From Ballet to Tech, a Senior Product Manager Reflects on His Unconventional Path to Squarespace
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If you’re itching to make a career change but worry you don’t have sufficient experience to break into a new industry, take a few cues from Terry Slade. The former professional ballet dancer turned product manager at Squarespace had a nonlinear path to his current role, yet he considers his varied experience to be one of his greatest professional attributes.
“If you don’t have the ‘required’ experience, you’ve got to build your own experience,” says Slade, who danced ballet professionally before pivoting into the tech space.
As a product manager in charge of email campaigns at Squarespace, Slade helps creators and entrepreneurs distribute their work at scale.
Here, he explains how his previous career as a professional ballet dancer taught him discipline, confidence and resilience—and shares why you don’t need a background in mathematics or engineering to break into the tech industry.
Tell us about your career journey. Why did you pursue an academic background in ballet? Tell us about the transition from college into your career in tech?
I attended a performing arts program in high school, which influenced my decision to pursue ballet in college. Ballet taught me discipline, resilience, and the power of being a creator. Today, these lessons are foundational to my career in tech.
After graduating college, I performed professionally, taught at a top ballet school, started a dance company, and directed a show that received regional acclaim. Success in dance brought confidence and clarity. I realized that dance was a passion but wouldn’t be my lifelong profession.
At this time, Steve Jobs had introduced the first iPhone. For me, the iPhone was the first device that coherently merged art and technology into a single experience. I was inspired by the iPhone and embarked on a multi-year learning journey about computer software, hardware, and design. This journey included roles across various industries and scale companies—all of which provided a diverse learning landscape.
Now, at Squarespace, I am the Senior Product Manager leading our efforts on Email Campaigns!
You held a few roles in engineering and IT before pivoting to product management. What inspired you to make the switch, and how did you go about it?
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, so transitioning into product management from engineering and IT represented another step in that direction. My non-traditional tech background and non-linear career path did not make this transition easy.
However, these outliers have been strengths and differentiators throughout my professional journey.
If you don’t have the “required” experience, you’ve got to build your own experience. This mindset inspired me to co-found a travel startup, GoRoam. I worked on this startup for one year and built skills such as market analysis, opportunity sizing, user interviews, product design, and pitching investors. These skills transferred into the work I’d do in my first product manager role, where I’d demonstrated real-world experience and impact.
What skills or lessons from your educational background in fine arts and ballet have helped you succeed throughout your career in tech?
Ballet definitely taught me discipline, resilience, and the power of being a creator. Of these lessons, resilience contributed most toward my tech career. In dance, I navigated doubt, imposter syndrome, and setbacks. I cultivated resilience by facing these challenges and continuing to move forward.
By the time I transitioned into tech, I’d established a belief in my potential and what I was capable of becoming. These earlier years in dance gave me the courage and confidence I needed to succeed in tech.
What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?
The product I lead at Squarespace, Email Campaigns, helps people with creative ideas build an engaged audience and transact with their customers. There’s a profound diversity of users who gain value from our product. It’s inspiring to help them make a living from their passion and thrive in their entrepreneurial endeavor.
I believe technology empowers makers, creators, and entrepreneurs to distribute their work at scale. I’m inspired to help these people succeed because I count myself among them.
What skills and traits are necessary to be a successful product manager at Squarespace?
At Squarespace I have to have strategy, execution, and communication skills to make headway and to efficiently partner with cross-functional teams. Developing these skills drives impact and success for product managers at Squarespace.
In Lenny Rachitsky's newsletter post, What is product management, he argues the day-to-day jobs of a product manager is to drive impact by shaping the product, shipping the product, and synchronizing the people. My experience has taught me that Lenny is definitely right.
Shape the product: Harness insights from customers, stakeholders, and data to prioritize and build a product that will have the most impact on the business.
Ship the product: Ship high-quality product on time and free of surprises.
Synchronize the people: Align all stakeholders around one vision, strategy, goal, roadmap, and timeline to avoid wasted time and effort.
What advice do you have for folks from non-tech backgrounds who are looking to break into the industry?
My advice is to create career momentum. I often say that companies don’t hire people or skills—they hire momentum. Well, there are three types of career momentum:
Credential-based: Where you go.
Network-based: Who you know.
Experience-based: What you show.
In my opinion, experience-based momentum is the great equalizer. It doesn’t require permission and admission or rely on selection and connections. But the good news is that anyone can create experience-based momentum if they—pick a problem; work toward a solution; share progress often and repeat!
What is a myth about transitioning into the tech industry that you can bust for us?
There are myths that you need to be strong in math, attend a top university, and graduate with a degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to get into the tech industry.
My career journey and transition into tech breaks all these myths. I am certainly not the only person who has found a home in the tech industry with a non-traditional background and I’m certainly not the last. A great thing about Squarespace is how diverse the experiences of its employee population is.