Becoming A Product Manager for Engineers

According to Glassdoor, Product Management was one of the fastest-growing and highest-paying jobs in not just tech but any profession for 2021. Any company that sells a product or service usually has a PM behind it who is responsible for the vision, strategy and implementation of features that go into their respective product.

Sometimes referred to as “mini CEOs”, – this PM role requires a unique blend of technical expertise with a solid understanding of business fundamentals and customer requirements. As Martin Eriksson from Mind The Product puts it, the Product Manager sits at the intersection of Technology, Business and User Experience.

My name is Andy, and I am the Product Manager for one of the largest cybersecurity companies in the world. I run a product that is responsible for over a billion dollars in revenue a year and have been in cybersecurity for over 15 years. In this blog, we’re going to discuss some of the responsibilities and requirements to become a Product Manager for those who come from a technical and non-technical background. We’ll review four specific knowledge domains that are at the forefront of every good PM, along with a career track you could follow if you’re interested in pursuing this field.

What is the Role of a Product Manager?

Let’s start off by defining what the Product Manager role is, as well as what we refer to as the “Product”.

The Product Manager role can be defined in many different ways depending on the size and type of organization. However, it usually consists of a single person who is responsible for the strategy, development and implementation of a product or service. In startups and smaller organizations, the founder is typically the product manager for their product or service. Larger organizations typically tend to have their own dedicated PM’s who can be responsible for one or more products. The Product Manager generally has a team underneath them that, at a minimum, consists of:

  • Engineers or developers who are responsible for the implementation of the required features into the product or service
  • A design team working on the user experience and front end. While some organizations have the UX and engineering as one and the same, these two roles should be split
  • Product Marketing is generally handled by a different team. However, it’s common in startups and smaller organizations for the PM to also have this duty

It’s often said that Product Managers are the CEO of their products. While that may be true for some organizations, the PM is ultimately responsible for the vision, execution and results of their product. This is why their compensation is almost always distributed as individual contributors based on how their product performs.

Knowledge Domains

Requirements and competencies will be different based on many organizational factors. We’re going to discuss four knowledge domains that every PM generally must have.

Domain #1 – Deep Knowledge of the Technology

A successful PM has deep technical expertise in the product or service they are responsible for. The technical focus will, of course, depend largely on the industry of your product – but as the PM, you need to show that you have a deep understanding of the technical aspects involved in your product.

For example, if your product is a SaaS-based networking monitoring solution, then your technical expertise should largely focus on networking and operations and understand the basics of running a SaaS service. That means that if your technical expertise has largely been in software development, you would need to show a potential employer that you have the day-to-day management experience needed to understand what your customers are looking for. The depth of knowledge that is required will also depend on the needs of the business, but in general, the thought goes that it’s better to have a mile wide and inch deep technical expertise than being extremely technical in one or two areas.

For those of you coming from an engineering background like I did, this will be the best way to get your foot in the door on the product level – and this is how I was able to break into the PM space. After years of engineering and consulting in the security space, the technical domain was an easy checkbox. For those of you not coming from an engineering background, this will likely be the toughest barrier to entry for you. However, it’s not insurmountable. I’d recommend taking some basic computer science courses from sites like EdX or Coursera to get a good foundation – then taking more specific courses in the industry you’re looking to break into.

Domain #2 – Deep Knowledge of the Business

The second domain that a successful PM needs to have is deep knowledge of your Product’s business. A good PM has a solid understanding of the business fundamentals because they will need to work with and communicate with upper management on a daily basis. Some of the foundational business items include things like marketing, understanding the sales process, knowing and understanding key stakeholders within the organization, basics of finance and working with data. I would also argue that having basic project management and agile training is crucial because part of your day-to-day responsibilities will be to manage several moving parts across different teams.

While some folks opt to go for an MBA to have exposure to these business skills, it’s by no means a requirement for most PM positions. That being said, a good MBA program with connections to companies like Google and Amazon can fast track you if you have no inside connections. Personally, I had many years of experience in sales as a pre-sales engineer, so I opted to go for my MBA to get some more exposure to the business side of the house.

That being said, there are many different ways to boost your business acumen without going the MBA route. There are tons of great resources online or at your local college that give you the building blocks to begin your journey. Here we see why the PM position is so unique – because it requires someone who is technical while also being business savvy. For those not coming from an engineering background, this is usually the most common entry point to get into Product Management.

Domain #3 – Deep Knowledge of Your Customer

The third domain every successful Product Manager needs to grasp is deep knowledge of your customer. This may be the most important domain to master, and it’s non-negotiable no matter what your background is. As a PM, you are an advocate for your customer. That means you need to know who your target customer is, along with their needs and requirements. All other domains are irrelevant if you don’t understand what your customer actually needs and don’t build a product or service that satisfies their need.

For this domain, there’s no substitute for experience. That means actually working in the industry and talking to potential customers on a daily basis. If you aspire to move into product and do not have a role in which you are working face-to-face with end customers – then I would strongly consider moving to a position that provides this opportunity. This is why it’s quite common in the cybersecurity field to have PMs with prior pre-sales or post-sale experience. Using myself as an example, I worked in various pre-sales roles for a cybersecurity vendor for over seven years, which I considered crucial in preparing me to be a Product Manager.

