same is useful for product.
At many high-growth startups, there is a common pattern for early product team evolution. This pattern is most common at startups where the founders did not have work experience at a major technology company before starting their own:
- The CEO or one of the founders is playing the role of product manager. As the company balloons they delegate to other employees already in place to take on product management. This may lead to the conversion of designers, business operations, marketers, engineers, or others into early product managers.
- With a lack of product management process and infrastructure in place and no senior PMs around, these individuals are left to fend for themselves. Some may default to playing a project management role versus a product role. For example, their time may get spent on execution and checklists versus setting product vision and road maps or troubleshooting cross-functional issues. This may lead to ongoing discounting of the role in product in the organization until a more experienced organization is built.
- A VP product is hired, restarts the product team, sets processes, and the company integrates product management in as its own discipline. It may take a year or more to recruit and empower senior PMs and to reshape organizational processes to scale the function and its impact internally.
Google is a good example of a company that experienced this pattern. Among the first product managers at Google were conversions such as Marissa Mayer (a former engineer), Susan Wojcicki (marketing), Georges Harik (engineer), and Salar Kamander (general operations). These four were complemented by some senior product management hires and Jonathan Rosenberg, an experienced VP product who came in and established a number of processes. Rosenberg also implemented a hiring and training program for new grads (the famous Google APM program). Rosenberg was a necessary component to bring stability and best practices to Google product development.