Back to Software Engineer from Product Manager

After working as a product manager for two years and launching two products, I decided to go back to engineering. While it was a fun ride, ultimately I feel happier with engineering. Here are lessons I’ve learned as a software engineer working in a product manager position.

Meetings and Documentations Are Your Real Tasks

As a product manager, your entire days will be spent attending meetings, talking to customers, and writing documents - but then when do you get actual work done? Well, they are your actual, most important tasks as a product manager. Changing your perspective can be difficult - it certainly was to me. But you should do that and adjust to the new role. Otherwise, you will get unnecessarily stressed about your lack of productivity, when in fact you’re getting plenty done already.

But what’s there to communicate so much?

Well, let’s get back to the beginning. A product manager’s job is to [ensure that what gets built is both valuable and viable] To ensure something is valuable, you have to talk to your customers or consult with researchers and marketers who handle that for you. To ensure it’s viable, you have to talk with designers, engineers, and accounting to review available resources. And to ensure it gets built, you have to coordinate all the involved parties to nail down details, smooth out misunderstandings, handle unexpected troubles, and oversee the execution.

All of them are done by communicating. So communication is the primary tool of a product manager for getting their job done, as much as writing code is to a software engineer. A lot of product managers consider that communication is their most important responsibility and estimate that it takes up more than half of their work hours. Based on my limited experience, they are not wrong.

Proactively Define Your Responsibility and Empowerment

A lot of job descriptions for product managers are really vague, because the role has inherently broad scope and constantly keeps changing even within the same company. This means that you must research exactly what you’d be responsible for and what you are empowered to do in that role.

For example, the job description may say that you are responsible for writing specifications and managing schedules to ensure timely release of features. But how far are you expected or allowed to go to get it done?

Often there are unspoken yet expected behaviors in each company. What if a key engineer leaves the company and the delay is inevitable? Are you expected to manage and persuade them from leaving the team? Or should you have filled that hole by hiring a contractor or borrowing an engineer from another team? What if the leadership does not provide a key strategic guidance? Should you bypass the leadership to go through with the current plan, or wait for the directive?

There are countless scenarios like that, and you should explore them as much as possible to get a picture for what’s required of and allowed to you. Try not to get trapped in impossible situations. If the company demands a lot of responsibility, make sure you are sufficiently empowered. Otherwise you will not be happy with the position.

Pick a Specialization That Fits Your Personality

There’re different jobs under the title of product manager. While there are common mindset required across all specializations, each specialization requires not only different skills but also different mindset.

This Reforge article is a great article on product manager specializations. I highly recommend it to anyone thinking of working as one or hiring one.

The article describes four types of work: feature, growth, scaling, and product-market fit (PMF) expansion. Feature work incrementally extends a product’s functionality. Growth work captures more of the existing market by better connecting customers to the existing value of a product. Scaling work keeps the product team’s ability to quickly deliver results as the product grows. PMF expansion work expands the product into adjacent market or product.

The article covers required skills and career path very well, so I’d like to talk about personality fit. As a product manager, you should like analyzing data, empathizing with customers, experimenting for solutions, communicating with other teams, and thinking and planning strategically. But you’re bound to love something more than others.

For example, I love analyzing problems and iterating on solutions, like working with others and strategic thinking, and am okay with exploring new business opportunities. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I enjoyed feature and scaling works, but struggled with growth and PMF expansion work. I was less proficient in growth and PMF expansion works so skill levels played a role there. But I also picked up those skills much slower, because I didn’t find them fun.

If you come from engineering background like me, then you’re likely to have similar experience. So I recommend starting with those works. If you have design background, you are likely to enjoy feature and growth works; with marketing background, it’d be growth and PMF expansion works; with business background, probably feature and PMF expansion works.

Just make sure to know that there are different branches of product management, and try out the one you like the most and fits you well.