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How to move from software engineer to product manager

How to move from software engineer to product manager

Alyssa Towns
April 22, 2022
Updated on:

How to move from software engineer to product manager
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There has never been a better time than the ‘Great Resignation’ for a career change. Whether you’re ready for your next challenge or feel burnt out and looking to dive into a new role, there’s no time like the present to start. 

If you’ve ever wondered if your experience as a software engineer is transferable to product management — it sure is. Not only do you have transferable skills to support your career shift, product managers are in demand. In the 2022 LinkedIn Jobs on the Rise list, the role of technical product manager is number 11. And Forbes claims, “When everything is a product, then every company needs a product manager.” 

In this post, we’ll give you everything you need to know to help you decide whether to transition from software engineer to product manager. We’ll also offer tips and advice for how to make the transition. Read on to learn more about the differences between the roles, how salaries compare, what job descriptions look like comparatively, and a transition roadmap to help you take the leap.

What’s the difference: product manager vs. software engineer 

First up, let’s run through the differences between product managers and software engineers. Before we dig in, it’s important to note that these are general differences between the roles. The structure of an organization and team will influence the specific tasks for each of these roles.

What does a product manager do?

Before we dig in, product management and project management are different. Sometimes you’ll see the abbreviation ‘PM’ used for both, but these are two different practices. When we use PM, we are referring to product management. Now, let’s jump in. 

At a high level, product managers are responsible for identifying customer needs , to help tech companies build products their customers will love. One of our customers, Atlassian describes the role as follows, “A product manager is the person who identifies the customer need and the larger business objectives that a product or feature will fulfill, articulates what success looks like for a product and rallies a team to turn that vision into a reality.”

In other words, product managers are responsible for determining what to build and justifying why it matters and how it will benefit customers. They handle the mapping between the software and the product itself while trying to gain the largest return on investment. Product managers work cross-functionally amongst many stakeholders, including developers, engineers, sales, marketing, legal, and customers. Product managers work with stakeholders in meetings, make product decisions, and seek input from others to inform the product direction and deliverables. 

What does a software engineer do?

Software engineers design, implement and maintain software for systems and computer applications. They apply computer science principles and mathematical analysis to create software solutions that satisfy the needs of a business. There are different types of software across trades, industries, and companies. According to Coursera, there are two categories that software engineers generally fall into — systems developers and application developers.

Software engineers primarily work with other engineers as well as product and design teams to create the best solutions. They focus on building the software and use their technical skill sets to execute a vision. Sometimes they receive the specific vision and feature requests from product managers. While product managers lead the product, the software engineers build it and bring it to life.

Job roles and responsibilities

If you’re still slightly unclear on the differences between the roles or want to understand how day-to-day responsibilities differ, look no further. We perused software engineer and product manager job descriptions and pulled together some of the most common duties for each role below. 

First, here are some examples of the types of tasks you’ll find for software engineer roles:

  • Develops information systems by designing, developing, and implementing software solutions
  • Follows the software development lifecycle 
  • Provides ongoing maintenance, support, and enhancements for existing systems and applications  
  • Offers recommendations for continuous improvement 
  • Works alongside other engineers to elevate technologies and develop best practices 
  • Investigates problem areas in a timely manner 

As for the role and responsibilities of a product manager, here are some examples of the types of tasks you’ll see:

  • Leads product development and strategy 
  • Conducts market research to assess an organization’s competition and positioning
  • Develops a business case for new products and improvements to existing products 
  • Gathers, manages, and prioritizes requirements from the business and customers
  • Determines product pricing by reviewing market research data and sales costs to create the best return on investment 
  • Identifies and manages new and existing partnerships across products 

The most considerable distinction is that the work of a software engineer is more technical and development-focused. In contrast, product managers do various tasks centered around the products themselves. Additionally, the software engineer role requires more independent work (there’s still plenty of teamwork with other engineers involved), while the product manager role consists of many cross-functional relationships and collaboration.

How do salaries compare? 

Even if the pay isn’t a deciding factor for you in your transition, it’s worth understanding how salaries compare. Let’s look at how much software engineers and product managers earn in their roles.

How much do software engineers make?

As of April 2022, Indeed reported an average base salary of $96,817 for software engineers. The average compensation varies with years of experience. Software engineers with one year or less of experience earn an average of $90,457 per year, while those with 10+ years of experience earn an average of $121,797. Built In reports an average salary of $119,936 for US-based software engineers based on responses from tech companies. 

How much do product managers make?

In comparison, as of April 2022, Indeed reported an average base salary of $91,464 for product managers. Glassdoor shows an estimated median base pay of $108,016 based on salaries collected from Glassdoor users.

