If you’re a developer, chances are that you’ve worked with your fair share of product people, including Product Managers. We always like to say that all paths lead to product, and that it takes a tapestry of backgrounds to build an all-star product team. But one of the most common transitions people make is from a development/coding background.
We’re here to tell you why the switch from developer to PM is one of the most common transitions in the tech industry, what skills developers gain in this new field, and how to start making the move.
It’s no wonder that so many people are drawn to Product Management. It’s currently ranked as #3 on Glassdoor’s Best Jobs in America list. It’s a role that’s rapidly growing in demand, with an online community that’s growing to match it. More than just a job, it’s a discipline with ever-evolving methodologies and thought leadership.
You might be thinking ‘why do so many PMs come from a development background? Why don’t people who want to be engineers pursue CS, and people who want to be PMs pursue PM?’
Mostly, it’s because the natural conclusion to being interested in tech of any kind is to become an engineer. Many of the world’s top product leaders started out in engineering because “that’s what you chose if you liked technology.”
Even today, there are plenty of people currently working as developers who don’t quite feel like they belong there, but they can’t quite figure out why.
Product Management has also not historically been as well advertised as a career path until recently. We’ve actually seen a recurring trend of people only discovering that PM roles exist when they’ve been working in the tech industry for a couple of years!
That’s not to say that every developer secretly wants to break into PM (there is no tech industry without developers after all!), but there are those who were mistakenly guided into coding/engineering, who are now looking further afield.
Developers make perfect Product Managers, not surprisingly, because of their technical knowledge. A CS degree/technical experience is absolutely not a prerequisite for being a Product Manager, but there are plenty of PM roles that do require both. When you’re helping development teams to build technical products, it helps if you’ve been in their shoes before!
So there are a whole bunch of jobs out there that are looking for developers to step into the PM role.
Startups are especially appreciative of PMs who have engineering experience. There may be times when resources are stretched thin, and they need someone who can roll up their sleeves.
Even at larger organizations, Product Managers benefit from a developer’s toolkit. PMs are translators and diplomats, running interference between the different disciplines involved in product development. A PM who understands their engineers is able to work with them more effectively, both as a leader and an advocate.
It’s much easier to stand up to stakeholders and say “it’s not possible to build X in Y amount of time”, when you completely understand the reasons why. And equally, it’s easier to translate business goals to engineers when you already speak their language.
Many of those who have made the transition from Engineer to Product Manager say that they wanted to get more involved in the strategy. Developers are amazing at figuring out how to solve problems, but a Product Management role offers them the opportunity to strategize on which problems to solve and why.
Product Managers are the ones who have a seat at the table when big product decisions are being made. It gives them experience on the other side of the development process and gives them an opportunity to develop their leadership skills, even at an entry-level position.
Not every Software Engineer will have experience in leading a team, but every single Product Manager is a leader by default. So stepping into this role opens up a whole new branch of skills and helps to take your career in a whole new direction.
There are plenty of ways to make the transition to Product Management, some easier than others.
Making a lateral transition:
The easiest thing to do is to make a lateral transition within your own company. If a PM role opens up, identify the decision-maker on who will fill that role, and just have a conversation with them. You won’t lose anything by making a few polite inquiries. It’s easier to get your start in a new discipline with people you already have a rapport with, or at least the common ground of working for the same company.
Side projects and hackathons:
The best way to show that you know how to build products is to…build products! There are a few ways to do this, but including starting your own side project, and attending a hackathon.
Starting a side project is one of the best ways to build your skillset. When you find a problem, figure out how to solve it, and go through the various stages of development to launch...you’re already working as a PM! There are plenty of tips and resources out there to get you started.
A side project can be a little time-intensive, so if you’re strapped for time, a hackathon is a more short-term solution.
As a developer, chances are you’ve already taken part in a hackathon, or at least thought about it. And while hackathons are traditionally seen as made-for-engineers events, they’re actually very useful for Product Managers. And if they’re good for PMs, you can bet they’re great for aspiring PMs!
If you take part in a hackathon and approach it with more of a product mindset, you can start flexing your PM muscles. In every hackathon team, there needs to be a certain amount of organization. If you really lean into this side of the event, you can start thinking like a Product Manager.
Either way, through a hackathon or a side project, you’ve got something that shows off your entrepreneurial chops, and it gives you a great talking point in interviews.
Another great way to show how serious you are about making the transition is by getting educated in PM. While there’s no real formal training in the traditional sense, there are industry-recognized certificates that give you the skills you need and solidify your existing knowledge.
PMs are constantly learning, so getting into the habit of learning new best practices, frameworks, and methodologies, will really help to take you far in your career.
Never underestimate the power of networking! As someone already working in tech, you’re uniquely positioned to make some very handy connections. Don’t be afraid to cozy up to the product people at your current company.
Thanks to the huge shift to digital, the online product community has blossomed, and it’s very easy to find your people online. Product people are enthusiastic, welcoming, and eager to welcome newbies into the fold.
Developers, we love you. But we know that some of you are destined to be the next great Product Manager instead. So if you’re looking for a new challenge, and you think Product Management might be the right move for you...jump on in.