Rohit Malekar

April 7, 2021

How Can An Engineer Transition into Product Management?

I get this question often in different forms, so I thought I would write this up in some detail.

"How can a software engineer transition into a product manager [role] without having any management experience?"

If anything, the commonly interpreted meaning of "management experience" will be more of a hindrance than help in becoming a product manager. Let me go out on a limb and say, you don't need management experience, you need a "maker" experience to become an effective PM.

In that sense, all other things being equal, I am most bullish on engineers becoming effective PMs over any other craft (design, marketing, QA, management,...). If you know your engineering well and can blend the depth in execution with the strategy, you can become unstoppable.

However, I strongly urge you to write down and create your own version of the "how". Ignore the title of a product manager and introspect on the behaviors you are aspiring for and the impact you want to deliver. One way to do this is to write down the JD of your ideal role.

Why? Listening to experts might motivate you to become a PM. But let's face it - change is hard. Until you truly believe in the need for you to transition, until you have etched the role that you aspire for in your mind, you will lose to the otherwise natural state of your mind.

Read as many books or newsletters as you want and listen to as many podcasts you wish unless you have intrinsically convinced yourself, either you will accomplish chasing someone else's checklist but still feel a void (best case) or you will tire yourself and give up (worst case).

Once you have the clarity for what behaviors and outcomes you ultimately seek as a PM, work backward to see which of these are feasible in your current role and what are some of the micro-habits you can start building towards to get good at this.

e.g. Can you shadow activities in user research? Can you take some support calls? Can you prioritize backlog with justification? Can you research the competition and pitch a relevant feature? Can you attempt a 1-page press release explaining the product?

You have to make the elbow room in your current org to seek these experiences. No one else will serve this on the platter for you.

Sure, all the literature from the experts can help you in the understanding of the "why" and "what", but you own the "how".

If you don't have air cover to exploit these opportunities while doing your day job as an engineer, then switch. However, don't attempt a knee-jerk transition to a PM role unless you are ready - find a culture where individual crafts are not separated by water-tight compartments.

Irrespective, the more you genuinely commit to a process that you have crafted for yourself, the closer you would be to your ideal JD. Generally speaking, the path of least resistance is to show the "proof of work" to transition into a PM role in your current org.

Have written a bit more prescriptively here on Gumroad. However, as a product manager in the making, grow a healthy skepticism to "best practices" and "how-to" guides, including this one!