Product-management positions are a world away from technical roles. With the latter, you focus on how software works; with the former, you examine how to bring in customers, and how they move through your application. The focus is on whether you should build new software or a particular feature, and why.
Here are some tips for transitioning from a technical role into product management:
Look Within Your Company
“It’s way easier to transition within a company that you’re already working at, rather than to try to get this role at a totally new company,” said Catherine Shyu, a product manager at FullContact, which builds contact-management software, “mostly because you already have a reputation you can draw on and respect within the organization already.”
It’s also difficult to win a product-management position at a new firm if you’re transitioning from a different type of role. “If you don’t have any product management experience in [your current] role and you apply for a job in another company, you’re going to be up against people who do have experience in that job,” warned Jeff Lash, service director for the product management advisory service at SiriusDecisions.
If you’re looking to transition into product management at your own company, chances are good you’re already interacting with product managers, which is a great way to learn more about what the role entails.
Start by approaching, say, the vice president of product management and telling them you’re interested in a product management role. “They can probably highlight some ideas to get you more involved or give some insight in terms of what are the specific skills within that company,” Lash said, “or maybe there’s a special project or something you can do to prepare for that, so when a position does open up they know that you’re interested in it.”
Take Stock Of Your Strengths
Shyu recommends asking someone at a managerial level what they look for in product managers: “If there’s a sample job listing, they can go through and see what they’re good at, and what they need to work on. In a way it becomes a to-do list.”
You can take this a step further by asking the manager if there are skills you need to work on. They might tell you to beef up on your communication skills, because good product managers have to work well with other departments, or develop your UX skills to complement your technical chops.
Get Your Feet Wet
Shyu recommends asking the product team if there are any projects you can start helping with. There may be an aspect of a product that nobody’s really managing—an add-on component, or a service offering—and thus an opportunity to step up and take ownership of something that needs to be done.
Engineers and developers interested in product management can also come along on customer visits to learn how the latter uses products. Interacting with actual customers can not only prepare you for a product-management role, but enhance your work in your current position.
“If you’re in a technical role and want to move into a product management role at the same company, you need to be able to show that you can bring something to the table,” Lash said. He recommends spending some time looking at competitors and bringing some insight back, or tagging along with the product manager when they’re doing research.
Product departments often get frustrated that technical departments don’t have a good grasp of how a product could help the company make money and boost the business. Even just asking questions in meetings about users and customers—what their needs and problems are, rather than arguing about which technology to use and how to implement it—is a good idea.
“I think those are the sort of things that helps prepare you for the product management role and shows people within the company that your mindset is the right sort of mindset to look for,” Lash added.
Meeting people in product management roles on a less-formal basis can be helpful, whether it’s through an informational interview, a ProductCamp, or by attending a local meetup in your city.