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How to move from Engineering to Product Management

Sumit Gupta
June 2011

One of the most common conversations I have with engineers these days is about their desire to move to marketing.   First of all, there seem to be many myths about what product managers do.  It is common to hear engineers say "I want to making strategy decisions about products".   In fact, this is a common thing that even inexperienced product managers say during interviews.

Product management is 99% perspiration, 1% strategy, to paraphrase a famous saying.   Product managers spend an inordinate amount of time making sure the product is being built right, or the product is shipping right, or the sales channels are working right.    You can read more about what product managers do here and also read about whether doing a MBA will help in moving from engineering to product management.

So, you still think you want to be a product manager?    Well, its not going to be an easy change over and there are tons of people competing with you.    For every product manager (PM), there are typically 20 to 50 engineers in a company.   So, PM positions are few and far apart.

Here are concrete things you can do to move over:
  • Become more involved in customer facing opportunities.   You have to love working with customers and have to be good at it to have a decent career in product marketing.
  • Look for opportunities in applications engineering or as a sales engineer.    This is closer to marketing / sales (closer to the customer).   But don't stay in one of these positions for too long if your ultimate aim is to go into product marketing.  These are just a springboard to PM.
  • Write white papers, blogs, other notes that are for customers.   Technical articles are a good start, but even better if you can write versions that are meant for managers rather than engineers.
  • Prepare technology presentations that show the value of features rather than talk about the technology.  This is the hardest and most interesting job that PMs do -- positioning.  Al Ries's books on positioning are the bible on the subject.
  •  Meet and hang out with product managers and sales folks.  Listen and learn about the things that concern them.   Try to create a presentation or document that helps them with a problem they are having in sales / marketing.
  • Read.  Read a lot.   Start with textbooks on product management.  They will teach you about the breath of tasks that product managers do, from product definition to sales tools, pricing, sales channels, branding, and advertizing.   Also read business books (just look up the top 10 business books over the last 5 to 10 years and read them all).   Read broadly: books on marketing, business, leadership, sales, creativity, and whatever else you can get your hands on.
  • Make sure you talk to business leaders in your company in marketing and sales to let them of your interest in moving over to marketing.   That way, when there is an opportunity, they will keep you in mind.   But you also have to keep doing things that demonstrate your aptitude for outbound roles.
  • Start volunteering for a non-profit in a marketing or business development role. Nothing builds your resume like getting relevant experience. If you can say on your resume that you helped increase the donations to a charity from $10K a month to $20K a month, that is a real achievement that will speak to your ability.
At the end of the day, the most important thing you have to do is set a schedule by when you want to be 100% into marketing.   Create a roadmap to how you will get there.  Think of this as your first marketing project -- marketing yourself so that you get a job in product management.    Don't just keep doing what you are doing in engineering.  Everyday you need to do something that helps in your path to marketing.

Think about these things

Before you start on your path to product management, think about these things:
  • Your experience in engineering will help, but will not count towards product management.  That means, even if you are a director of engineering, you will start as a product manager and will have to go through the paces like any other junior product manager.
  • This also means you might have to take a salary cut.  In fact, broadly speaking, product managers make less money than engineers -- especially in the silicon valley.   Salaries level out only if you reach a reasonable level of seniority in marketing.   (Sales makes the most money if they do well).
  • Your deep knowledge in technology is almost a handicap.   The most common mistake that engineers turned product managers make is talking about the technology all the time.  If you read any sales books, you will learn that the most crucial part of a sales deal is getting the customer to stop focusing on technical due diligence and start talking about business terms.    So, learn to leave technology behind and focus on positioning the benefits and understanding and solving customer problems.

Make the move fast

Once you decide you want to move into marketing / sales, make the move as soon as possible.   Every minute that you spend in engineering now is not building towards your next step.  So, start looking for jobs inside your company and outside.  Meet as many marketing and sales people as you can.  Go to networking events.   Start building your resume.   Also, take whatever job you can that is closer to customers, whether it is as an applications engineer or sales engineer.    But always keep your eye on the ball - which is the new position you want.   So, if you want to be a product manager, don't stay in the applications engineering job too long.  It is only a stepping stone.    

Good luck and you can learn about marketing from some of the articles I authored.

Questions, Comments? Send me a note at sumitg AT gmail.com

Sumit Gupta
http://www.4bearsonline.com/sumitg
Please feel free to contact me at sumitg at gmail.com

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