Lots of people are breaking into tech with non-tech backgrounds, but what if you want to make a transition within tech from software engineering to product management?
The good news is that as a software engineer, you’re in a great position to move into product management. You have deep knowledge of the tech side of how products are built, know what it’s like to work closely with product managers and have plenty of transferable skills you can take with you.
But as with every career change, you can’t just snap your fingers and be in a new role—even with all the advantages a SWE background gives you. It takes a lot of planning, learning, exploration and, let’s be real, courage.
So to help you build a career roadmap for transitioning from engineering to product management, we talked to five product managers (many of whom have made the switch themselves) to get their takes on what it really means to be a PM and the best ways to move into the field.
Table of contents
- Do you really want to be a product manager?
- Immerse yourself in the product world
- Stop thinking about code, start thinking about the customer
- Let your internal network know you’re interested in product management
- Pick up PM-related tasks in your current role
- Show off transferable product management skills (and fill any gaps)
Do you really want to be a product manager?
Before making any big moves, think about the motivations behind your career switch and if your goals, skills and personality match up with the realities of life as a product manager.
Why do you want to change careers?
Bruno Wasconcellos Roncolato, a product manager at Seen by Indeed, transitioned from software engineering to product management because he loved the technical side of his work, but also had a passion for the business side. He was fascinated by the psychological aspects of how you sell to people and why they use things. He also wanted to flex his strong communication skills more often. So for him, making the switch was about following his passions and natural talents.
Matt Collins, who’s now involved in product management for software products, previously worked as a software engineer in Paris for a number of years, but says, “[I] started to feel I wanted more of a say in what we were creating rather than how we were creating it.”
Another software engineer turned product manager, Jacky Liang, says, “My true passions intersect design, engineering, strategy and people. The more I read about product management, the more I knew it was the right fit for the next step in my career.”
So before you make any career moves, assess why you want to be a product manager by asking yourself the following questions:
- Why are you drawn to product management? What don’t you like about being a software engineer?
- Would you be happier as an engineering manager or director of engineering? (The typical career path for a SWE)
- Are you good at explaining, persuading, negotiating and mediating?
- Do you enjoy solving customer problems over writing code as an individual contributor?
Envision yourself in the role
Before making the switch, it’s also important to think about some of the key differences between engineering and product management. As a PM, a big part of your job will be communicating across teams. You’ll be responsible for more decisions, spend more time in meetings and focus on what to build rather than how to build a product. Instead of solving technical problems, you’ll need to figure out what’s going to be built next sprint, next release, next quarter, next year, etc.
Another key difference is that product managers aren’t told what to do. Instead, they figure out how to solve problems with very little direction. As Adam Ullrich, senior product manager at Indeed Hire, says “A lot of work on the tech side begins with a specific stated problem/prompt. But in reality, many of the environments we’re exploring are uncertain—you only see a piece of the puzzle.”
Feeling accomplished can also be a much slower process. As a software engineer, you probably get a rush when you hit compile and your code works, or when you complete a sprint. But as a PM, a successful outcome can take several months or even years.
According to Wasconcellos Roncolato, “As a product manager, you have zero authority, but you have to be a very strong influencer.” So even though you’ll have full responsibility for a product, you’ll probably have no real power to change things. Can you imagine yourself succeeding in this type of position?
Tip: To further envision yourself in the role, think about (a) what you admire about your current PM and (b) what you would improve upon.
Immerse yourself in the product world
Decided this career path is for you? Start expanding your knowledge of product management. Wasconcellos Roncolato recommends learning some of the lingo by reading up on agile, scrum and kanban. From there, it depends on which branch of product management you’re interested in: technical or marketing.
If you’re interested in product marketing management, read up on marketing psychology. If you want to stay more technical (a great option for those with a tech background), learn about the problem space from a business perspective.
Beyond that, read books and blog posts to stay up to date on new products and technologies, product management, UX design and growth hacking. Collins highly recommends reading Inspired (2nd edition) by Marty Cagan, calling it “the best book about product management that I know of.”
Other blogs and books to check out include:
- Product Hunt
- Hacker News
- Mind the Product
- Product Coalition
- Roman Pichler’s product management blog
- Cracking the PM Interview
Don’t just consume content, create it yourself: Build a personal brand outside of work by blogging about product management, writing product case studies or publishing your thoughts on the industry.
Stop thinking about code, start thinking about the customer
As a product manager, getting close to the customer is as important as being close with the teams you’re working with. In fact, a study of product management job postings found that 49% said they were looking for PMs who can empathize with customers.
“Product managers need to be able to develop a deep understanding of the target customers of their product and how the product can help them,” says Collins. “This means assembling information from a wide range of sources, including observing and interviewing customers themselves…” What are you helping your customers accomplish? Why are they using your product and not a competitor’s?
Shifting from a code mindset to a customer mindset is important, but harder than you might think if you’re coming from a tech background. “It’s easy to get excited about the technical part of a problem instead of the product/value part,” says Ullrich. “Avoid that at all costs and build the thing that’ll get you learning the fastest—however ugly and suboptimal the code might seem. In an uncertain space, you’ll throw most of the code away anyway.”
You need to learn to prioritize features based on the value they provide your customers or users, instead of engineering dependencies. Otherwise, having a tech background might actually work against you. Take it from Roman Pichler, product management expert and author, “Don’t interfere with the development team’s autonomy by making technical decisions, which can be tempting for product owners with strong technical skills in my experience.”