While face-to-face time is the best way to learn about your customer, it’s by no means the only way. Industry resources like podcasts, blogs, conferences and forums are an excellent way to know more about your customer, and you can get started learning today. Listen to or read 2-3 podcasts or blogs a week specific to the market you want to get into, and you’ll be amazed where you are at this point next year.

Domain #4 – Deep Knowledge of Your Market and Industry

Domain #4 that every successful PM must have deep knowledge in is the market and industry for which their product belongs to. This includes knowing the competitors, key trends and technologies, customer behavior and expectations, and following industry analysis. A key responsibility of the PM role is that they need to be visionaries for their product and develop a roadmap on how they plan to get there. Knowing the market and industry is a key component to building the strategy.

To illustrate that point, let’s say you were the PM for an MSP that managed firewalls for enterprise customers. When the pandemic hit in 2020, customers’ needs completely changed because you now had an entire workforce working from home. Knowing that your business relies on managing firewalls for corporate networks that may never be accessed the same way – how do you adapt? A good PM that analyses their market and industry may see this shift as an opportunity to add remote solutions like SASE or VPN as part of their service. Knowing the technology trends within your industry will allow you to make an informed decision between which of these two technologies to build your service around. Then analyzing the competitors will allow you to create a differentiator that separates your product.

No matter your background, there are many ways to enhance your knowledge of the market and industry you want to get involved in. The first way is to get comfortable with the various market analysis reports in your industry. Some of the top companies that provide these reports are Gartner, Forrester, Frost and Sullivan, and IDC. Many of these companies have their reports behind a paywall, but the trick is to visit a vendor’s website, like Fortinet or Cisco, to see the full report for free. Companies that score well on an analysis report are eager to provide it for anyone who’s interested.

Analysis reports are broken down by market segments like SD-WAN, Managed Service Provider, Cloud, and so on.

As I mentioned previously, a good PM has expert level knowledge in at least one of these categories while also being knowledgeable and competent in the others. As you can see from the four knowledge domains, the Product Manager is a unique blend of various skillsets – which is why it’s so desirable and difficult to attain.

PM Roadmap: Technical Track

Now that we’ve learned what knowledge and experience are needed to become a PM, the question you probably want to know is: how do I get there? The answer will be different depending on where you are in your career and what your skill set is.

The entry point into the PM career is usually via the technical or business track, so these are the two entry points we will focus on. For the technical track, this means you’ve had at least eight years of experience in very technical roles such as senior security or networking engineer. In this time, you’ve shown that you have a deep understanding of the technology and the industry that your product manager role is based in.

Step 1:

For those coming from this technical background, make sure you work on your soft skills – such as communicating to non-technical people and getting very good at presentations. This may be something you’re already doing in your current role, but if it’s not, I cannot emphasize how important this will be. Understand that technical engineers have the reputation of not having good presentation or soft skills. If you’re not in a role where you are asked to present or provide demos, start considering how you can prove to potential employers that you’re comfortable and able to provide high-quality presentations. Consider joining something like “Toastmasters” to master this much-needed skill.

Step 2:

Your next step is to develop your business skills. As mentioned previously, you don’t need an MBA to satisfy this requirement, but you will need to ramp up on many foundational business concepts. Start thinking about how you can satisfy the requirements from the Business domain we reviewed earlier. This could include online courses from sites like EdX, Coursera or Udemy – or reading some of the business books you see here. If you do decide to pursue your MBA – there are several great options for less than 15k that can be accomplished online.

Step 3:

Step 3 is to get as much face-to-face time with the end customer as possible. If you are currently in a pre-sales role, then you probably already have this exposure. But if your day to day job consists of only working with other engineers, then you’re not getting a pulse for what the customer actually needs. The most important skill set to have as PM is expert-level knowledge of your customer and really understanding their needs and pain points. Make sure that you are in a role where you can get this level of contact with the end-user as possible. There’s no substitute for speaking directly with the user and understanding the “why” behind their request.

Step 4:

Step 4 includes always staying up to date with the market and industry trends in your field. This is one area you can immediately start on today by making sure you build a daily habit that includes at least one podcast, blog article or CISO perspective video a day. 15-30 minutes a day is all you need if you make it a habit and are consistent in building up your knowledge.

To demonstrate that you know your market, you can eventually consider doing speaking events or writing blog posts. These are excellent ways to get your name out there and prove to potential employers that you are a thought leader in your industry.

Step 5:

Once you feel confident in these four areas, it’s time to start applying for entry-level product positions like “Product Specialist” or “Product Owner”. These positions may be called different things depending on the employer, but they are generally positions that report up to a PM and will get you great exposure and experience. For those who are highly technical, another route could be one that some companies call the “Technical Product Manager”. This is a highly technical position that generally reports up to a PM for the product.

Keep in mind, your best path to the eventual PM role is to be promoted from within your company – so make sure you tell any potential employer what your end goal is.

Step 6:

When you feel you are ready, your final step is to start applying for the right PM position. Ideally, this would be within the field that speaks to your strengths, where you have strong technical expertise and expert-level knowledge of the market and industry. In this step, be prepared to take several interviews with many different vendors.

Business Track

For those of you coming from a non-technical background, the overall steps are very similar but with a different starting point. For those coming from a strong business background, you’ll need to get a very good grasp of the technical requirements. You’ll need to be an expert in one of the domains while being very proficient in the other.

This means, at minimum, having a good computer science foundation, along with a concentration in the relevant field you are pursuing in the PM space. For some good computer science courses, there are lots of free resources available online that can get you up to speed.

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