Hacker Career Advice

Lateral Career Moves

This post was inspired by a recent article I wrote for The Muse about moving from a small company to a much bigger one.

As a Senior Product Manager, I’m somewhere in the middle of the corporate ladder: not entry level, but not management either. The next level at my org is Principal PM, which is still an individual contributor role.

After that, the path forward for Product is leadership, which comes with direct reports. But I’m not sure I want to go that route. It’s a very different set of skills and responsibilities. And there’s no guarantee I’ll get the opportunity—not everyone makes it to a Director or VP.

But that doesn’t mean I’m stuck or maxed out. I can make a lateral career move and unlock a whole new universe of career opportunities.

The corporate ladder doesn’t just go up, it also goes sideways

Lateral moves are roles of similar seniority, but in a different functional area or industry.

Let’s say you’ve been an E4 Software Engineer at Facebook for several years and you’re worried that you’ll never hit E5 (Senior) or E6 (Staff). Instead of endlessly grinding for that promotion, call an audible and pursue a different route.

For example, maybe you enjoy development, but the roadmapping & customer feedback cycle interests you too. Well, that sounds kind of like Product, a role where your skills & experience are directly transferable.

Take a look at how GitLab talks about lateral moves to and from Product Management. They’ve seen people move into Product Management from fields like Product Marketing, Customer Success, UX, Engineering, and QA.

On the flipside, Product Management is a cross-functional job—you could take on a leadership role later (Engineering and General Management), or go into Marketing and Client/Customer Success.

How is this different from switching careers?

Lateral moves should be “a step away” from what you’re currently doing, ideally something adjacent like going from Strategy to Finance. By contrast, moving from QA to Marketing might be too far of a stretch. That’s a full blown career switch.

Lateral moves leverage your skills & experience in a new direction. You could change roles within the same industry or company, e.g. from Product to Consumer Marketing at a bank. The job will be different, but the business problems, customers, and context are largely the same.

My wife moved from Business Development at a pharmaceutical focused ad agency to Partnerships at a health tech startup. Her job duties & title haven’t changed much, but she’s had to adjust to different goals, regulations, and customers.

Get moving

First, think about your current role and identify the tasks, projects, teams that interest you. Next, consider the people you interact with. What part of their jobs are you curious about and can you see yourself in a similar gig? Identify a list of keywords and use them to search for new companies and relevant job titles.

If you like the company you’re at, but you’ve plateaued on your current track, ask your boss about opportunities on other teams. Many companies prioritize internal hires, because it’s faster and cheaper than looking for an external candidate. You’re already on payroll, familiar with the product, systems, jargon, and staff.

Every step is a step forward

Some people scoff at lateral moves, because strictly speaking - it’s not a promotion and you may not see a huge bump in your paycheck. But I disagree.

A lateral move can help you to avoid burnout, gain perspective, learn new skills, and expand your network. To me, that’s all upside.