Career transition stories: illustrator to tech product manager

Our biggest career transition story yet: Angelica Vela went from being an illustrator to a tech product manager. Read on for how.
Original art by product manager and illustrator Angelica Vela
Original art by Angelica Vela

Before she became a product manager at Indeed, Angelica Vela was a professional illustrator. When I learned about her unconventional career path, naturally I asked if I could interview her. (We’re pretty into career transition stories at The Juggle.)

When we sat down to talk, Angelica shared the behind-the-scenes of her career transition. It turns out her experience as an artist — and her training as an engineer — were great preparation for her product management work. She continues to draw and paint EVERY DAY, and she recently started selling her art for the first time — all while excelling at her day job.

Young and practical

Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, Angelica loved learning how stuff works. She also had a passion for painting and excelled in art at school. When it came time to decide what to study in college, she chose something she thought was practical: mechanical engineering. “It seemed like a secure thing to go for,” she says. She also was drawn to the breadth of the field, which would make it easier for her to switch to other types of engineering if she wanted to.

Angelica remembers being one of a handful of women in her mechanical engineering classes. “There’s definitely still an unconscious bias toward women,” she says, “even among professors and folks who are progressive.”

She and other female classmates often heard, “Oh, you know how to do that?” when completing standard engineering tasks.

While in school, Angelica did design and illustration work on the side to make extra money.

Saying no to grad school

Angelica Vela in her home studio

Angelica had always planned to go to law school after college to become a patent attorney.

She had loved the debate team in high school, and she liked that patent attorneys need to keep up with technological innovation, another one of her interests. But as she learned more about the profession, she realized patent law often slowed technological advances, which was a dealbreaker for her.

Scrapping her original plans, she started taking freelance design and illustration jobs. It wasn’t easy. Freelancing meant living from project to project, with many lasting less than three months. Angelica’s background in engineering helped her become skilled at technical illustrations — drawings that show you how something works or how to do something, like the Ikea bookcase assembly cartoons.

A big opportunity

After Angelica uploaded her resume on Indeed.com to solicit more design and illustration jobs, Indeed actually reached out to ask if she’d be interested in working for the company. Her website design experience and interest in learning more about programming and computer science made her a perfect fit for one of their technical teams.

Angelica was shocked and excited. She missed being around people and was interested in doing more “objective” work. In her words, “With design and illustration work you are judged in a very subjective manner, which can be exhausting. It was appealing to have work that is either right or wrong.”

She started at Indeed doing mostly technical analysis for her first year and a half there. As she got better at her job, she started interacting with product managers more and found the role interesting. She slowly took on more and more responsibilities typical of a product manager, and when one she had been working with took leave for a summer, she was able to step into the role temporarily. Her strong performance eventually led to her getting a similar job within the company.

What’s a product manager?

“A product manager is in charge of figuring out which direction to go in,” Angelica explains. Product managers are responsible for producing things, whether they’re physical (like refrigerators) or digital (like an app). It’s their job to figure out what success will look like for the product (Number of purchases or downloads? Time users spend using the thing?) and coordinate with other teams, like engineering, to make it happen.

If you’re a fan of analogies: a product manager is like an orchestra conductor. They lock themselves away to study a musical score, think about what’s needed to bring it to life and then lead the orchestra sections in working together to reach their goal of creating beautiful music.

So, what does Angelica do all day?

She spends a lot of time planning. She sets goals and milestones, decides how the team will achieve them and, most importantly, tries to understand and articulate the desired impact — what a product should actually accomplish.

When I asked Angelica what makes a good product manager, she said critical thinking skills and being comfortable with failure. “It’s easy to make something look good, but it’s important to be super critical and try to understand what the data are telling you. You also have to be comfortable with something not performing well so that you can quickly address what needs to be fixed.”

How did you gain skills and experience in product management?

It’s tricky, Angelica says. “Product management isn’t something you go to school for.” For her, a great first step was reading The Lean Startup, which helped her understand the thought process of a product manager. After that, she shadowed a product manager to learn more about the day-to-day of the role.

From individual contributor to team leader

Angelica’s role requires coordinating the work of individuals and teams. At first, she found it difficult to move away from being an individual contributor who could point to tangible things she had made. Product management requires lots of cross-team collaboration and, because each team has its own goals, it can be hard to get everyone to sync. While Angelica still finds this challenging,  she enjoys the collaborative nature of her job.

Product management also involves envisioning how small steps or tweaks to a product will lead to a larger goal, which Angelica initially found difficult but now enjoys. “There isn’t a set roadmap telling you that you have to do things a certain way. That can be scary and stressful because it’s very open-ended. You have to design your own path, so you get to be very creative.”

Illustration + mechanical engineering = product management?

Looking back, Angelica feels like her combination of technical and creative skills prepared her well for product management. The programming classes she took during undergrad prepared her for a technical role at a tech company. And thinking of the digital product she works on as a piece of machinery has also been helpful.

Angelica relies on her illustration and design background as well, which allows her to illustrate ideas quickly without the help of a designer. “Being autonomous in this way helps me move quickly.” She points out that creative projects are all about trying new things and failing a lot, which applies directly to her work as a product manager.

Original art by Angelica Vela

The $1 million Juggle question: how does she juggle a busy job and a creative side hustle?

Angelica has a tendency to work more than she thinks she should. “It’s so easy to do work stuff first,” she says, “but by doing that you’re always going to prioritize work and cut out everything else.”

She’s working on improving her work-life balance by guarding Monday mornings to plan her week and to set professional and personal goals. She’s also started limiting herself to working 40 hours a week as much as possible, and delegating more tasks.

“I have a creative energy that has to get out somehow.”

Angelica continues to feed her creative side by getting up early almost every day to draw and paint for about two hours. Making a point to do this early in the morning means she can’t use a scheduling conflict as an excuse. She also dedicates around five hours a day on the weekends to her art and recently started an Instagram profile to sell her gouache paintings. Her next idea for a project is painting Hispanic folk stories. She’d like to learn more about her heritage and is excited about using her painting to pass stories on.

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