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Should I Be A Consultant or A Product Manager?

Considering a career in management consulting or product management? Here's your one-stop-shop to gain an overview between these two roles, the typical education required, what the interview process looks like, and the salary that can be expected.

What Each Role Does Day To Day

Product Manager

Product managers (PM) lead and influence teams to build enticing products. As opposed to engineers or data scientists who are specialists in their respective fields, PMs are generalists and wear different hats in order to connect the dots.

A typical day as a PM may entail discussing design decisions, weighing pros and cons of various features to build with engineering, or meeting with users to better understand their needs. PMs live and breathe their product as they work iteratively to improve the experience for the end user.

Consultant

Consultants are in the business of advising people in a specific field. Clients hire consultants when their businesses require assistance achieving a desired goal (eg. implement an internal system to save time and effort). Want to increase revenue by xx%? There may be a consultant out there who can help. There are various types of consulting. Typically, the two main types are: management consulting and corporate consulting.

Management consultants work with large Fortune 500 teams to co-pilot a mature business with the client. Management consulting is dominated by three large firms in this space, known as the Big Three: McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting Group (MBB).

Corporate consultants on the other hand help with services like in-house consulting or implementation. They may find themselves working with privately owned businesses like startups. These consultants typically already have industry experience. For example, technology consultants may have prior IT experience and be hired to help bring digital transformation to a legacy client.

Education

Product Manager

When it comes to product management, there may be a bias towards a degree relevant to the product the PM owns. A PM working on Facebook newsfeed may have a computer science background, whereas a PM working on manufacturing systems for SpaceX spacecraft may have an aerospace engineering degree. However this isn't a hard rule. There exist many non-technical PMs. The key is to be a good partner to the various teams the PM works with and to be able to wear the various hats required as a PM. However, those with a technical background will find it easier to get their foot in the PM door than those with a non-technical background.

Consultant

Going to business school and attaining a degree in management is a natural path for some aspiring consultants. Other educational paths aspiring consultants tend to pursue include finance (it's helpful to understand accounting and financial markets), computer science (assisting with digital transformation is in demand right now), and marketing (understanding how people think and act can help companies effectively communicate messages to customers). As competition is fierce, those with a business degree -- specifically those with a top MBA diploma -- will find it considerably easier to enter the world of consulting.

Interview Process

Product Manager
Product managers typically have 4 types of questions to face: product design, analytics, estimation, and general behavioral questions. Product design questions may ask the interviewee to design an item for blind people. Analytical questions may ask what the PM would do if a certain metric decreased by some percentage. Estimation questions tend to be a little more rare nowadays, but may ask one to intelligently guess how many golf balls can fit inside of a vehicle.Behavioral questions test one's ability to clearly communicate his/her past experiences.

After one's resume has been submitted and a recruiter deems there to be a good fit, there typically will be 1-2 phone/video interviews. It's likely one of these interviews will be with the hiring manager. A take-home assignment may also be given to the interviewee to complete. Then if all goes well, the next and final step would be an onsite which consists of traveling to the office and participating in a full day of back to back interviews (with a lunch break in the middle -- likely with a current PM on the team).

Consultant

The timeline for consulting roles consists of a resume screen followed by 2 rounds of interviews (the exact number of rounds may vary from firm to firm). Getting the initial interview is a big hurdle; it helps to network and to have a detailed and easy to read resume.

Besides being well prepared to elaborate on one's past experiences, it's also very important to prepare for case interviews. Consulting firms rely heavily on case interviews to find their next hire. These case questions center around estimation and math skills, market sizing, profitability questions, market study (market entry, revenue growth, market share), and merger & acquisition (M&A) questions. Some find M&A questions to be the most challenging as they include market sizing, profitability, and market study questions all in one.

There exists many standard frameworks that one can follow in order to ensure success in clearly answering the question. With consulting, it's important to make the interviewer feel comfortable putting the prospective hire in front of a client.

Salary

Product Manager

The average starting salary for PMs is in the $90k-110k range and median salary is around $150k. Keep in mind that many companies, both public and private, will issue some form of stocks and bonus on top of the base salary. If the PM is working at a startup (a company that's not publicly listed), it's a little more difficult to value the worth of their total compensation as their stocks typically don't have a liquid value. But when their startups do go public and are listed on the stock exchange, it's possible the returns will be incredibly lucrative.

https://www.levels.fyi/ is a good resource to estimate future salaries when it comes to promotions.

Consultant

The average consulting salary is $75k-90k, and even higher for MBA/PhD hires (~$150k). A signing bonus as well as performance bonuses are usually also included in the compensation package.

Most consultants have an exit strategy that doesn't involve the MBB firm in the long term picture, but if he/she is promoted to a senior level, total compensation can skyrocket exponentially.

Consulting or Product Management?

Both consultants and PMs must be analytical and have the ability to communicate well. The interview process is challenging for both with PMs being tested on their product intuition and consultants being tested on case studies. Ultimately, the decision to pursue a career in consulting or product management comes down to one's long term objective.

If you enjoy helping businesses solve problems and are comfortable frequently traveling for work, it would be a good idea to explore a career in consulting. If you are passionate about building products and like to be engaged at the user level with design and feature decisions, then you should pursue product management.

With that in mind, if you decided to give a career in product management a shot, check out Exponent's PM Interview Course or Practice Questions Forum!