Jul 5, 2024

From Code to Product Manager: 7 Lessons

The transition from being a software engineer to a product manager wasn’t swift or smooth for me. I stumbled, burned out, and had to dive into countless books and relentless practice.

Here are 7 things I wish I could have done better when I transitioned to Product Manager.

1. Adjusting to Different Work Dynamics

As a software engineer, you can see your day’s work reflected in the code written and results displayed in the browser.

In product management, results or impact might not be visible for weeks when it comes to the product and months when it involves culture.

Keeping a journal to document your weekly wins and goals can help you visualise progress over time. I use a Notion board to keep track of what's been achieved.

2. Grasping Business Needs and Strategy

Understanding the business strategy was a challenge. In some places I worked, the strategy was often too convoluted and instead of distilling it, I pushed ahead, focusing solely on customer needs.

Sometimes, strategy doesn’t exist—only goals do. In such cases, you need to create and socialise it internally. Regularly speak to different departments (e.g., sales, marketing, finance, customer support) to integrate their perspectives into product planning.

Successful companies often focus solely on customer problems, leading to agile and innovative product development. A good example is Benjamin Humphrey at Dovetail who doubled down on solving customer problem without having a formal strategy in place.

3. Differentiating Leadership from Management

This lesson came from books like "The One Thing to Know" and "Turn The Ship Around". Effective management skills are crucial for successful leadership; the two are complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

Develop both leadership and management skills through continuous learning and practical experience.

As a product manager you won't be managing anyone directly but you'll need to influence people around you.

4. Embracing Ambiguity

The future is unpredictable, but as a product manager, you need to imagine it.

You’ll never have 100% of the information to make decisions—this differs significantly from the more objective decision-making in programming.

Ambiguity can be minimised through robust data analytics and predictive modelling, but this slows down the decision-making process.

Those who handle ambiguity well are more likely to excel in leadership positions.

5. Balancing Involvement in Solutions

I often got too involved in crafting solutions instead of letting the team figure things out. This approach made the team feel like I was dictating their actions and methods.

Direct involvement is necessary when the context isn't clear.

For instance, building a disposable experiment doesn’t need to be over-engineered, scalable, or extensively tested. Instead of diving into the solution-finding process, I should have used coaching techniques, asking probing questions to ensure the team had considered the angles I was worried about.

Read more on why you should stop sharing solutions with your team.

6. Mastering Internal and External Negotiation

Negotiation is a crucial skill, whether with internal stakeholders or external parties. It’s essential to practice this skill. A good book to read is “Start with No”. The role of emotional intelligence in negotiation is pivotal, as it helps build trust and rapport with stakeholders.

7. The Courage to Say "No" to the Executive Team

Saying "No" too frequently can be seen as obstructive and may damage professional relationships. However, as a product manager, your decisions can and will be overwritten.

Always provide your recommendation and outline the impact. Use data and evidence to support your position when saying "No".
About Max Antonov
Head of Product @ Backpocket and a Product Coach. I write about product management and random topics that are on my mind. You can find me on Twitter, Substack, LinkedIn or Goodreads