My nonlinear path from economist to data scientist to product managerFeatured

Growing up, I had always dreamed of becoming an economist. I was a high school debate team geek who loved reading about public policy, and wanted to use data and models to improve people’s lives. After earning my Master's degree in Economics, I landed a coveted role as an economist at the Canadian central bank, where I forecasted movements in the housing market and household consumption sectors.

At first, I was thrilled to be living out my childhood dream. But after a few years of crunching numbers and staring at spreadsheets, I had an unsettling realization: my heart just wasn't in it anymore. Building macroeconomic models and conducting policy analysis was a solitary task. I wanted to collaborate with others and be able to see the direct impact of my work - neither of which were suited to a role in central banking. I knew it was time for a change, but I wasn't sure what to do next. Leaving a stable public service job to pivot to an entirely new field felt risky.

After polling a few ex-economist friends, I discovered many of them had successfully transitioned into data science roles at tech startups. With my analytical skills and comfort with numbers, data science seemed like a natural next step.

Fortunately, through a chance LinkedIn connection, I discovered a startup called Nova Credit that was hiring for a hybrid data science/partnerships role. Nova Credit's mission to help immigrants access financial services immediately spoke to me. Even better, the role valued my specific experience: analyzing financial data, communicating with financial regulators, and collaborating cross-functionally. After interviewing with the team, the mutual excitement - on my side and the company’s side - was clear. Though I was nervous about a new role in a new country and new industry, I was ready to take on the challenge. I packed my bags, and moved from Ottawa, Ontario to San Francisco, CA.

This was my first big lesson: Seek out roles at companies that specifically value your unique background and skills. Don't try to reshape yourself to fit a generic job description. Lead with your distinct value-add.

At Nova Credit, I dove into my new role with gusto. I enjoyed working directly with large enterprise banking customers to understand their data needs. I found I had a knack for explaining complex data concepts simply. While working with credit risk models, I realized my favorite parts of the job were talking directly to users and gathering requirements.

I admired Nova Credit’s product managers, who thought strategically about company direction and cross-functional considerations while building elegant user journeys at the same time. In product management, I saw an opportunity to get involved more directly in the entire product development process, rather than just the data science function.

With the company expanding quickly into new products, the product team was understaffed. I saw an opportunity to get exposure to PM work by volunteering for open tasks. I collaborated with product managers to draft requirement documents, facilitated cross-functional meetings, and wrote the company’s data strategy for expanding into non-credit reporting data. I put in extra hours in order to test-drive PM skills even without having the title. Shreyas Doshi, one of my favourite product management thinkers, said this similarly in how to demonstrate ideas and capabilities - “writing a doc is free to do”.

This was my second big lesson: Find opportunities to try parts of the role before you get the title, even informally. Make use of your enthusiasm and initiative to try for new responsibilities.

After more than a year at Nova Credit, I knew a PM role would be the perfect next step for me. But making the transition felt daunting:

  • My company had no precedent for moving between functions. Would my manager support it?
  • Most PM roles required years of direct experience. How could I compete?

In general, I lacked the confidence that my skills would translate and I would be capable of completing the job. I felt so close to the role that I could touch it, but my self-doubt was so loud that I almost stopped my formal PM application before it even started.

I sought out a mentor - major shout out First Round Fast Track - who had successfully transitioned to product management from a totally separate commercial function (category management). He helped me reframe my past work to highlight transferable PM abilities in strategy setting, market sizing, driving cross-functional teams to alignment, managing tradeoffs in project delivery, and requirements gathering. His guidance was invaluable in learning the craft and tools of product management - including some of the most helpful resources I’ve come across, like the Silicon Valley Product Group line of books (Inspired, Empowered, and Loved) and Ken Norton’s blog. There are MANY resources available to PMs - I’m also happy to share additional recommendations, feel free to DM me if interested!

This was my third lesson: enlist mentors who have made similar pivots and rely on their playbook.

One day I worked up my courage and brought up my career desire - to switch to product management - to my data science manager. To her immense credit, she responded with support and grace and helped me interface with our Head of Product and COO to set up a formal interview process for me. Emphasizing my expertise in data science, deep knowledge of the banking customer landscape (I’d worked for a bank straight out of university), and commercial thinking, I made a business case for why I could add value as a PM to many members of the leadership team. Through the interview process, it became clear to the interview panel (and to myself) that I could step into this new role to the benefit of both myself and the company at large.

