When I started my career as an engineer, I didn’t set my sights on becoming a product manager. Flash forward fifteen years later, and I’m the Director of Product Management at HG Insights. Working in startups and big technology companies, I’ve encountered one question more than most: “How do I make the switch from engineering to product management?”
That’s a big question, and many roads lead to this outcome. So, what qualities does it take to become a product manager? What differences lie in the company expectations? Moreover, what are the next steps you can take to make the transition?
My Journey Transitioning from Engineering to Product Management
I worked 9+ years in software development, leading sizeable cross-functional engineering teams across time zones. Then, I started gravitating towards product strategy questions, like, “Why am I building products?, Who am I building for?, What impact am I bringing to the business?, What makes startups fail or succeed in their mission?”, and so on.
I thought Business school would be the answer, so I started preparing for it, but an exciting opportunity fell in my lap to transform a struggling product offering. Though I had no idea what I was doing before I knew it, I interviewed external customers, internal stakeholders, and various customer-facing teams to understand the problem better.
I worked with the product leadership to plan out a product strategy. Then, I created a product roadmap to move that strategy forward, which ultimately drove a 15% increase in revenue and a 20% increase in retention. I believe in focusing on outcomes to power-up aligning your product strategy with business goals onto a roadmap.
It was the most satisfying moment of my career, even more than building multiple product lines. From that success, I was then officially asked to move into the product role by the product leadership, and I have not looked back since then.
4 Key Differences in Skills Engineer to Product Manager
You don’t need to have an engineering background to be a successful product manager. Anyone can learn agile product development, basics of software design and development lifecycle, etc.
Here are the four fundamental elements product managers need that is different than engineering:
- Strong empathy for your customers (internal and external)
- Strong understanding of the business (and market)
- You understand that your goal is to achieve business outcomes through measurable product initiatives. Your role is to identify and validate the problems, not actually to solve them.
- Participate in every aspect of product design (not talking about just UX/UI here), but this subtle distinction is key to not lose focus on the big picture.
In addition to core product management skills, there are other essential intangibles to success like strong communication, cross-team alignment, being the thought leader, and always being curious.
I shared more of my thoughts on this in the ProductPlan video series, Spotlights. Watch them below.
What are the Company’s Expectations of a Product Manager?
As a product manager, your primary goal is to deliver business outcomes. Depending on the company, experience, team structure, and business dynamics, the expectations could vary. But any product manager not focusing on essential KPIs like active use, revenue, retention, customer satisfaction, etc. needs to take a closer look at the role. A good product manager is expected to drive strong cross-functional alignment and proactive communications to ensure everyone is focusing on the right problems.
A wise woman once said: Product management is one of the hardest functions in the business but if done right can transform the entire business.
Engineer vs. Product Manager Responsibilities
The fundamental difference product managers need to understand is that your role is to identify the right problem (business, technical, or customer) and why it is worth solving or how it drives business outcomes. In contrast, engineering is responsible for delivering the solution to that problem. Your role as a product manager is to ensure your team is working on solving problems that have a measurable impact on the business. You are also responsible for ensuring customer-facing teams like Customer Success, Marketing, and Sales are fully aware and aligned on the product roadmap.
Of course, a team is successful only when they collaborate as “one team,” so expect to roll up your sleeves for designing the solution, testing it, providing early feedback, documentation, etc.
How to Transition from Engineering to Product Management
First and foremost, you need to understand what product management is in your business and what they are responsible for. Every business, every team, and every market is different.
To be a product manager, you need to start thinking like a product manager (even before switching over). There are plenty of books, blogs, and online training to sharpen up on the responsibilities.
The best recommendation I can give you is to pair up with a product manager to get that hands-on experience. Start to learn how to approach a problem, define a problem, build hypotheses around solutions, collaborate with cross-functional teams to refine it, build metrics for success (or failure), and finally figure out the best and fastest way to get to market.
The Transition from Engineering to Product Management Timeline
In spite of popular belief, there are no definitive timelines, whether it’s engineering or product management. The first and most important thing is finding a company with an established product management team.
Then, collaborate with an experienced product manager on a real project. I am personally a big proponent of the associate product manager track. That’s the best way to get your hands dirty in the game.
Long term, you can expect to manage a specific KPI (e.g., improve first user experience, reduce churn, etc.), product offering, entire product portfolio, or product team. You have a little more flexibility in product management because you are learning various aspects of running a successful business.
Mentoring and people development is a big passion of my life and gives me more satisfaction than anything else. I talk to a lot of aspiring PMs who want to be product managers because they want to be a product manager or have a very different understanding of the role. I don’t blame them because there is so much wisdom that’s out there, which could be confusing sometimes.
But if you like solving complex business problems and understand why and for whom, then you might like being a product manager.
Look at your career as a marathon and not a sprint. Great products take time. Find the right business and team and learn faster than anyone else. Remember, slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.