🌞 Product Management vs. Consulting
Consultants turned Atlassian PMs break down what makes the roles different
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Earlywork is a careers community specifically around tech, startups & social impact, but it easily could’ve turned out very differently.
Many of my favourite extracurricular experiences came from student consulting societies like UNSW Consulting Club and BusinessOne Consulting, and my first two corporate internships were both within tech consultancies.
Naturally, I thought consulting was the place I was supposed to start my career… but my startup internships had been my favourites.
I began to get curious about fellow Computer Science peers trying out this thing called ‘product management’ and realised PM might be a better fit to:
Have long-term ownership over a customer problem
Leverage and learn a mix of business, design and tech skills
Work specifically on tech products
Over the 2 years since, I’ve routinely been asked by ambitious business students interested in tech about whether they should do consulting or product management.
I have my own takes, but realised I had two mates far better equipped to paint a detailed picture of each role…
Rachel Lin and Emily Ditchfield are two rare examples of young people in Australia who have worked in both top-tier management consulting (McKinsey) AND big tech product management (Atlassian).
Here’s their comprehensive breakdown of the differences between consulting and PM for anyone tossing up between the two, or considering moving from one to the other:
As business students back in uni, it seemed like there were only two primary pathways: consulting or investment banking.
But the rise of the tech industry has brought along an increasingly popular alternative: Product Management.
Every week, we get students asking us for advice on whether they should pick consulting or product management.
It’s a tough decision and we found there’s not enough rich information on what it’s really like to work in both industries.
This blog aims to compare our experiences between consulting and product management along several factors, such as:
Culture & Lifestyle
Disclaimer: The opinions in this blog are our own and reflect our personal experiences only. We acknowledge that a decision between consulting and product management is highly dependent on individual preferences, so we aim to provide a balanced view of the two professions and leave it up to you to make up your minds.
☀️ What tasks will I get up to day-to-day?
One shared characteristic of PM and consulting is that a lot of people ask “What the f*ck do they actually do?”
To start, here’s what a (particularly productive) day-in-the-life has looked like for us across each role:
Comparing the schedules between a product manager and a consultant, we can’t deny that consultants work longer hours.
That said, both are still fairly intense roles when it comes to the challenging problem-solving you’ll need to do.
Here’s a breakdown of the most common tasks involved in day-to-day problem solving for each role:
In comparing the two, there are 3 key differences that we’ve seen emerge 👇
💫 1. You’ll experience breadth along different dimensions
Consulting varies based on industry and topic. Product management varies based on the daily activities you could be doing.
Whilst in consulting, we found the days and activities were more structured and consistent (expert interviews, excel models, strategy slides), and we were frequently exposed to different problem domains (from banking to telco, to mining, etc.).
In contrast as product managers, we build domain knowledge over a long period but work on very different things every day from customer research, writing specs, investigating analytics, giving design feedback and creating marketing or comms.
🤝 2. There are many similarities between the two roles, in terms of your foundational skill set
As a product manager and consultant, you’ll have a lot of meetings and stakeholder management.
You are constantly talking to people and synthesising information - communication skills are crucial.
Also, both roles require ownership of your own streams and proactivity in determining what is the most important thing for you to work on to move that forward.
💪 3. You experience varying levels of impact at different times in your career
Early in your career, product managers are quickly thrust into positions of leadership and impact.
In contrast, business analysts may have a few more months of early grind, doing the research and analytical work before they take on more and more influential responsibilities in their projects.
🤷♂️ What sort of problems do you focus on?
It’s not just the day-to-day tasks that are different between PM and consulting, but the broader problem types:
The biggest fundamental difference is who the work is for:
In consulting, you’re usually working for 1-2 clients
In product management, you’re working for a much larger group of customers (or users).
Clients are directly paying you to solve their problems.
They set your deadlines and have set expectations over what they’re paying you to produce and do for them.
This changes the kinds of hours you’re expected to work and your relationship with them. They’ve sought your company out and are paying you before you’ve done the work.
In consulting, your clients can be from a multitude of industries: Banks, Government, Manufacturing, Telcos. You name it and there’s probably a client in that industry.
You get to see what industries are out there, what you like about them, make connections, and then you get to solve a whole new problem next month!
Usually, there are a few different kinds of problems you get given by your clients. There are 5 overarching themes that you can bucket them into:
You tend to get a broad range of experience with all these different groups (and each one looks different for each client).
However, you normally only get to complete one part of the problem life-cycle (finding the problems, finding the solutions, implementing the solutions).
Product Management 🚀
Users or Customers are paying for something that helps to do something for them.
You set your problems, set the direction of your product and have a choice in how much you interact with users + which users you interact with. They’re a great source of information but you owe them only a well-thought-out product, not necessarily 1:1 comms.
PMs are (usually) focused on a specific problem within the tech industry. There are a lot of different kinds of tech that you can make for your customers - hardware, software, marketplaces, B2B SaaS, fintech, healthtech - but it’s all still tech.
When you join a company as a PM, you tend to be designated a product area that you stick with for the foreseeable future.
This can be broad (especially in startups where there are fewer supporting functions like Product Marketing Managers or Support Engineers) or narrow (a specific set of features or areas in a product that’s set up and running already).
