Pivot Stories

The Journey from Finance to Teaching to Product Management with Ethan Harry from Google

Ethan Harry
Product Manager at Google
Finance to Teaching to Engineering to Product Management

Ethan graduated from Claremont McKenna with a degree in economics, but after an internship at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, he realized that finance wasn’t for him. After a stint with Teach for America, he pivoted into the world of tech. After working in a number of roles at various startups, including as a software engineer, Ethan realized that his diverse background and varied skill-set made him a perfect fit for Product Management. Today, he’s a PM at Google. 

How has your career journey helped make you a better PM?

I've always had a willingness to be uncomfortable. There’s a school of thought which says that to be good at one thing, you have to do it for your whole career. I don’t think that way.  I always fashioned myself to be a generalist problem solver. Let’s say that the path to finance superstardom is 100 steps long. I took about five steps down that path.

A lot of people want to keep marching down that path without asking themselves if it’s really where they want to be going. If it's not, you have to be willing to change course. Even if you’re pivoting from a role that’s totally different from the role you want, you’ll still have built valuable experience. You won’t be starting from the beginning. 

At the same time, you can’t assume if you feel successful doing A and you want to pivot to B that you're going to carry that same level of comfort and success over. You have to swallow that pill and say, it's gonna be a little uncomfortable. But I'm not starting from scratch. You have to ask yourself what you can leverage. 

There are many things to being a good Product Manager, but these two are the most important. Part one is being able to understand what problem you actually need to solve. Why are you being asked to build this integration, or any other specific tasks? What are you trying to get out of this? And part two is delivering something and getting it out the door.This is where I go back to teaching. If you look at product managers who have only worked at Apple or Google, where things take a long time to build, you can get content with getting checkboxes checked. One thing I always take pride in is that I came from a startup world where we need to finish things in two weeks to close a customer. We had to get something in, even if it's a mock-up on a piece of paper. What makes you stand out is to have the ability to say “I found a big problem, I have a big solution. It might take me three years to deliver you the whole thing, but I can demonstrate real, concrete progress to you along the way.”

How did you make your pivot?

My first startup job was in a business operations role. I talked to some very influential people in the company about pivoting to Product Management. They told me that I should’ve studied Computer Science in college, and since I was already in my late 20s, I might as well just keep going with ops. They hinted that it’s not going to happen. 

The one person that really helped was the Product Manager at the company. He told me to expand my technical portfolio. I thought that even if I couldn’t get to Product Management, I could still take a step in that direction. So I quit the business operations job and joined a coding boot camp called Hack Reactor in San Francisco. It was super intense—12 hours a day, six days a week from nothing to theoretically knowing everything about computer science. I did this for three months, and it was extremely difficult. Since I was struggling, the counselor for my group asked if I wanted to take two more months to prep and then come back. I asked them not to kick me out. Again, I was uncomfortable. I felt imposter syndrome throughout the whole process.

The post boot camp period was by far the hardest part of the pivot. I was trying to find a job as a software engineer without a computer science degree and with zero coding experience. I applied to 250-300 software engineering jobs over the course of six months. I got rejected from 199 of them, including an interview at Facebook, where I got to the final stage and I blew it.

I contemplated going back to Business Operations. Finally, I found a small startup that was willing to take a chance on me as a software engineer. They reached out to me when I was going to pivot back to operations. They wanted me for a sales engineering role. At the time, we had a CEO and a CTO, and no Product Manager, but I convinced them, I really want to write code and I want to be the Product Manager. I spent about three months at this sales solutions engineering role. I built some integrations. I took this as an opportunity to show them that I could be my own product manager.

When I was facing all those rejections, I truly started to believe that I wasn't cut out for it and that my belief in myself was misplaced. Skipping forward a year, and I have ‘Product Manager at Google’ next to my name. I bet all those people that rejected me would’ve given me that job. I'm still the same person, I have a few more years of experience and learn a few things. The interview process is so fickle and there's no real way to evaluate who you are as a candidate. 

If you had to break down your weekly activities into a pie chart, what would that look like?

My pie chart, on the whole, is 60% to 70% meetings, 15% to 20%, responding to email, and then 5% to 10% fundamental research. But on a good week, there’s less meetings and email and much more time spent on competitor research and testing your product.

What advice do you have for someone looking to break into Product Management? 

The key is to start small with someone close to you. It's a great exercise trying to reach out on LinkedIn when you're one or two hops away. But it's not going to get you the meat of what you want to know. You'd rather have somebody who knows something about your situation. If there is a Product Manager in your company or if you have friends who work in tech that can connect you to a Product Manager, reach out to them to help you brainstorm how to get your foot in the door. 

Lightning Round

What about your personality makes Product Management a good fit for you?

I am very empathetic. I’m good at seeing someone else’s perspective, whether it’s a salesperson saying “I can’t close this deal unless you do this thing for me” or an engineer saying “I can’t do this thing for sales.” At the end of the day, a Product Manager is the person that makes sure all those pieces fit well together. I’m good at finding how they can fit well together to create that happy outcome. 

Don’t go into Product Management if …

You are not ready to be uncomfortable. Some days I feel like a salesperson, some days I feel like an engineer and I’m not as good at selling as a salesperson or as good at coding as an engineer is. I'm always a little behind. So be ready to be uncomfortable and not the smartest person in the room. 

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