So learn to think from the customer’s point of view. How? Collins suggests you just start talking to your users. “If you do this already, do it more. Try to really, deeply understand how your software fits into their lives and, as a result, what small changes could have an outsized benefit for them.” Spend actual face time with your users and customers by asking a PM or someone on the sales team if you can tag along on their next customer visit. Read or answer customer support tickets to build empathy.
Building your own product on the side can also help you start thinking more about the customer (i.e., you’ll perform customer research, prioritize requirements for an MVP, design and build it, show it to customers, ask for feedback). These side projects will “let you develop the skills you’ll need as a product manager and be a great thing to talk about in interviews to show you’re serious,” says Collins.
Let your internal network know you’re interested in product management
Try to make the switch at your current company if you can. You already know the product, the code behind it and how things get done at your company—and that’s a big advantage.
Look at it this way: If you’re a software engineer at a small startup and your goal is to become a product manager at a FAANG company, don’t quit your startup job and immediately start applying for PM roles at Facebook or Netflix. These roles are probably out of reach without direct PM experience. Instead, work to get a product manager role at your current company to build up your resume, and then apply for a PM role at your dream company.
Get the ball rolling by talking to your manager during your next 1:1 about your career goals. Lots of companies will help you develop a formal plan to structure your career path into a product management role. Tell your co-workers, especially the product managers, that you’re interested in making a career change. Set up informational interviews with PMs on your team to pick their brains about their typical week (you’ll probably find there’s no typical day) and find out what it’s like to be a PM at your company.
Pick up PM-related tasks in your current role
If you don’t have product management work experience on your resume, it can be hard for hiring managers to see you in the role. So find a way to work your product management muscles at work. After all, it’s easier to switch to a product manager role if you can develop PM-like thinking.
If the informational interviews with your team’s PMs went well, ask if you can help them by taking on lower priority work they don’t currently have the bandwidth for:
- Ask if they need help with a competitive analysis or research assignment.
- Get involved in a roadmap or feature prioritization discussion.
- Join in when they’re interviewing users.
- Suggest the addition or removal of features.
- Sit in on product design meetings.
Ullrich also suggests incorporating a product management mindset when working on your current software engineering projects. “Get clarity on what problem you’re trying to solve for the user and be a partner in defining the solution approach, not just the code,” he says. “Ask questions to help the team conceive of simpler alternatives that get out faster—e.g. does this need to be publicly accessible or can we get most of the benefit for a simpler subset of the population on the internal network?”
Show off transferable product management skills (and fill any gaps)
You might be surprised at how many of your tech skills are applicable to your new career. Here are some of the top skills a product manager needs to have (so you can identify gaps in your knowledge), as well as how you can make your engineering experience sound relevant to product management.
The PM skills you need to master
Software engineers have a great deal of hard skills, but shifting your attention to your soft skills is essential when making the switch to product management. These skills include empathy, strategic thinking, organization, prioritization, self-sufficiency and scrappiness.
Communication is one of the most important. According to Wasconcellos Roncolato, “A good PM is a person who errs on the side of excessive communication, rather than lack of it.” In fact, 71% of companies want PMs that can clearly write and articulate ideas.
He also says that PMs must be open to criticism and accept that they’ll fail and be wrong a lot. Beyond that, you have to be a trustworthy person, as people will only open up about the good, the bad, etc. if they trust you—and that’s how you make better products.
Repositioning your tech skills as product management skills
One of the hardest parts about shifting careers is tailoring your resume to your new role and highlighting the right experiences in interviews. However, your tech skills give you a huge advantage. In fact, Wasconcellos Roncolato says that having a tech background actually got him into the field of product management.
But how can you spin your resume to reflect PM skills (without years of PM experience)? According to Liang, “Whereas an engineer would list the languages and features [they’ve] implemented, a PM resume focuses on the leadership and impact they have had in an organization or project.” In other words, focus on the soft skills.
Here are some of the transferable skills you can take with you from software engineering to product management:
The ability to communicate effectively with engineering teams: 95% of product manager job postings require PMs to work alongside software engineers, so lean on your strengths and embrace your ability to speak the same language as engineers. As Wasconcellos Roncolato puts it, “Your technical skills will help you translate whatever business requirements you have into a better conversation with engineers.”
Analytical skills: According to Collins, “As a software developer, you tend to get pretty good at analysis—investigating why a piece of software is behaving strangely, for example. These analytical skills lend themselves very well to product management where you often need to look at problems from a number of different angles, figuring out how to have the greatest impact to improve a product for your customers.”
Creativity, innovation and curiosity: Take it from Ullrich: “I think a big part of product management is maximizing the rate at which you can learn. I think tech skills are incredibly valuable because they enable you to conceive of different approaches that might get you learning faster.”
Planning and resource estimation: With an engineering background you can estimate times more accurately, make better tradeoffs and have a much better idea of the level of effort needed to implement an idea. “Having a tech background makes it possible to quickly estimate how complex or trivial an implementation could be,” says Ullrich, “In the best case, you can redefine how to explore a new area in a way that sidesteps the complexity.”
Making the switch from software engineer to product manager
Many software engineers are able to successfully transition into product management due to their transferable skills and extensive experience with tech teams. But you still have to put in the work to land a product manager role.
Passion is the first step. As Collins says, “The more you believe in what you’re working on, the more motivated you’ll be to really understand your users and the problem you’re solving for them, and the better the product you’ll end up creating.”