How I successfully transitioned from engineering to product management
I have a decade of work experience in the tech industry in a variety of roles like software quality assurance, software engineering and technical program management in product companies like NetApp, Amazon and Netflix. I first learnt about product management as a career path roughly 4 years into my career and had since developed a curiosity for the role. My husband Saisundar Raghavan handed me my first copy of the Cracking the PM interview book and I read it a few times over the next 2 years. I hadn’t had the opportunity to work closely with product managers at the time and yet every time I read the book, I had this feeling deep down that this was the career path that would spark joy for me.
In this article, I wanted to share my experience transitioning from engineering to product management, warts and all. My journey has been more a marathon than a sprint and is by no means the only path, but a path I won’t regret and one I would choose over and over again. I hope this helps de-mystify the path to PM for my fellow techies with PM aspirations.
Answer your ‘Why’
For me, the most critical step toward making the transition a reality was addressing the ‘why’ I wanted to get into product management. I have had a satisfying career in engineering where I’ve been respected and rewarded for my contributions. Addressing the why was the missing link that finally gave me the courage and vulnerability to leave my comfort zone and navigate the uncertainty surrounding the role change. There are plenty of articles out there about finding purpose in life, but for me it started with listing down the parts of my job that gave me the most satisfaction which were
a)my emphasis on partnerships/relationships
b)analytical thinking and problem-solving
c)finding purpose in work (why I build what I build and connecting the dots) and
d)writing, lots of it!
It also helped that I was not secretive about my aspirations and would jump at every opportunity to talk about it to anyone willing. At times, I heard discouraging words, but it ultimately helped me remove any biases I had in my mind about the role.
Identify and close your skills gap incrementally
The way I’ve seen and experienced it, skills are transferable across roles and stepping into a new role happens piecemeal over time and not necessarily in one straight shot. Many skills that are relevant in product management are also relevant in engineering and other functions and can be picked up without formally being a product manager. In my case, I spent a couple of years in technical program management accelerating my learnings in cross-functional leadership, driving by influence, getting things done, and understanding the dynamics of the various functions which includes product. I was able to leverage my engineering background and the relationships in my organization to materialize the TPM role and it came with no opportunity cost, only a ton of learning (Thanks to Carenina Motion for her selfless mentorship). This was also the first role in which I partnered very closely with product and sharpened my understanding of what product management is all about.
It wasn’t until I started interviewing for PM roles that I realized and fixed my remaining gap. When I first heard feedback about my interview performance from one of my interview loops, I was disappointed to hear that I hadn’t met the seniority bar for the role and the axis that had let me down was product sense. I always cared deeply about what problems I solved, why and who I solved them for. So, why is there a gap again? Thanks to Robby Bearman, I learnt that there are structured product frameworks that can be used to strengthen product sense abilities. Remember that interviewing for PM roles by itself is a skill, however researching, learning and practicing these product frameworks helped me with more than just the interviews and gave me the tools to understand the role in greater depth.
Transparency with your management chain
I was transparent all along about my long term career goals with my management chain and this helped me immensely. I was able to work with my managers Jean-Marie White and Janaki Ramachandran on being matched with the right opportunities to build the right skills that eventually led me to be successful in the transition. Partnering with them on my transition made me feel supported and less alone in my journey.
Develop and Leverage your network
Thanks to the book How women rise, I learnt that a network is no good if I don’t know how to use it. I had always felt sheepish about asking for favors, but through my journey I learnt that as little as 10 to 15 minutes spent with the right person can make a world of difference in making dreams a reality. Much like all other skills, networking is a skill and something I picked up along the way.
I spoke to some of my trusted PM peers and contacts and leveraged their help (and more importantly encouragement) to learn more about product management, build my resume and prepare for interviews (Thanks Olivia Witter, Robby Bearman and Manish Sirdeshmukh). There are many others I leveraged through my husband and my networks to get referrals and truthfully there are one too many to thank here.
Target the right PM roles
There are several types of product management roles — broadly categorized into tech PM, consumer PM and finance PM. I started my PM search broadly but after a few conversations with hiring managers across the industry, I learnt that I fit very nicely into the tech PM role due to my background. I then started targeting tech PM roles in my application process to be efficient in my search.
Building your resume and interviewing
One of the things I made sure to do was to get my resume reviewed by my PM contacts. This guaranteed a high rate of callback for my applications. Don’t underestimate this especially if you haven’t held the product manager title before.
Finally, lean into vulnerability and own your strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, it didn’t feel like a search for a PM role. It felt more like a search for that one person who was willing to take a bet on me!