From software engineering to product management: navigating career transition in a big tech company

Last year, I started to look for opportunities transitioning from a software engineer to a PM. It was an uneasy journey with lots of ups and downs. I had doubt about the transition and questioned myself why I had to do this from time to time. I was also grateful for the mistakes I’ve made and tremendous support along the way. To help anyone who looks for a PM transition in a big tech company, these are some advice I want to share for navigating the transition.

Internal vs external opportunities

I initially thought external opportunities could give me better chances for transitioning to PM. I crafted my resume and submitted 10+ applications for any PM role I think could be a fit. This strategy worked poorly. From a company’s perspective, they would rather find someone with PM experience lacking domain knowledge rather than a domain expert with little PM experience. A curious PM who learns fast can thrive at any product. But a domain expert may not necessarily be a great PM. While my hunt for external opportunities did not gain much traction, you may already have the skills needed as a PMs. I know some people from consulting or project management background land PM roles directly in big tech companies. So please take my advice as a grain of salt.

Internal opportunities can be any opportunities inside your own company where you act as a PM. In a startup, you wear multiple hats and your role expands organically. But in a big tech company, your performance is tied to how you align well with your ladder requirements. How do you justify your achievement as a software engineer if you do PM work? You have to understand the consequences of the transition because in the short-term, you just cannot up-level your career fast enough from a ladder perspective. Unless you are lucky enough to land a 100% PM rotation, most likely you have to do both your current work and PM work. The so-called 20% PM project easily occupies more than 50% of your working time. But don’t be discouraged from it. Think of your long-term goal and how your short-term move can contribute to your long-term goal. Even thought your short-term move could be a pain in the ass, it will be worth the efforts in the long term.

Network a lot

Once you decide to give PM a try and start to look for PM projects, I recommend you to network a lot and let them know your interests. Prepare a list of PMs you want to talk to. This includes your peer PMs who know you and PMs who you don’t know but work closely with your organization. When I started networking, I happened to find someone in a partner team. Although I ended up not working with her, she was interested in my background because I could possibly build a bridge between our two organizations using my existing connections and knowledge.

When expressing your interests to PMs, make sure you have a convincing story to demonstrate your capabilities, including your transferrable skills and relevant knowledge. Relevant knowledge is a plus since others looking for the same opportunity may not have that knowledge. Ask yourself why they should sponsor you for a PM project? What makes you stand out compared to other candidates?

For some roles who work closely with PMs, finding a PM host may not be a problem. If you don’t work closely with PMs, e.g.: a software engineer working on low-level infrastructure, you just have to network a lot or move to a product team first. As a software engineer, you may not realize how least advantageous you are compared to others who have the same pursuit. While technical skills are a must-have for some highly technical PM roles, this is not the case for most of PM roles because you will spend the majority of time in communication. Some other roles like program managers are already good at communication. They don’t need as much adaptation as a software engineer who deals with code much more often than people in their day-to-day jobs.

What an unsuccessful 20% PM project taught me

My 20% PM project was to conduct product discovery and figure out actual user needs for a nascent technical product. We think the product can reshape enterprise businesses. But the product has not gained as much adoption as the company has expected.

While I listed out all the hypotheses for the low adoption problem, I soon realized getting customers to talk was actually a big hurdle. And even worse, I could not resist getting into customers’ technical details and I quickly lost the forest for trees. On the surface, I was making progress with action items done. I did talk with the customer support team for company X and produced meeting notes. I did conduct industrial analysis and summarized it. But lots of discovery work led to a dead end. This was when I realized why it needed a full-time job to do PM work. A PM’s job never ends at research and analysis. It takes time efforts to get insights, come up with ideas and make good decisions.

When the project went nowhere, I did not pivot for other projects to work on. I had the illusion that as long as I prepared all the pieces needed, I should be set up for a successful transition. How come did I not succeed if I produced quality work and my PM host seemed to be happy with my progress? Please don’t make any assumptions! You only get support when you help others. While I did spend a lot of time on the project, since not much value was added to the team, I was eventually unable to convince my PM host to support my transition. You definitely want to know what the transition process looks like. But focus on delivering great work and actual value to your host team. Everything else will follow.

Active patience

In a Farnam Street newsletter, it talks about passive and active patience. Passive patience is waiting for the world to give the thing you want. I’ve seen myself constantly checking emails waiting for agreeing to sponsor my PM project. I’ve been anxious to get someone respond to me for an interview request. It has been such a waste of time and energy in something you cannot control.

“Active patience puts you in the best position to get what you want. There is almost always an action you can take to improve the odds. Active in the moment but patient with the results.” When you get rejections and self-doubts, you just need to focus on things you can do to increase your odds. You can critique a new product for developing your product intuition. You can read about human-centered design to enhance your understanding of user experience. You can draft a better email to make communication more effectively. Focus on the things you can do and improve incrementally. Your opportunity will come sooner or later. But be patient and prepared when the opportunity has not arrived yet.

You can have a non-linear career path. You don’t need the same career path as everyone else have. I hope my story is inspiring to someone who is also interested in the career transition. Now is just a starting point for me. I will start my actual PM ladder trial next week. Hopefully I can share more insights and learnings along the way! Stay tuned!

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Lifelong learner curious about product management, tech innovation and system thinking

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Vera Yan

Vera Yan

Lifelong learner curious about product management, tech innovation and system thinking