Are you a software developer thinking about making the switch to product management? If so, you’re not alone. A lot of developers find that they really enjoy the strategic thinking and leadership aspects of product management and decide to make the switch.
But what does it take to make the switch? And are you a good fit for product management?
In this article, I’ll explore the skills needed for product management after a background in software development, the advantages of switching, and tips for software developers looking to move into product management.
Transitioning from software development to product management
First off, let’s talk about the differences between software development and product management. As a software developer, you’re responsible for writing, building, and testing code. You might work on a single feature or be part of a team working on a big project. You spend a lot of time coding, testing, and debugging.
Product management is all about overseeing the design of a product, sometimes from start to finish and sometimes as an ongoing effort. You’ll work with many different stakeholders to define a product roadmap, decide which features to prioritize, and make sure the final product meets the needs of your customers. You’ll work individually and in partnership with other PMs to define, develop, and direct plans for the creation and release of a product.
Product manager vs. software developer: which is right for me?
You might be wondering – how do I know if a switch from software development to product management is right for me?
In my case, after twenty years in the systems software space, I came to the realization that I enjoyed the process of defining a product more than I enjoyed the process of developing a product. I also enjoyed talking to customers and helping them solve problems more than I liked coding, testing, and debugging.
Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy coding, but I find that I enjoy it a lot more now that I do it as a learning endeavor rather than as a career. For the first time in my career, I’m learning new languages (Rust, C#, Java) and I now have a GitHub repo with some of my learning projects. Granted, there’s not a lot there at the time I’m writing this, but it will grow with time!
Skills needed for product management after software development
So, what skills do you need to make the switch from software development to product management?
Excellent communication skills are an absolute must. As a product manager, you’ll be constantly talking with engineers, other product managers, and most importantly, customers! You need to be able to listen carefully, especially to customers, and ask thoughtful questions to get to the underlying issues.
I’ve found that quite often customers don’t know exactly what they need, they only know the problems they are struggling with that they need solutions for. It’s up to you to be able to get to the underlying issues behind their frustration and be able to clearly explain your vision and goals to all stakeholders.
You need to have presentation and persuasion skills. You’ll spend a lot of time crafting and presenting documentation that supports your vision for what the engineering teams ought to be doing. Sometimes they won’t want to do what you think they ought to, for various reasons. You need to be able to work with these teams to understand their concerns and talk them through why your vision is the right path to follow.
One huge plus you’ll have is that as a software engineer, you likely already understand many of the reasons why engineers don’t want to follow a product manager. You know what doesn’t work, so you’ve already got a leg up in speaking to engineers in the way they’ll understand.
You also need to be able to think strategically and make tough decisions, especially when it comes to saying no. Let’s face it, not every proposed feature ends up in the final product, for various reasons. Product management is all about finding the right balance between what’s best for the business and what’s best for the customer, and that means sometimes you make hard choices.
It’s also helpful to have a good understanding of your customers. As a product manager, it’s your job to know what your target market needs and where they’re struggling, and use that knowledge to inform your product decisions. Talking to customers definitely helps, but you’ll also need to keep up with the latest developments in the industry and product you’re working on. In my case, its cloud computing in general and Azure in particular.
Preparing for a career move from software development to product management
If you’re a software developer interested in transitioning to product management, consider taking some training programs or courses to help you develop these skills.
Taking some training will give you more insight into what product management is and help you decide if a switch is right for you. It will also show potential employers that you’re serious about making the transition.
In addition, you need to spend some time carefully crafting your resume and building your personal brand. I think I covered this well in my post on finding remote work, so I will refer you there instead of rehashing that content.
Advantages of moving from software development to product management
There are advantages to switching from software development to product management. In my experience, product management jobs have more opportunities for advancement. If you get in with the right company, you’ll have opportunities to work on a wider variety of projects and industries and have more of a leadership role in shaping the direction of a product.
I’ll take a moment now to plug Microsoft as an employer. I work in Microsoft’s Developer Division (DevDiv), where the focus is on creating and maintaining the best experience possible for our developers. I am constantly exposed to new technology and products, and Microsoft is very supportive of people within the company moving around to explore different roles. I’ve been working at Microsoft for almost two years as I write this and I’m very happy with the career change I made.
If you’re interested in a career in product management at Microsoft, I highly recommend the following two books:
These two books are broadly applicable to product management in general, but they are especially relevant to how we do things at Microsoft.
Is switching from software engineering to product management right for you?
So, is product management the right career path for you? If you love strategic thinking, have strong communication skills, and are passionate about creating products that solve real problems for customers, it might be a great fit.
If you’re thinking about making the switch, it’s a good idea to start building your product management skills now. This could mean taking some courses, volunteering for product management responsibilities in your current role, or networking with product managers to learn more about the field.
In fact, I strongly encourage you to talk to product managers at your current company. Ask them what they do day to day and how they like it. Ask them what resources they recommend for learning more about product management.
Not only will you learn a lot, but you might also develop a connection that leads to a product management role within your current company. Making a switch internally could be a lot easier than starting over with a new company.
By taking these steps, you’ll be well-prepared to make the transition from software development to product management and embark on a new and rewarding career.
If you have any questions that I didn’t address, feel free to drop them in the chat below!