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Is Product Management Right for Hardware Engineers During COVID-19?

Are you a hardware engineer desperately trying to get a Product Manager job? If the answer is yes, this interview with James Lau, a Product Gym member who transitioned into Product with a similar background, will answer all of your questions!
6 min read

Have you watched the interview? If not, you can watch it here! If you are new to our blog, make sure you subscribe to our YouTube to be the first to know about our releases on unique transition stories like James’ and essential information on Product Manager job hunt and interview process!

Richard Chen: Thank you guys so much for joining us again. My name is Rich, one of the cofounders here at Product Gym and today we got a very special video for you guys. James is going to help us navigate “Is Product Management right for hardware Product Managers?

James, how are you doing right now?

James Lau: Good. How are you?

Richard Chen: Not too bad. So, let’s jump right into it. For those of our viewers that don’t know you, James, would you like to just quickly introduce yourself as to what you did before you worked at your current company?

James Lau: Sure. I was a mechanical engineer for an electrical manufacturing company for about seven years. And then I transitioned into product internally for about two years after that. And I recently moved in the past year from the East coast to the West, and now I work as a hardware Product Manager.

Richard Chen: Got it. Okay. And in your previous position, what were some of the most rewarding aspects?

Actually though, what are some of the most rewarding aspects of Product Management compared to your previous position?

James Lau: Oh, well, currently the most rewarding part is I really get to dive deep into working with engineers and a lot of cross functional folks and really make a big impact in terms of what my company’s mission is in comparison to my previous job where I was primarily an outward outbound facing Product Manager. I was facing a lot of customers and I didn’t get a chance to actually build product. I was mainly managing product lines, which is nothing wrong with that. But personally, I’d like to make stuff and develop great products. And my current company really gave me the opportunity to work on that.

Richard Chen: What did you like about your job? What’d you like about your job to, for Product Management?

James Lau: So as a mechanical engineer, I’m really into designing, and seeing the products that I get to launch in the real world is extremely rewarding.

I used to be a mechanical engineer for LED Lighting. Even at the current, housing campus that I live in right now, I see some of the lights that I personally designed lighting up some buildings, which is awesome. And really, building products through multiple development cycles is extremely rewarding because all the challenges that happen for every product are completely different.

I can’t imagine what that feeling is like walking into a housing campus and seeing something that you created as part of the campus right now.

Richard Chen: What got you interested into Product Management?

James Lau: I personally really liked to make things, and I think that would be a testament to a lot of other engineers.

And I really enjoy not only making things, but making sure that the things I make has the best value to a customer and really helps them solve the particular problem that they’re looking to solve. Whether that be a light, a smoking cessation product or, anything. And I personally feel that Product Management was the best of both worlds, from both a technical aspect and a business aspect and the experience to get to really work with all different stakeholders is an excellent opportunity.

Once I’ve found out that Product Management even existed shortly after my tenure as a mechanical engineer, I hopped on the opportunity as fast as I can because I felt like that was a calling for me. And finally, I really like the situation in which you have a specific theory and you develop different tests, conditions, consumer insight surveys to validate a particular hypothesis that you have.

It’s basically an experiment that you get to test and it’s pretty exciting.

Richard Chen: Do you believe that Product Management is a good fit for, you know, mechanical engineers and people that are in hardware?

James Lau: Absolutely. I absolutely believe it does. The reason why is because anybody with a technical degree, a technical background specifically in the hardware field, has a ton of experience already within the development of products from an end to end experience.

Such that they have experienced in looking overall at something and a very high-level feasibility perspective on whether or not a feature may or may not have problems right from the get go based on their experience within manufacturing and hardware development. Secondly is their ability to gain trust within technical stakeholders, which many of us who have worked with within an organization knows that the engineers are ultimately the people that do make the product after all. Getting quick alignment with them is key to your success and that actually paves your way forward to have backing for you and confidence to build your stakeholder alignment with marketing and sales and whatnot.

