Ask A Good Product Manager

Your product management questions answered

How can a software engineer become a product manager?

Posted on March 29, 2008 · 9 Comments

Question: How can I transition from software engineering to product management?

As a software engineer by trade, I am dying for get my hands on an entry-level product management position because I know that this is what I want and that I will be good at it.

However, product management positions typically all require experience. This is also not some kind of experience you can get by cutting your teeth at some non-profit as a volunteer. I suppose no for-profit will ever give some random guy a chance at managing their product even if the guy was working for free.

How does someone with my background break into product management? I just need an opportunity to prove myself. I am hungry and eager. My current employer has ruled my candidacy out, as they prefer people with 20+ years of experience.

Any advice on crossing that first bridge? I would swim the channel if I have to…

Answer from Derek Morrison of All About Product Management: I think that the best course of action is to analyse your skill set against the skills required for a typical product management position – try using a job description either one from your own company or pick one up from the web. Be your own worst critic. You could use a SWOT analyses coupled with ranking yourself High, Mediums and Low for each bullet point the job description. This will give you a clearer picture of the gap that exists between your skill set as a software engineer and that of a product manager. Next, I would recommend that you, come up with an action plan – your own road map on how you plan to turn your weakness into strengths and minimise your threats and take full advantage of any possible opportunities that may come you way.

For example:

  • You may be weak or lack experience in interacting with customers — if this is the case, look out for opportunities to attend meetings with project or product managers to discuss the clients requirements. When you feel confident and have gained the trust and respect of the project or product manager, ask if you could lead out on a particular agenda item.
  • Look for opportunities to step in for the product manger — for example, when they are on holiday or away sick. Your company may re assign the product managers work load to another PM – be sure to step up and offer your help and assistants.
  • You may find it hard to explain technical concepts to business people (if so rank yourself as low) — practice explaining various technical teams to a business person (as opposed to your technical colleagues). Write out a script and remember that you talking to someone who will not be acquainted with or be fluent in the deep technical terminologies. Business people love individuals who can (a) quickly assess what level they are at and then (b) explain technology in a non-threatening and humble way and (c) be able to use (suggest) technologies that will solve business problems.
  • Hang out with the product management team — be the guy who is able and willing to give advice and help them out.

Assess your progress periodically and then make your move to becoming a product manager. Broadly speaking there are “Two possible routes to landing your 1st Product Management job” — read How to get into Product Management.

Many have made the transition in the past, many will make it in the future, and there’s no reason why you can’t be one who make a successful transition. Read How others have moved into Product Management to see how others have done it.

9 other answers so far ↓

  • The asker // Mar 30, 2008 at 10:12 am

    A SWOT on myself! But of course! I use SWOT for everything else, I don’t know why it didn’t cross my mind until then. Look at where I want to be, look at where I am today, identify the gaps, and act on the gaps.

    I also did read your series of PM interviews, that’s some really great stuff, absolutely love it.

    Thanks guys!

  • Derek Morrison // Mar 31, 2008 at 9:45 am

    Always happy to help. Please let us know how you get on – send me an email at allaboutproductmanagement@yahoo.com when you make the transition I’m sure it would make a good case study and could help someone else who is trying to make the transition . BTW if you get an interview and want any help in prep work then let me know via the same email address.

    Derek

  • Gopal Shenoy // Apr 2, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    I had done a SWOT on myself earlier this year and had written about how to go about doing one. My blog post can be found at http://productmanagementtips.com/2007/12/11/state-of-you/

  • Michael Ray Hopkin // Apr 2, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    The key for my transition from software engineering to product management was taking every opportunity I could to learn about PM, interact with the PM team and asking a lot of questions. Like Derek says, I looked for opportunities to fill in when I could. One of the best things that happened was an opportunity to do a six-week consulting gig for one of our customers. Though it was an engineering job, it gave me the opportunity to interact with the customer and begin to develop that important PM skill. I also made sure the right people on the PM team knew I wanted to join their team.

    Start seeing yourself as a PM, keep reading the blogs, hone your skills and the opportunity WILL come.
    All the best!
    Michael

  • Raj P // Apr 2, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    In addition to the excellent recommendations above, I’d also recommend taking some of the Product Management courses offered by well-reputed training organizations such as Pragmatic Marketing. I believe this demonstrates to your prospective employer that you have a sincere interest in Product Management, and you are investing your time and energy in learning it.

    Best wishes,
    Raj
    Accompa – Affordable requirements management software for product managers

  • Jeff Lash // Apr 4, 2008 at 9:21 am

    A few other links to mention:

  • Cindy Alvarez // Apr 29, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    Of the advice above, I would doubly stress “be able to communicate technical concepts to a non-technical audience”.

    Many companies suffer from a disconnect between the product management and engineering sides of the house, and being the person who can bridge that gap by explaining concepts to the less technical and negotiating with the more technical is a crucial role.

    Once you’ve done your SWOT, you may want to search specifically for “Platform Product Manager” roles and compare against those – these live in product management and typically own areas like a product SDK, analytics, infrastructure or mobile channels. Even if that’s not where you want to eventually be, it could be the right “foot in the door”. (I was hiring for this role late last year and trust me, there’s a shortage of folks with STRONG technical background who “think like a product manager”.)

  • benson // Jul 7, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    Any promotion strategic plan/event for software products? Any suggestions?

  • Himanshu // Aug 14, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Derek, If one have a 8-10 years exp in product engineering and want to move to product management roles. Do you think going for an MBA course will help in filling the concepts and voids of allround business education much needed for PM roles

What do you think?