Making Moves: Transitioning from Engineering to Product Management
7 July, 2021
Product Lead at Superhuman
In college, I studied computer science and did summer internships in IT and software engineering. Upon graduation, I joined cloud content startup Box as a Quality Assurance (QA) Engineer. Somehow, I felt that a career in software engineering wasn't quite the right fit for me. Right around the time I joined Box, I came across another adjacent career that immediately intrigued me: product management.
I had no experience in product management, but the opportunity at Box that enticed me to join over other companies was the willingness of the product managers there to mentor me and teach me about their field. No promises were made at the time, but my hiring manager suggested that if I performed well in my QA engineering role, perhaps there would be a chance to transition internally in the future.
Once at Box and ramped up in my QA role, I began to tap into the PMs on the team and take them up on their offers of mentorship. I started by simply scheduling a 1-on-1 meeting with the mobile product manager and preparing questions to ask him. I can still recall how rudimentary my first questions were: "how a product manager would decide on what to work on?" for example. But, by being prepared with questions and focused on the goal of learning, I was able to make progress, and my mentors were happy to help because I made it easy for them to do so.
While learning about product thoroughly, I knew I also had to excel in my current role. Not only did doing QA well help me learn the product really well -- a critical skill for QA and PMs alike -- but also, it demonstrated to the company leaders more generally that I was a valuable employee. I wanted to showcase my growth mindset, ability to learn quickly, and contribution to the team and the company as a whole.
After a few months of learning by observing, I needed to transition to learning by doing. When my PM mentor mentioned a small project I could work on, I eagerly took it on. I interviewed internal customers to collect feedback and then spent time after work to propose a user experience and requirements. I had the chance to present my mini-product spec at the team's product review meeting after a few weeks of iteration with the help of my mentor.
The final piece of my effort to become a product manager was to be vocal and clear about my aspirations to the decision-makers. Every few weeks, I'd send a quick note to the Head of Product to share what I had learned and completed and ask what I could help with. I was communicative and consistent about my desire to transition to product and my efforts to that end.
I patiently worked on any opportunity that came my way, kept pace with my QA responsibilities, and shared my progress regularly. It did take time for the appropriate opportunity to arise at the company. I served as a QA engineer for 1.5 years before transitioning to product management. I knew I didn't have the ability to insist on the timeline of my choice, but I trusted that the company would invest in me when my skills and interests aligned with the needs of the business.
- Patience and persistence. My transition was not immediate. But because I was persistent in my focus on my goal while remaining patient about the precise timing, I eventually achieved what I wanted.
- Excel at everything you do. I delivered results and was eager to take on any task in my current role. I didn't get to transition because I was a poor QA engineer, but rather because I was a good one! I demonstrated my value to the company overall first, and only then asked for an opportunity to do what I aspired to.
- Find your mentors and sponsors. I couldn't have made this transition by myself. I was lucky to find support from inspiring and encouraging mentors and sponsors within the organization. By building and investing in relationships and demonstrating my work ethic, I made it easy for those more senior than me to support me when it came time to make a decision.
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