Engineers: What to Know About Pivoting Into Product Management

Engineers: What to Know About Pivoting Into Product Management

Product management is one of the most in-demand jobs today—and it’s not uncommon for engineers to transition into the role. After all, engineers are the ones building the product and can have a lot of input into how the technology is executed and delivered. However, if you’re an engineer thinking to make the move, there are a few things to consider first.

You will shift from the solutions to problem space

As an engineer, you are laser focused on the how, but product managers live in the why. As a product manager, you will obsess over the customer—understanding who they are, what their pain points are, and how best to solve their problems. It’s the product manager’s job to then work with the engineering team to build the best solution and experience for the customer.

“As engineers, we are wired to think about how should we build. It’s a natural instinct,” says Vivek Bedi, author of You – The Product: The Real Skills You Need to Be an Effective Product Manager. “That mindset shift was a big learning curve for me.”

Vivek transitioned from engineering to product during his time at Goldman Sachs because he preferred spending time with the clients and seeing firsthand how they use the technology. To succeed in the role, he says, you need to get out of the engineering seat and get in front of the users to learn what works, what doesn’t, and why it doesn’t.

Soft skills are king

Engineers may be used to being heads down in the work. However, in product management, the bulk of the work is communicating, whether with your team, stakeholders, leadership or customers. It’s your job as the product manager to align everyone on a common vision and get buy-in across the product journey. This requires brushing up on storytelling skills, negotiation tactics, and the ability to navigate organizational politics.

“Sharpening my soft skills was a big learning curve for me,” says Kriti Yadav, a systems engineer turned product manager after taking on several client-facing projects. “There was a point in my career that I was trying to voice my opinion in front of stakeholders and I was shut down. At that time, I retracted instead of justifying my point. In retrospect, I learned the value I could have added had I done things differently.”

It’s critical for product managers to muster up the confidence to speak up because it’s for the success of the product, Kriti adds. “At the least, your point is heard and debated, rather than not being heard at all. Voice everything and let it be discussed.”

You’re no longer in charge of building the technology

Vivek believes having a technical background can only make you stronger as a product manager, allowing you to understand, defend, and speak to the technology in a way your customers and stakeholders can understand. Having this background can help engineers stand out over other applicants because they can show they’ve already worked on products and can highlight product-related experience, such as user testing and developing roadmaps.

But keep in mind, you’re no longer the one building the technology.

Kriti agrees having a technical background can certainly be an advantage as a product manager, knowing how to leverage technologies to solve certain problems, communicate more effectively with engineering teams, and help save time and costs. But it can also be a disadvantage if you’re not careful. “If you’re overly solutions focused, and you don’t take the step back to understand what you’re solving or who you’re building for, a technical background can be a detriment,” she explains.

As the product manager, it’s important that you don’t get too in the weeds and let your engineering team do their job, just as you would your design and marketing teams.

Last, but certainly not least, you must get comfortable with the idea of failure

Whereas engineering work can feel black or white—a technology works or it doesn’t—product management lives in the gray.

“Fearing to fail is not the hallmark of a product manager,” Kriti says. “Product management is evaluating your risks, knowing how to address them, while also understanding there is no guarantee for success.”

To succeed as a product manager, you have to be comfortable with this way of working and show that you are able to learn from mistakes made by applying those lessons in the next version of the product. Product management is a cycle of continuous feedback and iteration.

If you’re looking to transition into the role, Kriti suggests to volunteer your time for smaller product roles at your company or take on a passion project and apply product concepts to it, such as through an incubator or accelerator program (or on your own). “This will show that you take initiative and that you understand how to apply product thinking,” she says.

Are you looking to transition into product management? What questions do you have for the author?


Monica Rozenfeld works in digital product at a Fortune 100 and is the cofounder of Her Product Lab, a global community and incubator program for women in product.


Leave a Reply