So, are you a software engineer interested in becoming a product manager? Here's a definitive guide for your approaches and a step-by-step playbook for how to take the leap.
Software engineering is one of the most common starting points when transitioning into a product management role. Because product management lies at the intersection of business strategy, product design, and technology, software engineers with an understanding of how modern software is designed and built can have a tangible advantage as product managers.
In fact, I transitioned into product halfway through an undergraduate software engineering internship. However, transferring internally isn’t the only way to transition into product management from software engineering. This article will disambiguate multiple avenues to transition into a career in product management when starting with an engineering background.
Note for folks in other roles: Because my background is in software, this article will focus heavily on software engineering, although these general guidelines should also apply to other roles. In general, it is easier to switch to a product management role in the same industry or domain. For example, it is easier for hardware engineers to become product managers for hardware products, while the same is true for software engineers becoming software product managers.
Method 1: Transfer Internally (with the help of an internal advocate)
Transferring internally entails transitioning from your current role as a software engineer to a new role within the same company as a product manager. This is often the path of least resistance, both from the company’s perspective and from your own, since the company presumably values you as a high performer and is invested in your growth, and you already know enough about the products, people, and company to make an impact as a PM.
This approach is likely more useful at larger companies because you’re more likely to have a wide variety of other PMs to reach out to, some of whom will be willing to mentor you and give you “PM-y” tasks to take on. In addition, there is usually a well-defined hiring process for internal transfers at larger companies, which means your transition is neither unprecedented nor unsupported. Try out these steps if this sounds like your company:
- Grab coffee with your team’s PM (or any PM who you would feel comfortable speaking with) about wanting to try out product management. Pick their brains about what they do day-to-day and what PM is like at your company.
- Your manager ought to be invested in your growth. If possible, bring up your desire to try PM in your next 1:1, along with the steps you’ve already taken to learn more about the role and what it means at the company. They might be able to provide you with more resources or chat with other folks in the organization for you to make the switch.
- If a coffee chat with a PM went well, ask that person if they’d be willing to let you take on some of the lower priority work they don’t currently have the bandwidth for. It’d help you grow your skills as a PM and test your desire to become a PM, while taking a bit of stress off the PM’s shoulders.
- Ask that person for feedback on the new work you’ve taken on. Repeat steps 1-3 with a few other product managers at the company until you feel like you’ve gained both understanding and skills.
- Browse your company’s list of open jobs. If a team you’re interested in is looking for product managers, great! Make sure to note down which team and what they’re looking for.
- Apply to the internal job postings (you can probably do this informally, just by reaching out to the person in your company that is hiring), and/or ask an internal advocate (any of the folks you’ve been working with or your manager) to put in a good word for you.
- You’ll likely still have to interview, but it’ll be much less pressure than if you were interviewing with a new company. Your reputation will likely precede you, and worst case scenario you can try again if things don’t go well the first time.
- Prepare early for the interview when it’s scheduled. Start with Exponent’s online product management interview prep course.
Method 2: Transfer internally (by becoming a de-facto PM)
If you work at a smaller company, where there may not be as many internal advocates to help mentor you, nor a well-defined hiring process, I recommend becoming a de-facto PM. As smaller companies grow, there may be more opportunity for you to take on product management tasks on your own, doing what needs to be done to get your team’s product out on time. Here’s what that looks like:
- You work at a rapidly growing company. The list of open jobs is growing faster than you can hire, and your team (or another team) is in need of someone to define product strategy, look after the roadmap, and interface with customers.
- Try to understand what the highest priority blockers are for the team. The best way to do this is to evaluate the product development process from an objective perspective. How are features prioritized? How is the roadmap maintained? What would the team find most useful for you to do, in addition to your current role?
- Let your manager know you want to take on these additional tasks so that she can clear any potential blockers for you. Be explicit (if possible), that you would like to eventually transition to a product management role, and you want to try out a PM’s responsibilities to help your team. This is a win-win: you will seem like a high-performer, and your team will benefit from your efforts.