And thirdly, it is the overall understanding of program deadlines. Yes, there’s is a blurry line between product and program, but whenever different types of deadlines are created, your background and understanding as an engineer really, you have a general idea of how things can be created and made within a specific timeframe.

And if things are really sandbagged too much or not… Not thought of, not thought out well enough, you immediately can like pick out specific problems and really address those things. So yeah, definitely a great background to be an engineer for product.

Richard Chen: How do you think your previous experience is relevant to a Product Manager role right now?

James Lau: Well, once again, I believe that I’ve had a ton of experience as a mechanical engineer developing products from the end to end cycle about a dozen times. So throughout that, I really know from design all the way to the launch and even the obsolescence of particular products. And overall as an engineer, I’m sure many others can attest to, is that they have a high understanding of specific processes that may not even pertain to their own engineering expertise.

In my case, I have a high-level understanding of various manufacturing processes and how that impacts other departments’ KPIs. An example would be logistical considerations for supply chain quality. KPIs on the manufacturing line for quality and quality assurance, shipping, packaging. All those little things that add up to the overall encompassing of a product development cycle, you get a lot within the engineering discipline.

And finally, something I’ve believed that isn’t talked about as much is the ability to have kind of an elevated level of emotional intelligence with somebody with a high technical background. So really, empathizing with some struggles or some deadlines that engineers may not be able to hit.

You’ll be able to empathize and really understand that their specific problem, especially if you dig into the meat of the issue, you’d be able to extract that information. And actually, passing it along to some of your fellow Product Managers who may not understand that particular problem as well as you do.

Richard Chen: Now, if you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?  Jumping into COVID-19?

James Lau: So COVID-19 is obviously an incredible difficult time for many people. And, some of my fellow colleagues have also been laid off too, and it’s an extremely sad situation right now.

What I would personally do differently than what I did before, where before I would apply to – just keep applying to many, many companies in my desired region and also reach out to some of my connections to get referrals. I would actually ramp that up to a thousand percent, meaning that you would pre, because COVID-19 gives the ability to make everybody with Product Management roles work from home.

I would actually extend my search to maybe companies within my specific time zone. So being in the Bay area, I would apply from Washington all the way down to maybe Southern California and maximize the utilization of referrals beyond the first and second – degree connections. So really reach out using referrals because many referrals nowadays from many companies have a bonus reward program.

It kind of hooks your friend or acquaintance up with a little bit of cash. Who wouldn’t want that? And third of all, which is not talked about as much, but, during COVID-19, I would definitely cold email way more and cold email, meaning reaching out to specific VP of products or senior product managers about your interest in that position.

And in addition to that, maybe come up with specific case studies and how you would improve small sections of their product, whether it be a subset of a feature or something within a hardware product, but something to show yourself that you’re going well above and beyond. Because during COVID-19, there’s a ton of people that have unfortunately lost their jobs, and at the same time, that means there’s a pouring of great talent out there, and that means there’s so much great talent, but there’s a limited supply of Product Manager jobs right now. So, standing out is probably one of the key aspects.

Richard Chen: Absolutely. Well, I’m glad that you’re still intact out there. For those of you who are seriously thinking about making the transition or just curious about making the transition that also comes from the same background that changed us here, please leave in the comments below.

What are some of your struggles, concerns, thoughts? We’d love to get out there and hear from them. Also, please don’t forget to check out in the YouTube description some of the free resources as well as a masterclass to go out there and learn more about how to make a transition during COVID-19 as well as James’ LinkedIn profile URL.

If you feel like it would be useful, helpful for you guys to go out there, ping him directly, we’d welcome that too. So, stay home, stay safe, stay positive. James, it’s a pleasure. As always. Thank you so much for making the time out of your busy schedule during COVID-19. We really appreciate this, and we’ll talk to you soon.

James Lau: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.

Richard Chen: Thank you so much.

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