A Journey From Engineering To Product Management

Joan Lafferty
Apr 18, 2018 · 4 min read
Photo by Maximilian Weisbecker on Unsplash

About five years ago, I was working as a quality engineering lead when I was called into a meeting with my group’s director of product management. I have to be honest, I didn’t get very much face time with the directors in my organization, so, it was surprising, to say the least. I assumed he was going to ask me for feedback on my current product manager or thank me for some work I had recently done. Instead, he asked me if I was interested in product management. At the time, he didn’t have an opening on his team, but, he believed I had the empathy for customers that was core to the job.

This was not exactly a planned career move for me. I thought of product managers as extroverts and suits who occasionally dropped in with engineering. That didn’t sound like me. But, the director assured me that good product managers came in all personality types. At the core, they all cared deeply about customer experience. After excelling as an engineer for over a decade, it still took months to imagine myself in this role, but, eventually, I made the jump.

Since then, I’ve been approached by quite a few other engineers who also hope to make the same move. They are often disappointed to hear that this move wasn’t in my plans and I didn’t have a magic formula to jump from one career track to another. However, after many conversations on this transitions, I do believe there are concrete lessons I can pass on to any aspiring product managers. Regardless of your role, I think some of these tips could apply.

#1 Solve Customer Problems

Whether you are an engineer, designer, marketing, or any role on the team, there is no reason that you cannot help customers. Customer support is rarely done well at any company and any additional help will usually be welcome. This can come in the form of:

  • Responding to customer support forums
  • Answering questions about your product on Twitter, FB or other sites
  • Writing help documentation, tech notes etc.
  • Volunteering to chat online or on the phone with customers

This work isn’t always easy. Customers can get pretty angry when your product isn’t working the way they expect. Collect, organize and quantify this feedback over time and share it with your product manager and team. It’s an amazing feeling to solve a customer problem and improve your product’s experience.

#2 Represent Your Product Publicly

This piece of advice won’t apply to all products, but, for those that can be discussed publicly, I’d encourage you to do it. Here are a few ideas:

  • Write a blog post about how to use your product.
  • Write a blog post about a great experience with your product (e.g. How you used XX API to build your own X).
  • Speak at a conference or user group.
  • Attend a conference and chat with customers of your product.
  • Teach a class on your product.

Eventually, people will go to you as a product expert and that will be a huge boost.

#3 Know Your Competition

A good product manager will always know their competition as well as trends in the space they are in. Again, there is no reason that you shouldn’t do the same. This will help you express your opinions to your product manager or others regarding what you are building. As a PM, I honestly don’t always have the bandwidth to keep up with everything my competitors were doing. I appreciated all of the engineers who would share their opinions regarding competition.

#4 Pick Up the Slack for Your Product Manager

Every product manager I’ve known has a hundred things that need attention and they can’t get to it all. While they might excel at a few (or even lots) of areas, they are likely letting a few balls drop. This is where you can help. Is your PM not keeping engineering stories up to date and detailed? Are they not reviewing documentation as thoroughly as needed? Are they not organizing customer feedback or analyzing data usage for your product?

For any of these areas, I’m sure your PM would LOVE your help. If you step up to get some of these tasks done, you will help improve your own product and you’ll be getting experience and training for the role you want.

#5 Do Amazing at the Job You Are In

This last piece of advice is particular important if you are hoping to transition to a new role at the same company. Stars shine bright and people notice. But, if you haven’t made much of an impact, then, who is to say you would do well at a career in product management?

On several occasions, I was asked to give feedback on several engineers who wanted to move into product management. The feedback I gave was around their current work as well as how they responded and interacted with customers. You won’t be judged on aspirations, but, on what you are doing now.

Final Thoughts

For me, the move to product management fits. I love working with engineers, designers and especially customers to build solutions.

If you can make helping customers a part of your core identity at work, I believe you will be on your way. This transition likely won’t happen overnight, but, as you contribute more to making the experience for customers better, someone will notice. And… if no one does, then, you will still have a wealth of examples to show to someone who does have influence over changing your career path. Good luck!