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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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