- Do the tasks you set out to do. Get help from your manager or from your team in figuring out the relative prioritization of those tasks. Remember, you are taking on extra work in addition to your current responsibilities, which means people will likely be willing to help you for going the extra mile. It’s important to ensure that you’re prioritizing your current engineering role, first, of course.
- Once you’ve encountered product strategy, road-mapping, feature scoping, and other tasks that would commonly fall to a product manager, it’s likely time to have a conversation with your manager about how and when it’s best to switch.
Method 3: Get an MBA
Depending on your goals and circumstances at work, an MBA might be a good option for transitioning into product management. It is not necessary to get an MBA to be a product manager, but there are numerous other benefits that come out of the degree that can be incredibly valuable, including exposure to other career options, network growth, and friendships.
Depending on what you’re looking for, an MBA can be a good way to transition out of your current career and into a tech PM role, but it is not a surefire way, nor is it a required prerequisite.
A few key caveats to remember:
- The ranking of your school matters when it comes to on-campus recruiting. Product management is an extremely attractive career path right now, which means that the majority of on-campus recruiting budgets typically go to higher ranked schools. In other words, don’t get an MBA just to get an MBA. Be mindful of the schools you’re accepted to, the investment in applying, and the career placement rates for those schools in your desired role.
- There is a tradeoff in cost vs. forgone earnings. You will have to decide if the opportunity cost makes sense for you.
- There is no substitute for experience. In other words, it’s unlikely that a product management class could teach you how to become a product manager more effectively than being a product manager. Instead, I would leverage the student community on campus to building a side project or gaining deeper immersion in product strategy.
Method 4: Transfer to a different company
Unfortunately, business school or internal transfers aren’t always preferable or possible. Transferring to a different company can be a bit harder, since there isn’t an internal advocate for you any longer. In some ways, though, the steps to accomplishing internal and external transfers are quite similar.
In both cases, speak with PMs at your current company to learn more about the role and their day-to-day. Ask if they can introduce you to friends who are PMs at other companies, to compare and contrast the roles and responsibilities of a product manager across various companies.
Depending on how much extra bandwidth you have, I would recommend the following:
- Take on extra tasks that are related to a PM’s responsibilities.
- Build a personal brand outside of work (blog about product management, write product case studies, publish your thoughts on the industry) Note: The goal is not to amass a following, although that’s certainly not a negative. The main objective is to hone your written communication skills and formulate coherent arguments about technology and business.
- Start a collaborative side project. This doesn’t have to be a startup or technology business. It could be a podcast, a meetup group, or a book to name a few examples. The key objective is to lead a team of people to accomplish a goal.
As an engineer, it is expected that you have a solid quantitative background. Therefore, the skills most hiring managers will be evaluating are softer: communication, writing, public speaking, and empathy. The above activities were all ways that I acquired those skills, and I would strongly recommend that you hone your softer skills when recruiting for a PM role.
Once you’ve started to immerse yourself into the world of product management, make a list of companies you’re interested in working for. Reconnect with the PMs you’ve met or friends that work at those companies and get referrals. The most successful way to get an interview is through a referral.
Note on offers that provide the chance to transition later: When I started recruiting for my first product role, a few companies offered me software engineering roles with the chance that I could transition to product management later. I would advise against accepting such offers. For one, changing circumstances can change the chances of you transitioning, and there is no explicit timeframe for that transition. In addition to the fact that you don’t have many allies at a company prior to starting, you might inadvertently delay your journey to becoming a product manager by taking the offer. If you’re set on transitioning into product, I would recommend checking out Exponent’s course content to maximize your chances of success.
There are multiple different, equally valid ways to transition into product management from software engineering. As a software engineer, you’ve acquired a keen understanding of how modern software is built and shipped. To become a product manager, it’s key to supplement that understanding of technology with rich communication skills, an eye for good design, and a perspective on product strategy / industry trends. Good luck with your transition!
Visit Exponent's PM Interview Course for more great product management interview prep.