Who earns more?

Depending on who you ask, product managers earn more than software engineers and vice versa. Keep in mind that experience, tenure, and industry all impact whether one role makes more money than another and vice versa. Another point worth noting is that total compensation packages vary across roles, and additional benefits beyond salary factor into compensation packages.

Must-have skills for product managers 

With a background in software engineering, you already have some skills that will help you succeed in the product manager role. For starters, you have experience building out the features and executing the requirements of product managers, which means you can use your expertise to help provide engineering teams with requirements. Another perk? With a background in engineering, you can speak the engineers’ language, making it easier to communicate across the technical landscape.

On top of your engineering skills, there are a handful of must-have skills product managers need to succeed in their product management roles. Below are the skills you’ll need to succeed as a product manager:

1. Market research

Product managers need to know how to conduct market research effectively. Market research is critical to understanding how and where a product might fit into the market, and if customers have a need for the product.

2. Communication

Because product manager roles are collaborative and require engagement across multiple teams, it’s necessary for these individuals to have top-notch communication skills. Product managers spend a significant amount of time in meetings, giving presentations, and working with various stakeholders in some form throughout the production process.

3. Negotiation 

Negotiation skills are essential for product managers because it can be challenging to satisfy all stakeholders without making sacrifices along the way. A good product manager should know how to compromise when appropriate and help others manage conflict through negotiation.

4. Prioritization

Staying committed to deadlines when things go awry (which they often do) requires prioritization skills. And since product managers are accountable for the development of new products or enhancements of current ones (which involves a lot of work from many key groups), the product manager should know how to decide what’s most important to stay on track.

A transition roadmap to help you get started 

Are you ready to make the transition from software development to product management? Folks like Victor Kosonen and Maria van Keulen successfully made the transition, and you can, too. Not sure where to start? Follow the roadmap below, and you’ll be on your way in no time!

1. Learn more about product management.

The first step is investing in, borrowing, or tracking down some training materials on product management. You don’t need to know everything about the world of products, but you’ll want to develop foundational knowledge before going any further. Training materials can be books, online training courses, lectures, or news. Here are some places to look:

2. Build connections with product managers and learn from them.

Once you have the basics of product management down, it’s time to start building your network and learning from product managers already in the role. The most natural place to start is within your current organization. If you already work with a product management team, consider asking to shadow your colleagues or set up meetings with them to learn more about their roles in detail. Real-world exposure will give you more insight into the role being a good fit for you.

If you don’t have access to any product managers in your immediate circle, that’s okay. Instead, you could look for product management meetups in your local area to attend or identify product managers working for companies of interest on LinkedIn. This is a great chance to put your communication skills to use and practice the power of relationship-building (which you’ll be doing regularly in the future!)

3. Explore the idea of a side project.

With new connections at hand, dig deeper to see if there’s an opportunity for you to gain some real-world experience in product management through a side project. Maybe you can put your skills to the test by supporting a product at a hackathon, as an example. You could also start a blog and interview product managers to learn directly from them while simultaneously inserting yourself into the space.

4. Update your resume and apply for the job. 

You’re ready to take the next step toward your product management career! Once you’ve updated your resume to include your software engineering experience and the new skills and knowledge you’ve been working hard on related to product management, it’s time to apply for product roles. Consider exploring product owner and product strategy titles in addition to product manager. Reach out to recruiters with your resume who might be able to interview you for product roles they’re working to fill. Put yourself out there and explore different companies, and you’re guaranteed to find a company that wants you for your prior experience and newly developed product management knowledge. 

Going forward

The career change you’re dreaming of is on the horizon. Software engineers make great candidates for product management roles. Software engineers are technical, knowledgeable in computer science, and focus on how to build something. On the flip side, product managers work across different stakeholders, lead the product, and determine what to build and why. It’s tough to say which role earns more from a salary perspective, but research shows that salaries seem comparable. Software engineers who want to become product managers need market research, communication, negotiation, and prioritization skills. You can make the transition from engineer to product manager by developing your understanding of PM through training, learning from current PMs, and applying for various PM roles. 

About the author

Alyssa Towns

Alyssa Towns has written productivity and time management content for Clockwise for several years. Early in her career, she dove into time management strategies to effectively manage her workday calendar and 10+ C-Suite officers' calendars across various organizations. She uses her training in change management to write time management, the future of work, and career content that helps people change their behaviors and habits. In addition, she writes about artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology for G2's Learn Hub. When she isn't writing, Alyssa enjoys trying new restaurants with her husband, playing with her Bengal cats, adventuring outdoors, or reading a book from her TBR list.

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