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How to Transition From Software Engineer to Product Manager

Prior to my transition from Software Engineer to Product Manager, I spent my career focused on “How” I was going to build the products that my team and company needed. There are hundreds if not thousands of factors that go into evaluating “Why” a company decides to build a certain product, and “What” that product is.

Depending on your product team’s culture and the size of the company, you can contribute to the product discovery process as a Software Engineer. Yet, often you will spend most of your time figuring out “How” you are going to build the software product, and then also actually implement and build it. On a day-to-day basis, this may include things like having brainstorming sessions with teammates on software architecture, scoping technical design for a new feature, and of course, actually creating high-quality code that serves as the building blocks of your product. No doubt about it, Software Engineering is a rigorous and essential role in product teams, and the “How” question is expansive and challenging. 

Product Management Questions: What and Why

I am grateful for my technical background for helping me understand the foundations of software products. Still, as I progressed in my career I found myself gravitating more toward the “Why” and “What” questions. I especially loved spending more time with customers and cross-functional teams and having the opportunity to see the bigger picture of the products I worked on. This passion was cemented for me when I spent time as a co-founder of my own startup. I wanted to find a role where thinking about and contributing to the “Why” and “What” of product development was my full-time job. Enter: Product Management!

Answering the Questions

As a Product Manager, it is your role to investigate and understand as much as you can about the product that you own. This investigation of the “Why” is to ultimately drive the best decisions possible for your team and company. These decisions are about “What” product your team should build next. What exactly you may do to investigate and understand the “Why” depends on your company culture, team size, and the product itself.

On a high level, this means that you are the one responsible for collecting qualitative and quantitative data, and driving collaboration and analysis to use that data to make product decisions. Your job is to launch the best product you can, while considering every possible factor. These include the health of your team, customer feedback, company goals, and market trends.

While this influx of information and data can seem daunting, it is what attracted me most to the role. I love learning and processing information and using my analytical skills to digest this information into valuable output. To me, this is essentially what being a Product Manager is like, and is my favorite part of the role. I love how as a Product Manager, you get paid to be learning constantly both on the breadth and depth of your product space. 

From Software Engineer to Product Manager

When I knew I wanted to start the Product Manager job hunt, I had a lot of limiting and negative beliefs. While I had tons of relevant experience and had been doing the actual functions of the role already, without the official “title” of Product Manager, I had a lot of imposter syndrome for the job hunt.

Some of my limiting beliefs were that I needed more experience before I would be ready for the right Product Manager role and that I wasn’t ready or qualified to land a job at my dream company. As a woman in Engineering, I had been dealing with imposter syndrome my whole career. I had learned by now that our worst fears are seldom true. I decided to proceed with going after my goal and tackle these fears one by one.

What I quickly learned was that while you do need the experience to succeed in any role and at certain levels within a role, anyone who has worked with products and developed certain core skills is capable of succeeding in Product Management. I learned that what is less important for your success as a Product Manager is knowing every product term and exactly how different product development processes function (I’m sure you’ve been overwhelmed by all the different ways “Agile” works by now!), but more about understanding high-level frameworks like the general steps of Product Development and Product Discovery, and developing skills like empathy, an analytical and observational mind, and organization. In the end, by focusing on these factors, I landed dozens of interviews and four offers. I ended up accepting my dream role at security startup Secureframe as the first PM hire. 

How to Transition From Software Engineer to Product Manager: The Interview

During the interview process of the transition from Software Engineer to Product Manager, it’s also important to understand what you bring to the table given your background. A Software Engineering background is extremely valuable to your future team, and you want to highlight those strengths as opposed to downplaying them. Focus more on what you do bring to Product Management, and not what you don’t have direct experience in. Below are some of the most crucial questions that I encountered during the interview process that I recommend preparing for.

“Walk Me Through a Product That You Worked on.”

You will 100% get this prompt during your interviews, especially during later rounds and even multiple times. Spend some time writing out examples of one or two products or projects you worked on in great detail, and mapping your experience to the end-to-end product development lifecycle. Study these examples so that you can articulate your experience well when you need to during the interview. This question is important because as I mentioned above, what really matters at the end of the day with Product Management is that you understand how to take a product from ideation to launch. For someone with a Software Engineering background, make sure you highlight and show what you did in the earlier parts of the Product Development Lifecycle to facilitate the “Why” and “What” questions, and don’t just focus on the “How.” How did you contribute to discovery, ideation, and product scoping?

“How Do You Like to Work with Engineers as a PM?”

You will most likely get this question or something similar from Software Engineers, or even an Engineering Director or CTO. The question is important because when these folks interview you, they are really evaluating whether you are going to be someone that:

  1. Helps their team succeed, and
  2. Is enjoyable to work with on their team.

In your response, you want to highlight both how you make product decisions that are best for the team. Also, show that you are mindful, considerate, and empathetic towards engineering as a stakeholder in the product. You want to emphasize that you see engineering as a teammate, not a servant or third party. Bonus points for articulating how you value engineering’s perspective as a part of the product discovery process. If you do have a Software Engineering background, make sure you emphasize how you can step up as a leader for the product and team. Then show that you are aware of the boundaries between your future Product Management role and your engineering counterparts. 

The Best Product Managers

Software Engineers can make some of the best Product Managers in the field. During the interview process, make sure you take time to zoom out and see the big picture of the Product Development Process. How will you contribute differently as a Product Manager? If you can conquer the above skills, mindset, and questions, you will definitely be able to make this transition and help your future company excel.