The Path to Product Management: Engineer-Turned-PM Shares Top Career Advancement Tips

Pivoting from software engineer to product manager, Ben Golden helped propel companies such as SendGrid and Twilio to global success. Now Stream’s Director of Product Management, Golden shares his career advice for aspiring product managers.

Jenna B.
Jenna B.
Published January 21, 2021 Updated December 28, 2021

It’s not uncommon for software engineers to explore a career in product management. While the two positions require a considerably different skillset, a technical background primes product managers to better articulate roadmaps with engineers and understand realistic time frames and development efficiencies.

However, technical know-how alone isn’t enough for an engineer to transition to a product manager role. The position also necessitates a firm grasp on strategic market research, nuanced customer interviews, interdepartmental communication, creative problem solving, and more.

Here, Ben Golden, director of product management at Stream, maker of scalable, enterprise-grade chat and feed APIs, outlines the top skills successful product managers should possess to helm effective product development strategy. He also provides tips and tricks so that engineers can succeed on their path to product management.

Diversify Your Experience

After earning a degree in computer science, Golden started working at SendGrid, which was a startup at the time. Although he was hired as a software engineer, he spent most of his first three months with the company assisting customer support because that team was slammed with tickets. “This was a great way to transition from the world of academia to the world of tech companies. It is helpful to be able to learn by helping customers debug their problems and get a strong understanding of the product,” he says. Golden adds that a diverse set of software engineering skills and a customer interaction background make an excellent combination for product managers.

Product Management Pro Tip: “When I’m hiring for my team, I seek applicants who have strong exposure to customers,” adds Golden. Software engineers who are interested in becoming product managers should ensure they have sufficient facetime with customers. Try volunteering with your organization’s current support team to help solve tough tickets. Another way to increase your people skills: Get active on Github to start communicating with other tech community members.

Hold Your Opinions

For Golden, the biggest challenge when transitioning from a software engineer to a product manager was removing his opinion about building new features. The goal of product management is to develop a deep understanding of what customers need and prioritize roadmaps based on that understanding. “But how to architect systems, create redundant databases, and establish protocols is the domain of engineering. Being a former engineer, I had lots of opinions about these things, but quickly learned how unhealthy it was for me as a product manager to tell a bunch of engineers how they should build something,” says Golden.

Product Management Pro Tip: Rein in your build opinions to establish a relationship of respect with your company’s engineering team, and focus on communicating how and why your customers will use new features in the pipeline for their specific business needs.

Go Deeper

Interviewing customers to create smart product roadmaps is a product manager’s core responsibility. But product managers must strategically position their customer conversations to develop a deep understanding of why customers want certain product features, how they will use new features, and what it means to their business.

“Anyone can hear customer feature requests and parrot them to an engineering team,” says Golden. “But the why and how questions are super important for prioritization. Customers may say something on the surface that a certain feature would be essential to them, but if you dig a little further, you realize that it may not be as critical to their business as something else they haven’t mentioned.”

Getting to the root of what customers really want requires asking creative questions — and it requires nuanced etiquette and professional politeness to have solid conversations.

Product Management Pro Tip: Get to the root of what customers want from your product by strategically preparing for your interview. Golden recommends making a list of questions you want to be answered. Then, formulate creative queries: For example, if you are trying to figure out how much a customer would pay for a new feature, give them ten “coins,” and ask your interviewee to assign them to several various features. If they place more than one coin on a feature, that functionality has more value. “Separate what it is you are trying to understand first, and then translate that into an actual interview script with nuanced questions,” says Golden. Gamification is often a useful tool to go deeper in an interview.

Ride the Highs; Weather the Lows

Just like developers, who may feel a sense of accomplishment after solving a challenging programming problem, product managers also experience highs and lows in their work. “Seeing customers use and appreciate the thing you worked so hard to understand the need to be built is very invigorating and exciting,” says Golden. “On the flip side, the hardest part about being a product manager is that you have to say ‘no’ so often — it’s the nature of prioritization.” Building a strategic product roadmap means there will always be a backlog of exciting features you don’t have time to launch. “It’s painful to kill your darlings and not ship certain features,” he adds.

Product Management Pro Tip: Find a mentor to help you develop the product management skills you lack. For Golden, his mentor was a former boss who taught him the importance of organization and documentation when making sense of complex communication problems. Mentors will also help you weather the highs and lows of a career in product management, and the best ones will encourage you to stay motivated through your challenges.

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