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Gaining Experience to Transition Roles

Alignment
Personal Growth
Delegate
Career Path
New Manager

4 November, 2021

Joey Lei
Joey Lei

Sr. Product Manager II at HashiCorp

Joey Lei, Principal Product Manager at Kasten, contributes his experience transitioning from an engineer to a Product Manager and gaining direct experience.

Problem

Early in my engineering career, I was looking to transition into a product manager position. I wanted to make headway into this role internally. A product manager is a high visibility and expectation role that requires candidates to possess inherent trust, success, proof points, and a successful track record. As I was starting to become a PM, I found I did not have enough of this type of experience, and I felt I could not get this experience without being in this position. I relate this to a chicken and egg problem, where it is impossible to decide which comes first.

Actions taken

In place of direct experience, I found substitute experiences that reflected my ability to perform in this type of role. I began making myself available to help anyone who added value to our team, product, or company. In my mind, PMs are generalists and are capable of doing anything that the organization needs. By making myself available and willing to assist my team, I was gaining experience and exhibiting my capabilities to my company.

I moved from an engineering team with natural mentorship and leadership challenges such as direction setting, decision making, and strategizing. I used this to my advantage and stepped up when nobody wanted to make decisions. It didn’t matter if I was inexperienced or made decisions that led to suboptimal results because I was still pushing my team forward and pivoting. I found that inaction was worse than being incorrect. By putting myself out there, I displayed my ability to move forward, which is essential in the execution side of PM.

At the same time, I was pursuing my Masters in Business Administration. While enduring an MBA program is is not a set path to product management, I used my education as a signal to show I was serious about this move within my company. Some people may use time, money, or both to show they have a vested interest in a certain path. Being an opportunist is not the only signal a leader wants to see, by showing you have some shared interest (or skin in the game), you show that you are invested in a mutual outcome. A hiring board wants to discern that you’re capable of taking ownership outside your normal scope, which is commonplace for product managers.

Lastly, I found it easier to have at least one translatable experience and for me that was my experience with the same product I was an engineer on for seven years. I had already established trust and compatibility with the engineering team and my ability to execute technical decision-making. Without this, I would have had to prove amongst several other chicken and egg situations and show that I was credible in a new industry, to a new company.

Lessons learned

  • I recommend having one translatable piece of credibility when trying to transition internally into a PM position. This can be anything from knowledge of a specific user market, problem, or industry.
  • Making a role switch from engineer to PM without direct experience is a marathon journey, not a sprint. To be a PM, you need to do five roles at once and build credibility in each of these departments. Doing so requires patience, empathy, and understanding of others' needs.

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