You rarely see ‘Product Management’ degrees in the tech world, so where the f*ck do all these product managers come from?
One of the most common pathways is to first be a software engineer, but it’s no easy leap.
Whereas engineers spend their time on the ‘How’, product managers spend their time on the ‘What’ and the ‘Why’.
Writing code vs. customer interviews feel like two very different worlds, so what can product-focused engineers do to make the jump?
To find out, we chatted to Daniel Sutherland (Product @ Canva), who spent several years studying and working as software engineer before transitioning to the dark side…
Heres’s what he had to say 👇
Earlier last year, I set my mind on transitioning into Product Management.
I had been working full-time as a backend software engineer for a couple of years, which while stimulating, wasn't the perfect match for me.
Before I get into the details of how I transitioned and how you can too, allow me to channel my inner Simon Sinek to explore why I made this move.
'But wait!' some of you may be exclaiming through your screens, what even is product management? Good question, I didn't even know it was a role, let alone what it involved until after I had graduated.
At a high level, the key role of a product manager (PM) is to determine what the most important thing to work on is, craft a plan and then rally their team to deliver.
They should strive to have a high level of customer understanding and empathy, while also being a conduit between a variety of stakeholders (such as engineers, designers, analysts/researchers and senior leadership).
In short, PMs wear many hats and can be largely responsible for the success or failure of a product.
With the formalities out of the way, let's take a look at why I set out on this journey:
Since I was young, I've always been curious about why and how things work the way they do.
I admittedly drank the Elon kool-aid quite early on in high school, which jump-started my obsession with the outsized positive impact some people can have with enough determination and luck. In addition to this, I've always identified as a jack of all trades—its fun being able to do a variety of things.
When I started as a software engineer, I noticed there were some people whose role it was to be curious and determine what our part of the company should work on. I could tell they were wearing many hats—interviewing users, working with very different team members, the list goes on. They were like mini-founders!
I continued to realise that thinking about databases and new backend logic didn’t give me the same joy that thinking about product problems did. It turns out I was interested in strategic and people-oriented work all along.
An even bigger motivation for taking the plunge, were some health issues that had become chronic. I considered going back to uni to study medicine with the hope that I would be able to help others with similar conditions.
However, I realised that getting experience as a PM would equip me with the skills and confidence to potentially make an even bigger impact in the health space one day as a founder. When life gave me lemons, I decided a product manager is what I wanted to be.
Something that I eventually noticed is that many PMs have formerly worked as engineers, designers, linguists or anything else in between. Coming from another field gives you a unique lens through which you can make the best possible product.
Engineers looking to transition are especially fortunate, as they’ll likely have a greater ability to understand other engineers, who generally form the majority of the valuable colleagues a PM will have.
Before dedicating myself to the goal of getting into product, I had been slowly working to make myself a more suitable candidate. I realised one of the most common attributes of good PMs was their communication.
I worked on this by consistently facilitating team meetings, and frequently volunteering to present at wider company meetings. In addition to this, I spent a lot of the last year practicing improv—this transformed my ability to express myself and convey stories.
If you want a cheeky tip on how to level up your ability to ask and answer questions, then I’d recommend taking a brief look at the XY problem.
Having now worked in product for a little while, other skills I’d recommend fostering include:
Curiosity: It’s expected that you are curious about what can be done to drive better outcomes for users and the business. You’ll also often find yourself trying to make sense of user research and data from experiments. To get some exposure, try to get involved with user research before you transition—you might find you really like it!
Prioritisation: Try to be laser-focused on what could move the needle of the user experience and key metrics, not things that won’t. Before doing anything that will take more than 5 mins, ask yourself why you are spending valuable time on this. In a former life, I was intentional to include a “why” section in pull requests and Jira tickets as a sanity check.
A great way to upskill before transitioning is by working on small projects from a product angle, either at work or personally.
The two most common roads into product include applying internally and externally.
Applying internally is a good way to get into this role without much or any prior experience. You’ll probably have a pretty good understanding of the company and its culture, and there might even be some people who can vouch for you!
This was my path. After speaking to our head of product, I took part in an internal application and interview process. Talking to the person at the top is a massive piece of advice I wish I knew earlier. I likely would have saved 6-12 months if I had done this earlier.
If you’re already working at a company willing to take on an Associate PM (APM) or Junior PM, and you enjoy working there, my advice would be to attempt an internal transition.
Applying externally is also an option. For engineers or people with no/little formal product experience, you’ll want to be targeting APM roles at established companies or PM roles at early-stage startups.
It’s worth noting that these opportunities can be harder to come by, and there will often be additional rounds in the interview process (compared with applying internally). However, it can be a viable path.
Making It Happen 💪
Before kicking off my interview process, I spent a solid month grinding interview prep.
It all started with reading the sacred writings of product in ‘Inspired’, a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about the role. And was followed up with ‘Cracking the PM Interview’ for some cracking interview advice. Both absolutely worthy of impulse buying right now (no, I, unfortunately, don’t have an affiliate link).
Most of my time was then spent time mock interviewing on StellarPeers. This sharpened my ability to work on the fly under interview conditions and helped me learn some common product interview frameworks. I also set up a Notion table where I recorded things like self and partner learnings from each mock.
Throughout the actual - final boss battle - interviews, in addition to showing that I was capable of the skills mentioned earlier, I attempted to display some of the competitive advantages that engineering had imparted on me like:
Comfort working through ambiguity
Bias to getting sh!t done, over perfection
Attention to detail
The Wrap 🤙
Getting into product, or even changing careers for that matter, is a lot of work.
Something that helped me massively was knowing people already in or aspiring to be in product. They provided much-needed motivation through the harder times, which made it all so much easier.
Now that I’m on the other side, it’s worth pointing out this isn’t some magical role.
I find it fulfilling, but that doesn’t mean you will as well. Do your best to first understand what the role involves and why it may or may not be a good fit for you. If after all this, you’re more excited than before, double down and don’t look back.
Hopefully, this has provided some context on why you may want to consider moving into product management and how you can engineer your path forwards.
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