Making the Leap From Engineering to Product Management
Heads up…this will primarily on engineers at smaller companies who may be able to move into a product position at their current role. If you’re at a large enterprise or corporate place, feel free to take bits and pieces of this advice as you see fit.
So, you want to become a PM. Awesome! It is not going to be easy, but it is SO going to be worth it.
PM roles are competitive. Just browse any PM forum and you’ll see people who have been trying for a very long time to land an Associate Product Manager (APM) Role. Don’t let that discourage you though. You already have an in by being on the product team, because you kind of build product already. That’s definitely a leg big up.
Another challenge that is different from engineering is using a different skill set. Your knowledge of build pipelines and languages and testing frameworks and stuff like that is going to come in handy, especially when doing things like estimating.
But you’re going to be using a lot more soft skills as a PM.
There’s going to be lots more communication. You’re going to be saying “no” a lot more often. You’re going to be in a lot, lot more meetings.
Another thing is that if you’re a great engineer, your company may not want you to move from engineering. And that really sucks, but if you’re at a good company, they’re probably going to want to listen to you and make sure that you’re happy in your role. And if they don’t listen to you, then maybe it’s time to seek employment elsewhere.
Even with all those challenges though, product management is still an awesome career and here’s why.
Here’s where I convince you why product management is awesome
First, you get to interact with the customer directly. It’s not like just lines of code or pixels on a page that you’re seeing anymore. It’s customers who are emailing you excited about how this new feature turned out and why they love it. And it’s making them happy and making your stakeholders happy.
Another thing is you get to solve more problems than just programming problems. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I’ll leave that up to you.
You’re now going to have
- customer problems
- stakeholder problems
- marketing problems
- design problems
- sales problems
Basically, you’re going to have so many more problems. So if you’re someone who likes a variety of problems solve product management is excellent.
Another thing is that if you seek dynamic work, this is also a great career for you. No two days are ever the same in product management. Now, for some people that’s ideal, but for others, especially those who don’t like dealing with ambiguity, it can become exhausting after a while.
So if all of those sound good to you, and you’re still on board with becoming a product manager, which I hope you are, let’s move into the meat of how to actually become a PM.
3 tactics for landing your first PM role
1. Craft your pitch
First, we’re going to craft a convincing reason why our managers should let us move into a product management role. Give them a good reason why you want this.
Maybe you care about the product that you’re currently on and you see it going in a way that you don’t quite agree with. And you want to step up to the plate and be the one who manages it, or you want to become a why person. And you’re more of a how person right now. And you just don’t feel like it’s a good fit.
Maybe you want to see what it takes to run an entire software project. And not just worry about the code parts or maybe you’re just ready for a new challenge. And those are all very good reasons for moving into product management.
2/3 Tell your manager or go skunkworks
Now, the next two steps can be done interchangeably and I’ll leave it up to you to figure out which order it may be best for you. Option 3 might even not be necessary at all.
If you know that your manager thinks that you would be a good product manager and you think they’d go along with it, ask them first! Say it out loud. They can’t read minds so if you’re an engineer who wants to become a product manager, let your engineering manager know.
Then hash out a plan to get you on more product work.
But if they’re skeptical, then we have another option. You may not like it and it may not be kosher, but here we go…
3. Go skunkworks
So you’re going to go skunkworks. This is going to be an extra credit project. You’re not going to toss your current responsibilities to the wayside.
This is going to be on top of what you’re already doing right now. You don’t want to piss off your employer.
So if your employer wouldn’t appreciate a new product that doesn’t cost them anything then maybe don’t do this. But if you think that they would, let’s build a tiny product.
You already have access to a lot of resources at your current company. The first thing you’re going to do is go through things like Intercom queues or customer support queues. See what people are writing about your product online and your company online.
Go to where customers are hanging out, read the problems that they’re having and try to find a problem that you want to solve.
Once you’ve found a good problem, you’re going to start designing a solution. You are going to create wireframes and prototypes.
You don’t have to be a designer. You just need to show how you’re clearly thinking through this problem and how it may be solved. And you’re not going to follow the engineering habit of we’ll design as we go. You’re going to actually sit down and plan this all out. If you don’t know how to make wire frames or mock ups are pretty simple to learn, there’s plenty of resources out there online for you. And the best part is if it’s super, super simple, you can even code up your own prototype, which is always really fun.
The next thing you’re going to do is craft a pitch. PMs need to be persuasive and they need to be good writers. They also need to have some basic sales and marketing skills. So, to show that you have all that stuff, you’re going to craft a quick pitch for leadership that shows who the product is for. Include:
- What problem it solves
- Who the customer is
- Why a customer will pay for it
- Why the company would benefit from it
- How you would launch it
Make sure you add the caveat that this is something that you personally want to manage. Don’t just hand it over to the product team. This is your product and you will be the one who brings it to fruition.
After all, companies hire PMs who show that they can successfully and consistently launch products. So if you can show your leadership that you can build and launch this you’re golden.
In review, we talked about what challenges you may face becoming a PM from an engineering role, why you may want to make the leap into product management from engineering, how understanding why you want to become a PM can help you craft a good pitch to your manager, and some skunk work tactics for proving that you’d be a great PM.
And in the meantime, best of luck, you can definitely do this.