From Engineering To Product Management: The Two-Step Career Move

Contributed by John Mansour

The transition from engineering to product management is one of the most difficult. Why? Of all roles that touch the product, engineers are the furthest removed from the market and the customers. It can be done successfully however, as many engineers have already proven. If you’re an engineer with product manager aspirations, make the move in two smaller steps instead of one big leap. It makes the transition easier, keeps you in your comfort zone and positions you for a wider variety of career options over the long term.

Know Your Comfort Zone

Here’s the deal. If you’re an engineer, you’re a problem-solver by default. The textbook product manager is a problem-finder by default. If you’re an engineer, two plus two always equals four. If you’re a product manager, two plus two can equal three, four or five depending on whether you’re in a sales situation, resolving customer issues, doing a business case, fulfilling contractual obligations, dealing with partners, etc.

The point is this – if you’re an engineer, most things in your world are either black or white. When you’re a product manager, very few things are black or white. They’re mostly gray. And if you’re an engineer, functioning in a gray world just isn’t normal. You’re engineering DNA tells you to make every situation black or white, even if it doesn’t need to be or shouldn’t be.

It’s Not About the Product (Really, It’s Not)

So what about all that technical product knowledge? Does it make the transition from engineering into product management easier? Actually, it’s just the opposite. Technical product knowledge is an enormous liability in product management, and it’s the most difficult part of the transition. Here’s why.

The more technical product knowledge you have, the more you see the market and the needs of your target customers through the lens of the product. It’s a distorted perspective that can sabotage your product management career path because it inhibits your ability to see things from the outside in.

In other words, an engineer’s comfort zone is HOW the products work. Succeeding in B2B product management requires a strong comfort zone around the WHO, WHAT and WHY aspects of the market and the business of the customer.

Make the Transition in Two Steps

If you’re an engineer or any other technical role with a desire to move into product management, your best and smartest career move involves two small steps instead of one huge leap, and your technical skills are highly valuable in that first move.

Get into a customer-facing role such as client-services where you’re working directly with customers and/or prospects every day. If you’re helping them implement your products and services, your technical product knowledge is a huge asset, and at the same time, you’ll benefit from any customer-facing role that forces you to understand their business – WHO they are, WHAT they’re trying to accomplish, and WHY. That perspective forces you to see your target customers the same way they see themselves, and it helps you realize that your products are nothing more than the means to the end (from the customer’s perspective).

When you possess a strong understanding of the customer’s business across a variety of industries and organizations, the transition into product management is much easier because your focus becomes the success of the customer. If you understand how to make customers successful, managing and marketing your products is more about common sense than anything else. Furthermore, that in-depth customer and market knowledge closes the biggest gap required to successfully manage and market your products.

Reverse Engineering Your Transition Into Product Management

If you’ve already made the leap from engineering directly into product management and feel like your market/customer-facing deficiencies are inhibiting your success, your best bet is to lobby for a bigger travel budget that affords more opportunities to get out of the building and meet with customers, prospects, influencers, etc.

The most important thing to remember when making a career transition from engineering into product management is this: the business goals of your target customers are the centerpiece of everything. Identify the obstacles that inhibit their success first, and then figure out how to use your products and services to remove those obstacles. Then do it in a way that drives profitable growth for your organization.

When you know the market and your target customers better than you know your products, product management is one of the most fun and rewarding careers out there!

Feature image from Flickr Commons

John-Mansour-1John Mansour is the founder and managing partner at Proficientz, a training and consulting firm that specializes in product portfolio management. John brings 20-years of experience in product management, marketing and sales in manager, director and VP roles. As the managing partner of Proficientz, John has worked with more than 2000 organizations that span high technology, business services, telecom, healthcare, financial services, manufacturing and many others. John served as the chairman for the Technology Association of Georgia’s Product Management Society from 2006 – 2010. Proficientz proudly sponsors ProductCamp conferences worldwide.

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