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It is fairly common in product companies that people want to make the career move from engineering into product management. There is a sense that the product management teams are strategic and connected to the business. In the perceived food chain, they sit just a bit higher than others, looking out over the horizon to chart direction. And so in my product management (and later my strategy) roles, I frequently had people approach me asking for jobs or help in securing a new job in product management.

When making this kind of change – from one job with a set of responsibilities to an entirely different job with a different set of responsibilities – it is absolutely critical that you manage risk if you want to be successful. But probably not in the way you are thinking.

Imagine this scenario:

Sharon is an engineering manager. She has built her career on her technical expertise, first as a developer working on OS architectures and more recently working as a first line engineering manager. Truth be told, Sharon is a bit of a technical savant. Her understanding of distributed architectures is tremendous, matched only by her ability to actually craft the code needed to make this stuff work. Her technical skills give her a certain credibility with her team that makes her a natural leader on the engineering side. But Sharon feels like she wants to know more about the Why. She wants to set direction rather than execute against some predetermined direction. With her deep product knowledge, why not make a shift to product management?

So Sharon sets up a 1:1 meeting with a mid- or senior-level product management leader. After talking career path, she leaves with a thinly veiled request for a job if anything ever makes itself available.

Six months pass and she is still in engineering. Imagine Sharon’s surprise when she bumps into the product management leader in the lunch room, where he introduces her to his newest product manager, Jennifer. What in the heck happened?

There is a ton of risk with these job changes. But the risk isn’t Sharon’s. The risk in this case is all on the hiring product manager. Why?

  • Employees never want to give up what they have. Sharon worked her way to a mid-level management position based on her hard work and demonstrated results. When she moves to product management, she wants a lateral move to a similarly-ranked position in product management. But she hasn’t demonstrated any proficiency in product management. To make the point more obvious, imagine if she wanted to be a surgeon (a similarly-leveled position in a different field). Clearly, you can’t just expect to move laterally across disciplines.
  • If things don’t work out, who loses? If the position doesn’t work, Sharon can just go back to an engineering position if she wants to. No one would blame her; in fact, she might get promoted for having a broader view of the organization. But if the hiring manager doesn’t think it is working? How do you let go of someone who has been a great performer in previous roles? New headcount is rare, and you have to make it land. Hiring great teams is the single most important thing that a manager can do.
  • Skills are not always transferrable. While Sharon knows the products, she doesn’t necessarily know the customers. Or the science behind product management. Or how to deal with account teams. Or… and the list goes on. When the hiring manager makes a decision to hire Sharon, he is taking it on faith that she can do these things, or that she can learn on the job quickly.

The risk is all with the hiring manager. And in the end, most people naturally manage risk, which is why there is such reliance on resume screening and an emphasis on past experience (prove to me you have done it before so that I know you can do it now).

This doesn’t mean Sharon doesn’t deserve the job or cannot do it. But she needs to be crafty about how she manages risk – for the hiring manager.

One of the things I advise would-be job changers to do is to approach someone they admire in a particular role. You need to first be clear about what the job actually is. While it might seem that product managers just sit around and think stuff up, it turns out the job is really about relentless follow-up. The primary tools for a product manager? Email and perseverance. Sharon needs to make sure she knows this, so when she talks to the hiring manager, she is speaking his or her language.

I also tell job changers to look and see if there are any volunteer projects that they can take on. Everyone has things they wish were done but simply never make the priority list. Go tackle some of these and show that you can do the job and deliver results. It mitigates some of the uncertainty risk. And when you do this without having any quid pro quo dangling off it, it takes the risk and makes it yours. The hiring manager gets something, you get the experience and exposure, and you take on the risk because you are doing the work without a guarantee.

When you volunteer for something, be warned: you are going to get the worst stuff. No one is going to give you the coolest things, so be prepared to pay your dues with spreadsheets and presentations at first. The work will get better, but you need to take what you can get without being too picky up front.

Finally, once you sign up for the work, be prepared to work. You will set your own expectations most likely, but you better meet them. If you tell me something will get done by Wednesday and you turn it in on Friday, I will notice. I will be happy for the work, but I will notice that you are not meeting expectations. You will get ahead by beating expectations, even when the work is free for me.

Ultimately, if you do these (learn about the job, volunteer for work, and deliver results), you change the risk equation entirely. Now when that position opens up in six months, I am sending out an email introducing you as the new member rather than letting you awkwardly bump into someone with a little more experience in the lunch room.

Showing 2 comments
  • Brian

    Great stuff Mike, thanks for sharing this insight!

    • mike.bushong

      Thanks for the nice words. I can never tell when inspiration will hit, so the ideas and analogies might be all over the place. But the words do some easy come days.

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