6 Tips on Transitioning from Software Engineering to Product Management

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Here are six things to keep in mind when you decide on transitioning from software engineering to product management:

transition from software engineer to product manager

Product Management is one of the hottest fields right now when it comes to momentum and opportunities. It has emerged as one of the key components of a business’ core strategy over the years. People from different career backgrounds have increasingly shown interest in switching their careers to product management. Software engineers come third in that line, after project managers and business analysts. 

Software engineers develop an interest in product management because of a variety of reasons. Some think about transitioning because of lucrative salaries and excellent growth opportunities. Some want to be a part of the product from ideation to delivery and not just for development and technical aspects.

However, career transition is a terrifying experience for most people, even if it works out in the end. Does it have to be? No. 

Here are six things to keep in mind when you decide on transitioning from software engineering to product management:

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1. Start with the Why

Before you embark on your journey of becoming a product manager, you need to ask yourself why you want to be one. Is it because you don’t want to be limited to product development? Is it because it pays better? Is it because it has a greater scope for growth? Is it because you find product management more interesting than development alone? Your motivation for switching your career to product management could be anything.

Keep in mind that you don’t just need to determine your motivation for making the career switch to product management. You also need to ask yourself how strongly you feel about engineering as a career. If you keep progressing as an engineer, you may become a Director of Engineering (DoE) in 10–15 years. Ask yourself whether you’d be more excited to oversee all the engineering activities in your company rather than making product decisions for the company.

Career transitions can be very challenging. So, it is very essential to know that you’re sure about changing your stream altogether.

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2. Learn the Fundamentals

Having a strong technical background gives you an edge over other candidates. This is a great advantage for software engineers who are aspiring to be product managers. But they still have huge ground to cover to be completely ready for a product management position. 

Product management is an intersection of three disciplines - Business, Design, and Technology. The position calls for sound analytical ability and hence a firm grip on data and statistics. Knowing the fundamentals of the business is very critical for landing your first job as a product manager. It ensures that you design and manage products in a way that guarantees business success. 

Developing a strong design ability helps you make informed and strategic decisions about a product’s design so that it provides an excellent user experience. Similarly, a firm grip on data interpretation and visualization techniques allows you to have data-driven and productive discussions about your product with your team.

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3. Assess Your Skill Gaps

The core responsibilities of a product manager sit at an intersection of multiple functions and teams. To become a successful product manager, you need to master several domains and skills. You also need a wide set of soft skills to effectively manage and lead different teams. Therefore, it is essential to assess your skill gaps and attain the skill sets you lack to start your product management career.

Here are some of the typical skill gaps that are the biggest hurdles that software engineers need to clear to land their first product manager job:

  • Managing stakeholders and generating buy-in
  • Developing usability as well as a user flow
  • Understanding the market, customer needs, and business goals
  • Prioritizing workload, ideas, and requests
  • Strategic thinking over operational thinking
  • Evaluating ideas and choosing the optimum solution, rather than trying to devise the best solution

4. Focus on Developing Influential Leadership

The leadership skills required in product management positions are different from those required in other managerial or leadership positions. Product managers are influential leaders, not direct supervisors. They are responsible for navigating between the customer, the marketing team, and the engineers, and influencing decisions and choices. As a software engineer, your core expertise will assist you in acing the systems design interview questions. That's a given. The requirements to become a product manager are different, however. As a product manager, you’ll be expected to help every team move in the same direction without exercising authority.

You’ll be required to manage and lead through influence by making convincing arguments about customer needs, business performance, technical feasibility, and complexity. You have to develop influential leadership skills by managing teams and people without exercising authority. The best way to practice influential leadership is to start managing teams. If your current position doesn’t allow you to manage and lead people, start collaborating with people to build side projects and lead the way. Reading books like Dare to Lead by Brene Brown will also help you significantly in developing influential leadership skills.

5. Expand your Analytical Skills

As a software engineer, you solve many technical problems and often have to deal with computational tradeoffs. This is why software developers are known to be excellent problem solvers. But the problems encountered by product managers have a wider scope than the problems faced by software engineers. Apart from a technical standpoint, your analytical skills need to be driven by aspects of business and design too. 

Let’s suppose that the project that you’re assigned is the development of an enterprise cloud application. From a technical vantage point, keeping airtight security protocols and rules in place is one of the most important things to do. On the other hand, a product manager would also consider the effects of multi-layered, extra-protective security protocols on user experience.

So, before starting out as a product manager, you need to enhance your analytical skills. Since you might already have strong technical analytical skills, try to be more focused on the business and design aspects of a problem. Study real-world cases and problems and try to come up with the most balanced solutions.

6. Start Building Products

You won’t encounter the challenges that product managers face until you start to build and manage products of your own. Building side projects doesn’t just make your resume stand out but also gives you the real-world experience of managing a product. Side projects also help you build essential skills like leadership, team management, prioritization, budgeting, and gaining an understanding of product management tools, among other things.

Building side products will help you demonstrate your skills as a product manager and give you an edge in the competition. They give you a story that you can use when the interviewers shoot behavioral questions your way. 

Let’s say that one of the interviewers asks you, “How would you keep developers working on a product motivated and turning out quality work?” This is the perfect opportunity for you to weave your side project in the answer and use it as an instrument to demonstrate your skills.

In conclusion, career transition can be tremendously challenging if you don’t plan every aspect of it carefully and realistically. Making the switch from software engineering to product management is a big step. But with the right planning and execution, you will land your first product management job in no time. These six tips will help you create a foolproof plan for making the switch.