If you come from an engineering background, you maybe are familiar with the feeling of working on a product and realising there are flaws in the design. You might feel you could have done a better job of conceptualising something a much better fit for purpose, or even quietly despair a few times at the lack of foresight from above.
Even so, maybe you simply interested in responding to the technical problems of the project. But, perhaps, your passion for creating a great product extends to viewing it through the customer’s eyes and how they will actually use it. However, we all know that as an engineer, your job is not to reason why it should be done, simply only to work on how it is done.
If this is the case, and your frustration impacts on how you view your role, perhaps your next career step should be to consider the move into product management (PM). If you are looking for a fresh challenge beyond your engineering role, then a product manager role can offer some unique positives not available in your current position.
The technical background of the engineer often translates into a great product manager, but technical aptitude is only one small element of success in this role. What does it take to become a dazzling PM? What changes would occur in your everyday working life and, is it role you could thrive in when your technical experiences are not the main thrust of your working activities?
Why? Not how – designing the bigger picture, not the nuts-n-bolts
Perhaps you have thought long and hard about a move into product management, or it is still an idea that fills you with uncertainty. Either way, before you proceed, you need to process one vital concept about the role.
Yes, you probably have experienced working with PMs, some of them great, some may have been less than impressive. But, while the essence of the role may seem exciting or a step removed from executing a plan, there is often a fundamental misunderstanding by engineers.
The role of the PM requires a distinct shift in mind-set.
The engineer is focused on the “how” – that is, how a product is built, the code that underpins it, the parts that make the mechanism function in a specific way. Yet the PM is more concerned with the “why”. It entails empathising with the end user and their experience. Why is the product or service being produced? What problem does it solve for users? And does it solve the problem in an efficient manner for the user?
If, as an engineer, you have ever felt straightjacketed working on a product, lacking control over the direction you feel the work should be taking, then getting in at the ground floor of the ideas stage as demanded of the PM, could reap high rewards for you. Where engineers build components or software, PMs build ideas. They build their convictions, their belief in what will work for clients. They get to influence company and business strategy at the earliest opportunity. Being a PM means being the driver in the journey from future ideas to present reality.
And now is the perfect time to make the change. As the start-up scene in India is exploding, innovative tech companies are at the cutting edge of social and business development. As well, in IT, as the focus swings from services to IT products, opportunities to help infl uence the tech business of tomorrow are appearing throughout India and abroad. Not to forget the massive opportunities available in the already well-established Tech industry in the US, UK & other developed countries.
Whilst it is well noted that engineers can make great PMs, the previously mentioned change in approach is indicative that there certain processes an engineer must go through to become a superstar PM.
Technical ability is not a guarantee of success, as one software engineer-turned-PM notes, “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”.
As a PM you are not selling customers the technical aspects of your work, but what the tools and services you are building can do for them, the possibilities.
So what other skills must you develop to excel? Here 3 points to take into consideration:
you must adapt from optimizing productivity – the engineer’s brief – to optimizing the end-user experience. This might sound simple, but trying to balance your budget and justify spending money on that new feature that you know clients are going to love, versus the very real need to cut costs and time, makes your technical instincts very hard to override.
Yes, your current thinking is very structured, but you need to develop a much broader 360° perspective. You need to think 3 steps forward and remember about the process 2 steps back. You need to undertake market research, cost analysis, understand your competitive positioning, product design and marketing, all the while motivating your team and keeping a close eye on the budget. You need to stop thinking of the products in terms of the technical impact they will have, but in terms of the business impact they will have.
an engineer usually frames their communications in terms of facts and figures, in binary terms of working or not working. But the modern PM must communicate more abstractly, selling ideas and potential to senior management when asking for funding, selling the company brand and problem solving when pitching to clients, and ensuring that every stage is executed smoothly by team members. They must be comfortable relaying information to various stakeholders operating at all levels of the business, and do it in their language, not impenetrable jargon.
You may have noticed something about these key attributes as you read them – yes, they are not necessarily skills that are emphasized in an engineering background. So, how should you proceed from here?
Drawing a blueprint: your career project
The move into the PM sphere requires you to adapt your working methodology and develop new skills. This might sound like a difficult transformation to engage in, and it also sounds like a difficult thing to persuade an employer that you are ready to move into a new field with little relevant experience. So what can you do boost both your credibility and your own confidence that you can rock the PM stage with a virtuoso performance?
The following steps give you a great blueprint to create a plan for transitioning from a regular engineering role to a PM position and envisage the tools of tomorrow.
Well first of all, take heart in the fact that ultimately, being a PM is about understanding and expanding the limits of tech, which as an engineering genius, is your area of expertise!
What you need to do from here is develop the practical business skills you need to operate in the role.
Now if you are lucky you might have a company that allows you to work on small projects to gain some experience. But, it can be damaging to your confi dence to be thrown in the deep end without the requisite business knowledge on how to proceed. Add to that the fact that in many modern tech companies, the opportunity to learn on the job is often not there.
You are responsible for your own progression in the modern workplace; if you expect to lead, it is up to you to prove you have the skills to manage others and comprehend all aspects of a project.
The simplest way to gain the practical skills you need and demonstrate to future employers that you are proactive in advancing your skills is to undertake an MBA program.
This will not only display you business acumen, giving your resume a boost over other candidates, but it will help shift give you that 360° perspective, as you become familiar with all aspects of business strategy, from sales, to marketing to leadership, along with practical case studies to apply the theories you have learnt.
There are many engineers who are interested in making the leap to PM, but an MBA will give you a great advantage over others. A PMs role is after all, a leadership role within business and an MBA indicates that you have concrete business and leadership skills, something singular engineer qualifications do not exhibit. It gives your argument that you understand the bigger picture better credibility.
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