Product Gym: You spent a little over 6 years in finance as a wealth planner, when did you hear about Product or Product Management as a job?
Corey Zettler: While I was enjoying working as a wealth planner, it always felt like there was still something missing in terms of my everyday life. I was doing it, but I wasn’t happy. I have a very close friend, who is also my mentor, he went to school for Product Management and has an Electrical Engineer background. He’s said, “Hey, man, all the stuff you’re doing at your current company is awesome. You realize that everything you’re doing is Product Management.” I was like, “What is Product Management?”
This was when I was 30, recently married, my career was pretty much set, and yet I had no clue what he was talking about. He offered to take me out and explain to me what his work as a Product Manager entails and how the work I was doing could be applied to a different industry. So we went out, talked for a bit, and over the course of 5 months he taught me everything from terminology to agile methodology. I really got a leg up from him to the point where he taught me everything he could. If I was going to make the leap, I had to find an open job and take it. I wasn’t sure if I could do it because I would have to start back at an entry-level job; I had to start from the beginning and work my way up in this new career.
Then, my friend told me they had an open Product Manager position at MakerBot, a 3D printing company in Brooklyn. This would be my opportunity to make the transition. He said I would be a Product Manager and he’d teach me all everything I would need to know if I were to apply for it. So I said, “Alright, let’s do it” and I made the jump. Switching careers at age 30 was probably the was the scariest thing I had ever done in my life, but I can confidently say, I have never been happier with that decision. I feel completely fulfilled with my life-changing decision.
Working at MakerBot, I was able to learn a lot about Product Management; due to resource shifts, I ended up taking on responsibility for multiple products and expanding my skill set quickly. When a position opened up at Shutterstock, I saw it as an opportunity to take my education and knowledge to the next level. It was my first time applying for a Product Manager job on my own so I went for it, and I was able to get the job. I have been working there for a year now, and I’m really learning a lot. I can see my contributions to the business unit that I am a part of, and I’m loving it! I can’t imagine doing anything differently; it is super fulfilling and I would make the same decision again if I had.
Product Gym: Wow, interesting! That’s actually one of the things we hear a lot at Product Gym. Some Finance folks would want to know, “Do we have to take a massive pay cut to make this transition?” Also, if you weren’t able to make that direct transition into MakerBot, would you have gone after that role on your own?
Corey Zettler: I would have possibly gone after the Product Manager role on my own, but there were a lot of nerves involved due to outside considerations and responsibilities. I had been at my current company for six years and built my career in Finance. To take the risk and move onto a career path which I was unsure of was definitely scary, which also meant I wasn’t sure if I would be a long-term employee. Also, I viewed myself as less desirable to future employers if I did not stay there for at least a year. That’s the traditional corporate mindset. I don’t think that necessarily exists anymore, especially in the tech world. This is how we were brought up to believe, and it’s not necessarily applicable because you want to be hired based on your merits for a certain position and not your loyalty to a previous company.
Product Gym: Yes, of course!
Corey Zettler: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it, and it was my push to get into Shutterstock. I was concerned that they would only see that I’d been at MakerBot for 9 months, but it turns out that it wasn’t that important in the end. This is what people do. Now, I feel super confident, and if I have to go through an interview somewhere else, I know I have the skills to be successful anywhere. Because of who I work with every day, the work I put in speaks for itself, and I wouldn’t even think twice about interviewing for the next role or the one after that.
Product Gym: So when you first got to MakerBot, obviously you had a huge leg up, but even with that, what were some challenges in your first 90 days?
Corey Zettler: Oh yes. Proving to the engineers, who had way more experience and expertise than I did and to the company as a whole, that I am someone they can trust, was paramount. Being someone they can be familiar and comfortable with, as well as someone who they believe can lead them to success is extremely important when it comes to being a Product Manager. I don’t think they knew my background coming in, but I was very conscious to not parade the fact that I’ve switched careers and I’ve never done Product Management before. You are dealing with a lot of people that have been doing this for a long time and you have to establish that trust factor right away so that they know they can trust the decision making you’re bringing to the team.
Product Gym: Having been brought in by an internal member, did you feel like you had to prove yourself even more?
Corey Zettler: Yes, 1000%. Actually, I was initially rejected, because they did not think I had the tech background to do the job right away. My friend and his director, at the time, stood up for my drive and work ethic, so I really had to prove myself because I had people vouching for me. I had to do a really good job.
Product Gym: How many hours were you on the job, studying, preparing and learning the first 90 days over there?
Product Gym: At what point did you feel like you had proved yourself?
Corey Zettler: When I was given two more products to run, that’s really when I felt validated. If I was not doing a good enough job, they would not have tasked me with such responsibility. They could have brought in someone more senior to take it on, but instead, they asked me to do it, and believed that I would succeed.
Product Gym: The first transition is always the hardest; do you feel all the skills you’ve learned from the trenches you went through at MakerBot made you a much better.
Corey Zettler: Yes, absolutely. Every day I was at MakerBot, all those skills and understanding all of the technology stuck with me and I was able to build on top of that going forward. I mean, that is still happening now. I still watch my managers and analyze how they answer questions in meetings, so I can see the differences from how I’m thinking and learn how to get to where they are.
Product Gym: Being that the last few years have been so crazy for you, what words of encouragement can you offer to our readers that are trying to transition into Product Management or into the Product Manager job of their dreams? How does somebody go ahead and take on all these challenges?
Corey Zettler: Product Management can be a very lucrative career, and so the money factor should not be the sole driver in making the transition. You can be a Product Manager in any industry, it does not have to be Tech, it does not have to be Finance. Everyone needs a Product Manager right now or will need a Product Manager at some point. The money will come, maybe not quickly or right away, but it will definitely come. You have to want it. You have to have a Type A personality. You have to be a driven person that plans and organizes, and can be responsible for many moving parts. You have to be interested in the field you are getting into and rise once you get there. There is no room for slacking off.
Product Gym: Are there any books, podcasts, or blogs you would recommend to other aspiring Product Managers?
Corey Zettler: Yes, Techcrunch is a good one to follow. Lynda or LinkedIn Learning is huge for advancing your skills. If your company sponsors further education, I would definitely recommend taking advantage of that. Tommi Forsstrom, a product lead and former colleague, runs a product blog on Medium that I think is really good. Product Hunt is a good one to follow as well; they show what new products are out there and what companies are doing.
About Corey Zettler:
Corey is formerly a wealth planner and he has successfully made the transition to Product Management in the Web Services sector. He is focused on Digital Products and has experience working with various functional departments in order to efficiently build, develop, and ultimately deliver the best products to market. Corey has a Bachelor of Science in Family Financial Management.