Ask a Project Manager #9: How Do I Transition from Development to Product Management?
You might be familiar with the sinking feeling that occurs when reading 'Minimum XX years of experience required' on a job description. It can feel like a hopeless quest, particularly if you're looking to transition into a new type of role. But fear not – it's all possible! You just need a clear roadmap to get there. In this next instalment of Ask a Project Manager, Abby guides a frontend developer on the journey from dev to product management.
I'm a frontend developer looking to move into product management. Pretty much every product management role I've found asks for over three years' prior experience. This seems like an impossible transition. Do you have any advice?
Dev to PM
Dear Dev to PM,
Good news! If you were to ask a roomful of 100 product managers about their journey into product management, you’d likely get 100 different answers. And quite a few of them would have started at a very similar point as you – as a developer.
My second piece of good news is that many companies are willing to evaluate your related experience and demonstrated drive to learn as a valid starting point for a more junior product manager position. But more on that later...
Why are you drawn to product management?
You’re interested in understanding what you can do to get the required experience described in the job postings you’re finding. But before you can build your roadmap to gain PM knowledge and experience (your first roadmap!), first check in with yourself and ask:
What about this new role am I most drawn to?
Do I truly understand the day-to-day experience of this role? (If not, how can I find out?)
What will I miss about my current role?
What aspects of my current role can’t I wait to leave behind?
Maybe as a developer you find that you are more interested in WHY you are building something than WHAT it is or HOW you will build it. Or perhaps you love building and presenting data-driven cases for how to best solve a product challenge. Maybe it’s none of these things and you just know there is currently a high demand for product managers. Whatever your answers are, they will help you hone in on a roadmap and plan that works well for you.
Understand the role
The transition from developer to product manager both makes a lot of sense AND can be quite jarring if you’re not fully prepared for some of the requirements of the role and the day-to-day realities of the work.
As a PM, not only are you focusing on different phases of the product lifecycle than you were as a developer (research and discovery vs. tactical planning and execution), but you will be changing your cadence of work (rapid context switching vs. heads down focus time), your primary focus (strategy vs. execution), and the frequency and complexity of communication (being the communication cornerstone for every stakeholder vs. communicating primarily with the product team).
How will you know if you are a good product manager fit? How can you actively learn and practice foundational product manager tasks with no prior experience?
Talk to Product Managers
Talk to the PM’s you know! (and seek out PM’s you DON’T know who are willing to show you the ropes). Ask them if they could help you identify any opportunities as a developer to support them in aspects of their work. Are you ready to dive deep into understanding business metrics and user interviews? Want to witness your expert PM friend make a case for NOT focusing on a business exec’s greatest new idea?!
Watch, listen, practice
Regardless of where you are in your job hunt now, you can start the learning process immediately. Ask the PM’s you know where they go for the best online resources (courses, expert bloggers, product news, and podcasts) for curious product managers.
There are no required degrees for product management (though an MBA or data analyst degree will likely boost your opportunities as you seek a job). There are plenty of online resources for learning many of the specialties of product management.
Identify where you have the biggest knowledge and experience gaps and start there.
Dedicate yourself now to being a lifelong learner and continue to do your own research and learning on topics like business management, data analytics, marketing and segmentation, and user-centered research methods.
Build your own products
You may not be able to demonstrate the three years of direct work experience to the employers you want to interview with, but as a full-time developer, you CAN start building your own products outside of work or play a support role for a small team building a digital product.
Use what you’ve been learning online to conduct user research, competitor analysis, gather requirements, and prioritize features for your product roadmap.
You can build a powerful product manager narrative from the experience and lessons learned on your own passion projects!
Build your own experience roadmap
Communication and Expectation Setting
As a developer it’s likely you’ve worked with some teams who expect you to have a voice in collaborative and strategic decision-making with other teams and other teams who expect you as a developer to simply execute the work described in tasks assigned to you.
In your role as a product manager you will not only be highly collaborative with most product stakeholders, you will be driving and facilitating that collaboration and strategic decision making.
One of the biggest shifts from development to product management is the sheer number of viewpoints you have to consider, analyze, and prioritize when evaluating your feature roadmap.
Not only are you building the strategy for gathering all these viewpoints, but in many cases you are the one talking to your stakeholders and making cases for what will bring the most value to the product.
Build your experience in communication and facilitating expectations with various stakeholders by finding opportunities to support a PM in requirements-gathering exercises. Can you get involved in early UX and design reviews? Practice speaking to business and end-user goals from your unique perspective as a developer.
Strategy (‘what’ and ‘why’) vs. solutioning (‘how’)
While many developers’ primary focus is on how to build a product, PMs focus on what to build and why.
As a developer or in a supporting product role you can start to flex your ‘what’ and ‘why’ muscles by finding opportunities to play a more active supporting role in evaluating user and business requirements to prioritize features and build a product roadmap.
Practice talking about and advocating for your ideas in light of the user and business value they bring.
Come to these conversations with an idea of how you might prioritize features on a product roadmap and compare your prioritization with what the product manager and team decide on.
Document the journey
Whether you are building your own product or seeking out opportunities to gain product management focused experience in your current role, kudos to you for digging in deep and getting comfortable with a new way of thinking about what you make, a new vernacular, and a powerful new set of skills!
Don’t forget to document the journey. This is the start of your product management portfolio. Your experience on the job as a developer, in a new supporting role, or in your own side, passion project will help you demonstrate your breadth of knowledge, your ability to take calculated risk, build value into your products, evaluate multiple points of view, and facilitate and find alignment with your stakeholders.
Abby is a digital project management trainer and consultant at Louder Than Ten and is passionate about connecting people interested in digital project management to access to the right set of tools and resources. She has taught Digital Project Management classes for Girl Develop It, guest lectured at University of the Arts’ continuing education program, co-chairs DPM Philly, and mentors people in the field of digital project management.