Ask Women in Product: How can an engineer break into Product Management?

Resume writing photo by vinnikava via Twenty20

Answer from Eleanor Stribling

Eleanor Stribling is Group Product Manager at Zendesk and the woman behind @productized_io. You can reach her on Twitter at @eleanorstrib.

The short answer

Let me start with the short answer: get as much product-related experience as you can where you work now to get around the “can’t get the job if you haven’t done the job” problem. As you’re doing that, focus on getting better at these three things:

  1. Imagining what should be built before what could be built;
  2. Working with stakeholders outside of your usual sphere; and
  3. Explaining why you want to change roles in a way that shows you truly understand the challenges.

The long answer

When I look at engineering candidates, I assess them from the opposite angle: what have they done that isn’t all about engineering? What impact did that work have on the business and its customers?

1. Imagining what should be built before what could be built

When I first became a PM, I was the opposite of an engineer making the change. I had come from the client services side and didn’t know much about programming beyond writing some VB scripts in Excel and simple Python. I went to my boss at the time, who was very technical, and asked him what languages or frameworks I should be learning so I would understand what was possible and can avoid asking engineers for things that couldn’t be implemented. His answer was really annoying at the time, but I’ve since come to understand the wisdom in it: “Just assume everything is possible,” he said. “Your job is to figure out the most important problems customers need to solve and imagine a solution.”

  • How talking to customers shaped your approach to the problem;
  • What metrics you used to measure success that were directly related to desired customer and business outcomes and why you chose them; and
  • How you explained the solution clearly to non-engineering stakeholders.

2. Working with stakeholders outside of your usual sphere

To be effective, a PM must excel at working across the organization to get buy-in and funding for ideas, soliciting help from other teams, and handling objections from co-workers and customers. The more senior a PM is, the more time they spend doing these types of tasks.

  • Consider taking on a project like the one I described above. Other equally viable venues include a company hackathon, doing “ride alongs” with your PM, or other cross-functional projects.
  • Listen more than you talk at first. Understand what other people’s jobs are like and who their stakeholders are. For example, when you talk to marketing folks, you will learn about the metrics they use to measure success, what their main stressors are, and what big events they are planning.
  • Learn to pitch ideas with your stakeholders’ point of view. When you understand your stakeholders’ priorities, you’re better able to pitch your ideas to them. You’ll know how to highlight the benefits that their buy-in will bring. For example, for Henry in Marketing who has to come up with content for a big customer event in three weeks, show him how your project could offer useful material for him to present there, or in the future.
  • Find opportunities to talk to customers as much as possible. You must learn to look at your product from the perspective of your customers. Ask your PM and designers if you can join customer calls. Put your hand up to go to events. When you attend events, write up notes, try to spot themes or trends, and offer recommendations on the next steps. Volunteer to refine some use cases and walk through them to get your PM’s feedback. Volunteer to ask questions rather than being a fly on the wall.

3. Explaining why you want to change roles in a way that shows you truly understand the challenges

The most disqualifying thing engineers who apply for PM roles have done during interviews with me is to demonstrate a poor understanding of what the PM role actually is. Too often, I hear quotes from Steve Jobs to describe what product management is about. Other people describe the role through a string of buzzwords (AI! VR!). Yet others tell me they want to be a PM so they can “call the shots.” All of these things are indicators to me that you haven’t done your homework. It’s as if I had applied for a junior developer role after being a PM, and in the interview, I say I want the job so I can make all of the technical decisions for the team, all while repeatedly quoting Linus Torvalds.

  • Have an idea of what you think you’d be good at and where you might need to grow;
  • Can explain why you want to work on our product and how you’d make it better; and
  • Have an understanding of the challenges of being a PM and are ready to take them on.

In Closing

When I consider a candidate who comes from an engineering role, I need to be pretty confident that they will join my team with the mindset of a Product Manager. I suspect this is true for all hiring managers.

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Women in Product

Women in Product

A global community of women working in Product Management.