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How do I advance from Software Engineering to Product?

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Mid-Level Software Engineer at Mastercard10 months ago

Hello,

This platform is awesome and I've been looking at a bunch of resources for career advancement. One aspect that strikes me is to play into my strength. While I do enjoy coding (only if it's front-end or mobile -- visual stuff!), it's not my strength or something I will really do outside my job. I do love being in any conversations that involve innovative features for our customers, making our product more modern aesthetically, or questioning the features we do have. The idea of being a staff/lead/principle engineer keeping up with latest angular features or being on call outside job hours to fix some server or UI issues come up isn't really appealing. But I do want to grow. I want the chance to mentor people, influence a project, be in cahoots with people who make decisions about what we want to create, be close with customers, etc. I love the design (UX) aspect as well.

If I stay as I am, I know I will slowly grow linearly in this software engineer role. I do think I will get the senior developer role next year. But most folks who have a C-suite role in product or beyond seem to have an MBA but I am not sure if that's a valid move nowadays. I am taking a couple of tiny PM projects but outside that, what can I do to have the best chance of landing a C-suite role later in my career and making an impact beyond coding?

Looking forward to your replies!

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Discussion

(3 comments)
  • 5
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    Tech Lead/Manager at Meta, Pinterest, Kosei
    10 months ago

    Wait, hold on. There are a few things going on in this question:

    1. How do you transition from Software Engineer to Product Manager (PM)?
    2. How do you eventually land a C-suite role in your career?

    I think you're assuming that being a PM is the best path to the C-suite, which isn't always the case. This depends on the company and its culture, and the actual PM job is a fairly recent invention. Many tech cos do indeed have PMs as the CEO, but most earlier-stage companies will have an engineer as CEO. More mature companies tend to focus more on sales/marketing and will often have a CEO with a sales or MBA background.

    C-suite is broader than just CEO, and clearly being technical means that you are well-suited for a role like CTO, CIO, or Chief Security Officer.

    One other thing I want to mention on this topic is the assumption that the PM job will lead to a happier work life. On paper, it makes sense: PMs define the strategy for the product, spend all day talking to smart people, or discover insights from customer discovery. Then they simply wave their hands and get the engineering or design teams to do the work. I'm not saying you have this perception, but it is very mistaken

    Especially for junior PMs, my experience has been that they have a pretty awful job. They need to influence the direction of the product, but they don't actually have meaningful authority. So a lot of their job turns into activities that help the team function more smoothly, things like bug bashing, taking notes, and communication between engineers, managers, and leadership.

    It's great that you're acting as a PM already on some projects. I'd continue to do that as a way to ensure you enjoy the job. Ask existing PMs at Mastercard about the best and worst parts of their job.

  • 2
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    Tech Lead/Manager at Meta, Pinterest, Kosei
    10 months ago

    Now, to properly answer your questions!!

    If you want to be a PM, the ideal path to transition to Product Management is at your company. The PM role is very dependent on trust built within the team, and you'll already have that if you've been an engineer. Here's a good discussion about the transition.

    For landing a C-suite role, I could probably offer some advice, but my honest answer is that it's not worth thinking about. The C-suite at a large company is at least 5-6 promotions away for you right now. We're talking about a 10-15 year time horizon, and at that time horizon, it's really hard to make meaningful progress and stay motivated.

    Instead, I'd suggest trying to be exceptional in your role now. Regardless of what job function you are in, one pre-requisite will be that you must be exceptional, and your team must also think you're exceptional. So focus on that, and then you'll have many opportunities open up. If you feel like there's a clear path for you to be a fantastic engineer, I'd stay on that path.

    Finally, on the topic of MBAs, Alex left some good thoughts here. I rarely recommend an MBA due to the opportunity cost. The one scenario it makes sense is if you're looking to make a hard pivot in your career (e.g. consulting to tech, or healthcare to finance), or you're in desperate need of an expanded network.

  • 3
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    Principal Director at Capgemini
    10 months ago

    Wanted to add a few thoughts in addition to what Rahul already mentioned.

    One immediate check I would do is to make sure you've spent enough time doing engineering before making a firm decision to pivot. I certainly could be inferring too much from your initial question, but here's a couple things to consider:

    • For every profession, there's a "trough of disillusionment" after the initial honeymoon period; similar to playing a new sport, it isn't really 'fun' until reaching a certain level of proficiency.
    • A couple of things you've flagged that is turning your away from engineering, which are 1) staying relevant and constantly learning on / off the clock 2) on call / incident management. The first doesn't really go away if you want to be elite at anything - the best PMs I know spend just as much time/effort keeping their skillset fresh. For on call, maybe look at it from a POV on 'how I can make an impact' rather than. 'this process is terrible and I don't want to be involved' - research ways to improve on call process like this video here on Taro plus many other resources out there on good engineering practices to put in preventative measures, so there are fewer incidents in the first place.

    Overall point being, there are many layers to peel here within engineering alone. I really didn't like engineering when I first started, but it got a lot more interesting when thinking about second & third order effects behind just the code.

    On final thought is that it doesn't hurt to just go learn and do things related to product management even while in an engineering role. Speak to a couple PMs and get a good idea of the good and bad, then go experience both! You might be surprised to see that Product and Engineering have quite complementary, particularly in roles where you have to wear many hats (at least from a tech consulting standpoint).