Ask A Good Product Manager

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How to go from sales engineer to product manager?

Posted on May 21, 2009 · 7 Comments

Question: How can I transition from being a sales engineer to being in product management?

I have been a sales engineer for the past 10 years or so, and would like to move into product management. How can I best make the transition? Should I target specific sizes or types of companies? My thoughts are that a startup would want a seasoned professional, but perhaps a mid- to large-size company might be willing to hire someone who had not had a PM position before.

Answer from Steve Johnson of Pragmatic Marketing: Small companies seem more inclined to take risks; larger companies may tend to favor a candidate with experience. But I don’t think the issue is company size; I think the issue is the hiring manager. Some want to bring someone in who already knows the job and the industry and is willing to work for the same or lower pay. Fools! Instead the smart hiring manager should be looking for an SE rather than a product manager. My best source for product managers was in fact my competitor’s best SEs.

How does a SE become a product manager? Illustrate in some way your ability to see patterns in the market. Don’t be the guy who says “I’m in sales and I know what people need.” Be the guy who says “78% of our lost deals are because we don’t have this feature.” Those who attend Practical Product Management learn that opinions are cheap but market data is dear.

I suggest that you sit down with the VP of Marketing or the VP of product management to discuss what they’re looking for and how you can be on their short list for the next product management opening. Many folks start with the Pragmatic Marketing Framework at serving as a vehicle for discussion. Which of these activities are your best features? Which activities are driving the VP crazy? And let’s hope that your skills fit a void in the VP’s current staffing.

In the end, product managers come from many places: development, sales, marketing, support. But the best product managers are those who see patterns and create a consistent, repeatble method for defining products and working with other teams.

For more on the product management roles and compensation, see

7 other answers so far ↓

  • Raj // May 23, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    I agree with Steve – I believe it is much more about the Hiring Manager, rather than company size. Smart hiring managers would take into account a candidate’s skills, relevant experience (not necessarily identical job title), and future potential.

    I’d recommend you to *not* avoid startups – you can pitch to them that you’ll come in and wear multiple hats – SE as well as PM. Many startups would be open to that – I think even my employer would be, if we had that opening! 🙂

    On a related (and amusing) note, the other day I saw a job ad that asked for “At least 10 years of experience as a product manager for Web-2.0 software”. Is that really possible?

    – Raj
    Accompa – Affordable Requirements Management Tool for Product Managers

  • Jonathan // May 26, 2009 at 12:19 am

    This is useful thank you. Aside from skills what personality traits does a PM require. For example if I am “too nice” and too easily say “yes” to everyone would that not make me a good PM because for example: I need to say “no” to some sales reps who ask for product features. It is after all impossible to say yes to everyone.

    What about ‘office politics’ skills? Since the PM role bridges R&D and sales, (and other departments) how does one learn the skills required to navigate these waters?

    thank you

  • Steve Johnson // May 26, 2009 at 6:09 am

    I’d hope that “politics” is never a key element of a job description but I hear what you’re saying. Being able to say “no” is a skill that many product managers lack. The trick is to say “no” but make it sound like “yes.” Using market data and patterns will help you see when “yes” makes sense.

    Many sales guys just want an answer that lets them close a deal. But sales management should see that a systematic approach results in closer more deals faster.

  • Saeed Khan // May 26, 2009 at 9:46 am

    Instead of saying “no” and making it sound like a “yes”, PMs need to say “no” and explain why.

    I’ve found people don’t mind hearing a “no”, as long as they understand why. And to be able to explain why, PMs need to understand why the request was made in the first place.

    The ability to clearly and consistently communicate with others is a core skill all Product Managers need, though unfortunately, many do lack.

  • bob corrigan // May 27, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    I think SEs make terrific product managers, because they have a built-in sympathy for two out of the three key stakeholders that PMs need to orient: sales and development. To seal the deal, an aspiring SE should definitely emphasize an awareness of “the market” as opposed to “the territory” or “the account” – in other words I’m agreeing with Steve’s 2nd paragraph. I guess I could have come out and said that up front. So sorry.

  • John Mansour // May 27, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    The good news is that SE’s transition into product management far easier than any other role I’ve seen, simply because much of the SE role does what product managers do in terms of understanding the market dynamics and how they drive business needs of prospective buyers. My point is this: the comfort zone of an SE and a PM are very much the same and it makes the transition much easier than say an engineer or designer.

    If I were in your shoes I’d look for PM opportunities that leverage your existing domain expertise in either a similar product category or with a company that targets market segments similar to those you currently sell to. This will allow you to position your market savvy as it relates to either. I’d also emphasize the presentation and persuasion skills necessary for a successful SE since they are also a huge factor in your success as a PM. Good luck on your next move.

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