After a decade of being an engineer, I decided I didn’t want to be doing the same thing when I was 50 years old.
As I started considering different positions, I was continually drawn to the product manager (PM) role.
While engineers focus on how to build a product, PMs focus on what to build. Their responsibilities involve a variety of tasks that an engineer isn’t exposed to — gathering requirements, prioritizing features, product marketing, and working with the engineers.
I’ve seen people make it look easy to go from being an engineer to being a product manager, making the switch in six months to a year. I’ve also seen people who took several years.
Personally, I spent a few years trying to move into a product management position. It wasn’t easy, but with a lot of work and perseverance, I did finally end up in the role.
There’s no one way to go about making the change, but here’s what’s helpful to know from my own journey and some advice I received:
First, figure out if you really want to change roles.
One of my product managers had me ask myself a question when I was first thinking about becoming a PM. And I think it makes sense for anyone interested in the transition:
If you continue on as an engineer, you may become a director of engineering in 10–15 years. Now ask yourself, “Would I be happy with that?”
If your answer is yes, then engineering is probably still a good fit for you. If the possibilities and responsibilities of a PM are more appealing — if you’re not sure you would fully enjoy the next few decades in an engineering role — then making the transition is worth the effort.
Not everyone has an easy time with changing roles in tech, so it’s important you know for sure this is really what you want to do.
Then, try not to think like an engineer.
Engineers love to solve problems and build systems. However, they always have to consider what the customer wants. Building a Ferrari isn’t the right way to go if a customer wants a Honda Civic.
So when changing roles, you have to learn to think from the customer’s point of view and be more empathetic.
As a product manager, it maybe tempting to get into solution building with the engineers, but you should stop after specifying requirements. Let the engineers design and build the best system the customer needs.
One way to learn this mindset is to get a more customer-facing engineer role. Engineering support, solution architect, technical marketing, technical presales, and QA roles typically have more interaction with customers.
Once you know you want to transition, volunteer and help your current product manager.
Product managers always have a lot on their plate — it’s just the nature of the job. And that provides you with the perfect opportunity to begin learning what the role entails.
Get involved in product marketing and launches. Ask your PM if he or she needs help with a competitive analysis or a research assignment. Step in when a technical opinion is necessary. If you have been helping your PM and if an opportunity opens up on your team or another team, your PM may consider you for the job.
But keep in mind, as an engineer, your interactions with customers are limited.
People often knock engineers because they typically aren’t very empathetic and understanding. They’re too focused on their work to be a voice for the user. But product managers have strong interpersonal skills to exercise influence. They generate consensus and manage competing stakeholders.
You’ll need to start learning and honing your interpersonal abilities because recruiters aren’t looking to gamble on someone without experience.
It’s the classic catch-22 of anyone looking for a new job — you can’t get hired for the position without working in it, but no one will give you a chance to do so until you have experience.
Gain skills and working knowledge.
If you can’t find opportunities to work with a PM, you can still sharpen your skills and prove your abilities.
One way to do this is by creating an app. It helps you get around the experience dilemma because you’re essentially working as a product manager. You have to be cognizant of every aspect of the product. The design, the user experience, the features — it’s all under your control.
It’s a good way to get your foot in the door because you can put the app on your resume, and hiring managers have the opportunity to try it out and see how you might perform as a product manager.
Another selling point for hiring is having an MBA.
An MBA certainly isn’t required in product management, but it helps your cause. It puts a stamp of approval on you: “This person understands the business context, he or she isn’t just technical.”
I received a certificate in business from UC Berkeley Extension — like a mini MBA — before making my transition to product manager, but it wasn’t quite enough to get me past my lack of experience. I did eventually go to business school, but as I said before, everyone’s path is different.
The business degree is a life-changing experience that will open up many other career opportunities for you. It’s valued but not treated as anything special in Silicon Valley — especially at startups. Still, an MBA in addition to a computer science degree is a great combination for a PM to have.
Take the transition one step at a time, but fully commit.
It’s difficult to move from an old company to a new company and get a different position at that new company.
Think about it this way: if you’re an engineer at a large cloud company and you want to be a PM at Uber, you don’t want to quit your current job and apply for the PM position there. Rather, you might work to get a product role at your current company, and then later apply to Uber. Or you could apply to become an engineer at Uber, and then try to become a PM once you’ve already spent some time working there. Both these options make you a less risky candidate for the hiring manager.
Whatever route you choose, just remember that other than a software engineer, a product manager is the hottest job in Silicon Valley right now. There’s a good supply of candidates who come from a variety of backgrounds, and there will be plenty of competition.
So, if you’re going to have a chance of getting a PM position, you have to fully commit to that goal. Don’t be passive about it.
Take classes and learn what you can from online sources and books. Talk to PMs and recruiters and find out exactly what you need to do to make the transition successfully.
It can be done, but it will take plenty of work on your end. If you know this is what you want, there’s no sense in waiting to start making the move.
Thanks for reading!
Want to learn more? Get in touch with the Chronicled team here.