The flavour of the role you take on as a PM is also guided by the type of team that you’re on. Some roles require more technical expertise, whereas others may need an understanding of product growth.
As a PM, you get to experience the full lifecycle of a problem for most projects. That goes from discovering problems, defining the solutions, guiding their implementation of them, and measuring the impact of solutions.
🤩 Who do you work with?
In PM and consulting you’ll be surrounded by extremely intelligent people and in both experiences, we have had opportunities to interact with leadership or C-suite roles.
Here’s a quick breakdown of typical team interactions for each role:
The main differences in who you’re surrounded by are team structures, level of autonomy, stakeholders, and team longevity.
👑 Team Structures
PM: At Atlassian, we have the concept of triads as a core product team. This comprises of:
A product manager
An engineering lead
Collectively, you work together to influence the direction of the roadmap. The broader team includes your engineers, who build the features.
Consulting: In contrast, teams in consulting are referred to as client-service teams (CSTs) which represent an even smaller, tight-knit group with:
An engagement manager (EM)
A few associates or business analysts (BAs)
✍️ Level of Autonomy
Due to the client vs customer difference, the level of autonomy for junior employees in each role is quite different.
PM: As a product manager, you’ll have a lot of autonomy over your product roadmap. Whilst you’ll still have your manager for support, you may only check in with them weekly and be given free rein over what you work on.
Consulting: Due to the tight-knit team in consulting, you’ll likely be working closely with your engagement manager every day in 1:1s, problem-solving sessions or team check-in/checkouts.
🤝 Stakeholder Management
Stakeholder management is critical in both roles, but the types of stakeholders are quite different.
PM: As a product manager, something you’re working on may impact dependent teams whom you’ll need to keep in the loop.
These dependent teams will range across various functions which allows you to wear lots of different hats across your org.
You’ll also be speaking frequently to customers and end-users to better understand which problems to solve.
Consulting: In comparison, your most important stakeholder in consulting is the client (usually a point of contact or small team) whom you’ll work with daily or in management consulting, you’re more often exposed to C-suite leaders.
However, you may not have as much interaction with the end customers and conversations tend to be more abstract and high-level vs. seeing direct customer outcomes.
⏳ Team Longevity
A major difference is the amount of time you’ll spend with your teams.
PM: If you’re someone who likes to build deep, lasting relationships with one team over years, then you may prefer PM.
Consulting: If you’re someone who likes to meet tons of new people and switch teams frequently, consulting could be a good fit.
⭐️ What’s the workplace culture & lifestyle like?
So we’ve got a feel for the daily schedule, the tasks and the problems, but what about… the vibes?
The jeans and trackies of tech vs. the corporate wear of consulting is an apt representation of workplace formality.
As a PM in tech, you’ll generally be in a more laidback environment. Think a remote-friendly working setup, free food or drinks at the office, and a lot of office bonding.
As a consultant, you’ll work hard and long hours for clients, but you definitely do get to bond with your team and have good social times.
An important caveat: culture is pretty specific to certain companies and teams.
During any interview process, ask about the team’s culture to understand if it suits you and the way you work.
🔑 What opportunities do these roles prepare you for?
At the end of the day, you can do almost anything if you want.
However, there are some misconceptions about consulting being a couple of years’ commitment with infinite exit opportunities afterwards.
If you want to exit into product, then do product. If you want to do startups, then do startups.
We’ll start by explaining the career progression pathways if you were to stay in your role:
In consulting, there’s usually a one-ladder progression, and different firms often have different levels e.g.:
In product, you can choose between two tracks: individual contribution (IC) or management (M).
You typically start as an IC and go through:
Associate Product Manager
Senior Product Manager
Beyond that, you either:
Choose to specialise in directly working on products and become a Principal / Distinguished Product Manager
Go down the people management (M) track and become a Group Product Manager / Head of Product
When you choose to leave the company or role though, your exit opportunities may differ.
Even if going into a similar role from a product vs. consulting background, your skew or focus areas could look different.
For example, moving into venture capital (VC) as a product manager might mean leaning into skills around product growth & user desirability, whereas a consultant may be able to tap stronger analytical & financial skills.
The most common question about exit opportunities we now hear is:
“I want to be a founder of a startup. What prepares me better: consulting or product management?”
We reiterate: if you want to do startups, then do startups. The best way to learn is by experience.
However, we believe that being a PM may expose you to core skillsets useful for early startups when it comes to building out a new product 0-1. Think defining what problems to solve, what users to solve them for, and working with a small team to bring an MVP to life.
In contrast, consulting skills may be better suited to growth-stage startups and scaleups, as the experiences you’re exposed to tend to be around understanding how enterprises successfully operate at scale and strategise over several years.
So which one should I choose?
As we said, we cannot decide for you and definitively say whether one role is better than the other. It all comes down to individual preferences, motivations and values.
Hopefully, you’re able to take this guide as an input into your decision-making but ultimately, the choice is yours to make, experience and learn.
In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
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Ciao for now,
Team Earlywork (Dan, Jono, Marina, Jarrad & Varun)