My final lesson: identify sponsors who will advocate for you. Ask directly for what you want, rather than waiting passively.

After several rigorous interviews, I was offered the product manager role! I credit my mentors and sponsors for building my confidence and smoothing the transition. While the path wasn't linear, I'm so glad I took the risk to move to a career that truly feels right for me.

For anyone looking to switch roles my advice is to get creative about designing your own best path to the role, and then get persistent. There are many paths to product management - some have made it through lateral moves, bootcamps or MBA internships, some paths have been on a much shorter or longer horizon, and PMs come from all backgrounds. “Macroeconomist” isn’t usually on the CV of product managers, but no one role is the guaranteed precursor to a product career - so don’t get discouraged if it feels far away. Regardless of your route, stay focused and committed and seek out support from your community to help you weather any setbacks. Here are some of my favourite articles on the nonlinear path to product management:

I’m now the Product Lead and first PM hire at Shepherd, an insurtech building the future of commercial insurance and risk management - and we’re hiring senior software engineers and insurance underwriters! I’m always excited to help out others on their career journey - feel free to connect with me on Elpha or LinkedIn! With the right conditions, network, support and a lot of determination, I’m confident you can build the product management career you truly want.

Hi Maureen ( @mmacisaac ) - thank you for sharing your career path. I studied economics and math in college because I liked learning about money supply, how markets and financial institutions work and wanted to analyze and build models at World Bank or similar place. But I ended up joining a startup right out of college and made my way into analytics and data science.I have 2 questions for you.Can you share one aspect of Product Management that you learnt after becoming a PM and did not learn from your mentors or resources you studied prior?I am currently in the market interviewing for Data Science and Analytics role. As a current Product lead (and former Data Scientist), what do you look for in candidates in analyst roles during interviews?
@nadya01 hi! Great questions - loved them so much I wrote probably too much: 1. Learning how to "test product hypotheses": this was a phrase I had heard early and often in preparing for PM interviews and from mentors, but I wasn't clear on what it actually meant until I started working as the product lead at Shepherd (my current company) where we are launching new products at a regular cadence. At Shepherd we're seed stage, which means we have to be both fast and cheap in determining whether we should build new products. "Testing product hypotheses" to me means finding customers to be design partners, conducting product discovery, building MVPs, shipping MVPs, iterating, and determining whether we are seeing early signs of PMF and should continue to invest in this product. It's a set of skills I definitely learned on the job! 2. I love the phrase "A problem well-stated is half solved". Standout data science candidates are able to zoom out from their day-to-day tasks and are curious and knowledgable about their business or analytical area and able to apply that context to better analysis. Applied scientists have so many tools at their disposal (both technical programming software and new analytical methods or modelling techniques), that the hardest part of analysis is often determining which models and tests are going to provide the most helpful analysis for the question at hand.That being said, I've interviewed DS/analysts across a variety of teams, functions, companies, and industries and the role profile has varied widely! There's a company for everyone's special combinations of abilities.
Amazing career path, Maureen! being an economist is not for the faint of the heart, it's a really hard job but one that gives you a fantastic combined skillset! So I can see how you could make that switch. Also this advice is SPOT ON "my advice is to get creative about designing your own best path to the role, and then get persistent." SAY IT LOUDER!
OMG we literally have the same background! happy to find this story!
LOVE it! Maybe you should do a spotlight next ;-)
Haha @claudavilarios I love to hear this! It felt like such a specific experience but now I am happily meeting so many women who have followed a similar path. Would second @iynna - would love to hear your story and learnings :)
Ohhh this is very unexpected! I've discovered Elpha almost 3 years ago right in the middle of the pandemic and it has such a great purpose. I'm really happy to say now it's creating momentum. Just like someone would match in a conference! I would be honored to do an Spotlight @iynna!
that's so great to hear it's more common than you both thought!
Thank you for sharing your career path. It was inspiring
Such a wonderful read! I definitely related to this so much - I studied economics in Ottawa & thought that would be my way forward, and ended up in product instead! So exciting to hear from others who ended up in the world of product from economics 😄