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Getting into product management: Engineer to PM

 

Most PMs I know came to the job from other roles. Engineering is probably the most frequent source of new PMs and it's easy to see why. Engineers are problem solvers which is a major trait of any successful PM. They know the delivery part of building products and a lot of them are frustrated when their beautiful code doesn't bring business results they hoped for. I was there myself, as a QA, a lot of bugs I was finding could have been prevented way before any code was written. I was wondering who took the design or functionality decisions and that led me to a PM. 

Even though the transition from engineering to PMing is common, it's far from being easy. Fresh engineering PMs would have to learn a lot very quickly to become successful PMs. They would need to teach themselves into being generalists and get to love all the "soft skills" so often despised by engineers. 

Leverage your strengths 

Engineers who want to become PMs already have a headstart. Their technical knowledge would help them immensely when transitioning to a PM job. Evaluating an idea, engineers would know if it's feasible at all and maybe even how complex and effortful it is. But be careful with estimates here, my friends, as you will be asked about them a lot. Remember you're no longer the ones who will do the actual work so don't overcommit. Your technical knowledge will always be a double-edged sword for you. On one edge, the conversations with your dev team will be easier, so as gaining their respect. On the other edge, you might often presume the clarity has been established with your team where in fact it wasn't. Engineering PMs should stay vigilant talking with their former colleagues and have some redundancy checks in place to make sure the team is crystal clear on what is expected of them. 

The superpower of engineering PMs is the ability to enlarge the realm of possibility. Engineers are usually the first ones to embrace new technology or scientific breakthroughs. Hence they are at the forefront of what's possible. A good exercise is to review some well-proven problems you product solves and think if it could be bettered with any of the new tech that becomes available. 

What to learn 

Fresh engineering PMs would likely be asked to focus on delivery first. That plays to their strengths and a great opportunity to prove themselves in the new role. Also, it gives them time to learn the other aspects of product management, most importantly - discovery. Here is the place where fresh engineering PMs should focus their learning efforts most intensely at the beginning. Being creators it's all too easy for engineers to jump to solutions way too quickly. While successful PMs don't build much more often than they do. That's because they understand all the hidden costs of building stuff. Discovery for engineering PMs starts from talking to their customers about their problems. It's harder than it might sound. A technically wired brain jumps to solutions right after hearing about a problem. And this never gets away, I am still forcing myself not to mention solutions while doing customer research. Usually, a good indication of you doing a good job interviewing your customers is when they talk 90% of the time. 

Another aspect of product discovery engineering PMs should learn is rapid prototyping. It's a superbly efficient method to showcase an idea. But be careful engineering PMs, a prototype doesn't mean version one of your product. You should always promise to throw away any prototypes you create when they served the purpose. 

PMs are not only responsible for solving important customers' problems but they also must do that in a way that makes sense for the business. In order to understand what makes sense to the business - fresh engineering PMs would need to have a good understanding of that business. You can start with the basics: 

  • Who are our customers? 
  • How do we make money?
  • What are our costs? 
  • Who are our competitors? 
  • How are we different from them and why? 
  • What are our product strategy and the business plan? 

 The answers to all those questions are usually available within the company, you just need to talk to the right people. For example, talking to finance folks might reveal a lot about the economics behind our products. Talking to marketers will share the light on our market positioning and competitors. And if you'll get a chance to talk to product or business leaders, you might hear about product strategy and vision. Understanding the business side of your organisation is essential for any successful PM. 

How to test drive

The big problem in our industry is very few opportunities to get a feel for the job before committing to it. Sure, product management might sound good on paper (or scary) but when you're actually doing the work having all the responsibility with little to no authority - fresh PMs might regret their choices. 

However, there is a way to test drive PMing for engineers and it's called the discovery team. If product management in your company is done right - someone must be doing discovery work. Find that hero and ask if you can join the discovery team. Any PM would love to have an engineer in their discovery team. When you get on the team, spend time observing the PM - how do they select customers to research, what questions do they ask and how they translate the findings into a problem statement or a hypothesis. You could learn about the job a lot if you just observe and ask PM questions. 

In addition to being a part of a discovery team, you might also ask a PM to join some of her meetings. Just listening to things PMs talk about might reveal a lot about the challenges they're facing. 

Another way to test the PM job for an engineer is to take lead on a small initiative and drive it all the way. Maybe it's some internal tool your company wants to introduce, or some refactoring long due, or perhaps a tiny functionality. You can take almost any problem and solve it as a PM. You would need to research the problem, talk to "customers", define and validate the solution, lead the delivery and the release. Along the way you'll encounter most challenges PMs face daily and will be able to make your own mind if that's the job you want. 

Summary

The transition from an engineer to a PM is one of the most frequent in modern technology-driven businesses. Engineers can leverage their technical knowledge to kick start their PM careers and then learn the missing skills in discovery and business. In most cases, engineers could get a good feel for what PMs do by joining a discovery team or leading a small project of their own. 

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