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Ask HN: What is the secret to getting a product owner job as an engineer?
55 points by ddelt 10 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 34 comments
I find that as I'm getting older, I am appreciating the work that a product owner or technical project manager does at a large company (think person who writes JIRA stories, understand the technology or development enough to talk to everyone, can get people on a single line of thinking and can lead discussions, likes working with people and business, and is not hands-on engineering all day).

I also constantly hear from people who are in these sorts of roles that they would 'kill' for the technical background that an engineer has (as that would make them more effective).

Now there is me, with SRE and DevOps background, who applies for product owner, technical project manager, or any sort of similar role as described above, and can not for the life of me figure out why I keep getting "upsold" engineering roles instead, when I am very explicit about applying for the less technical ones. Is it true that there is really no world for a technologist to transition into one of these less technical roles? Does anyone know what the secret sauce is here (besides the line item on the job description that asks for "having been a product owner/<INSERT TITLE> for X years at a previous company")?

What can I, as someone who is in engineering, and would like to do one of these sorts of jobs instead, do at application/interview time to demonstrate that I am a good choice/fit?






In my experience as someone who made the transition from engineer to PM and have seen many others do it, an "official" transition within a company is hard-to-impossible if your company doesn't explicitly have a track for that. (Megacorp tech companies often do, mid-sized and below often don't.) If you're a good engineer, they don't want to give up your proven skills for an unproven lateral move.

What I've seen happen successfully time and time again is an "unofficial" transition that then turns "official" when you change companies. The way it always works is to find a project that doesn't have a PM for whatever reason but could really use one, and slowly become the "effective" unofficial PM once you join the team by taking on PM tasks that are blocking the team. Your manager's probably not gonna say no to things that urgently need doing but there isn't approval for an official PM.

Then start interviewing at other companies for PM roles and explain "well I was never an official PM but I did all the PM work like x, y, z". They don't care what your title is, PM's are known for transitioning from every other job under the sun.

I mean, that's how a lot of promotions work anyways -- first you demonstrate you're already performing at the next level, then you get it officially. It's just that the eng-to-PM transition isn't recognized officially at a lot of places, so you need to do it cross-company.


Sounds more like you want to do Product Management than Product Owner, the latter of which I believe is more about running the agile process.

I don’t know the secret sauce for breaking in. I’m sure that once you are in your background will be super helpful. What I have noticed is that:

- applying for jobs as a PM has a very low response rate

- if a recruiter contacts you, then your chances are much improved

- most PMs I know somehow transitioned into it via some lateral type move

With the above in mind, I’d suggest:

- update your LinkedIn profile to say that you are interested in PM roles, maybe that would help with keyword matches

- contact recruiters directly

- see if you can switch to a PM role internally


I run a product team.

I've successfully hired one person doing this transition, but that was to be a technical product manager. For everything else, I would skip your resume. If you want me to be interested, you need to be a PM for a year plus somewhere else.

My rationale:

1. as expensive and painful as eng hires are to get wrong, they have nothing on PM hires.

2. I have no idea if you actually like the work, and neither do you. It is very different from eng work.

3. I have no idea if you are capable of talking to customers and prospects. Capable can span a lot of things, but includes doesn't freeze up, can think on their feet, and doesn't say really dumb shit to customers (I have eng that got exposure to prospects and managed to talk the prospect out of buying by the way they presented info).

4. Frankly, PM roles often pay less, particularly as compared to senior eng. That fact does not work in your favor, because I'm basically guesstimating if you're worth 3-6 months of my time to spin up on a product.

Finally, your other issue may be that companies simply hire a lot more eng -- 6-10x or more.

As has been repeatedly mentioned in this thread, your best bet (imo) is to transition at your current employer.

ps -- nothing written in your post demonstrates much effort on your part. That's another huge turnoff were I to ponder investing my time into you.


Thanks for your feedback as someone who hires for these sorts of roles; I appreciate it.

Here is my feedback to two of your points:

1. Totally acknowledge the 3-6 month ramp up time for a product, but engineers can easily take that long to be productive and fluent around the technology stack, so I would argue that unless you are hiring a domain specialist, a generalist of any sort will take that time and be a risk for around that long.

2. I acknowledge your PS and I intentionally did not this post a huge backstory because that is what an interview is for, and the point I was making by asking this question was how to even get to that point.

3. As another poster indicated (and as I am aware since I’ve been working for awhile now); obviously it’s easier to make a non-standard transition in your current organization, but it isn’t possible if your org/team doesn’t hire for these roles or if you’ve joined a team where there is already someone entrenched in that role. So in that regard, I believe going across-orgs is probably an easier move, and appreciate everyone’s advice in that direction.


we're gonna disagree on the eng team -- the blast radius of a bad PM is wasting the time of $2.5 - $3m/year of payroll, not to mention the opportunity cost. Not sure if this is helpful, but that's the concern that the hiring manager has, at least when I talk to peers.

re, the ps -- if you've invested time, you should present that before the interview (at least in my case).

In your case, maybe you could have some luck digging up a manager who needs a pm (or even an EM who doesn't have a strong pm) and transferring to that team? Your other bet may be early startups who are more free to take a flyer on someone, esp an api-heavy startup. ala zapier or competitors. Or hell, start a company; that's how I became a pm.


> Or hell, start a company; that's how I became a pm.

Could you give a few more details on how this happened please?


What are you interested in?

I founded a company. I somewhat haphazardly drifted into the product role over the first 6 months, and from then on embraced it. I was the first pm, first pm manager, first pm director, etc...


Good stuff, thank you!

I applied 3-4 times for PM roles at GOOG/FB/etc and each time my resume was auto-routed to folks recruiting for a senior software engineering jobs. I think what you say makes sense, so just don't give up on applying. My $0.02: of course I don't know for sure, but having some end-to-end product that you've made with UI etc. could help.

Judt start doing it in your current role. Be the person who sees the end to end, knows how to deliver it, and show others how to do it. The person writing tickets probably is tired of doing that. Help him out. Make connections with business side. Explain to them the technical nuance in human terms. Work the role. Next time when recruiting, tell your story. The title doesnt matter - principal engineer, tech lead, requirements ninja, all the same

The secret is threefold

1. Do or say you did the work

2. Actually know what the work is -- be able to speak comfortably about the lingo processes etc artifacts ceremonies what does a daily standup actually look like how do you run your entire process which days are for which ceremonies do you always run all ceremonies which tools do you use how do you deal w an engineer not getting stuff done etc etc

3. Apply to roles with 'technical' in the name, because that is your leverage and they out that title there because the position has failed in the hands of a non technical product owner

Side note

Product owner easier to get than product Mgr for a bunch of reasons

Much more plentiful these days

The projects are internal so the whole external customer interviewing skillset goes away, all the market analysis, etc

You have to be willing to say you're a great communicator of course and depending on the job you LOVE agile and scrum and all that they stand for

You have to feel out your interviewer on that stuff


I'm the CTO/co-founder of DISQO and we're actually looking for a product manager with SRE/DevOps background :)

https://jobs.lever.co/disqo/c2921218-1853-4d37-9dfe-d060db55...


A friend switched from a Dev role to PM a while back. He wrote his journey on what kind of skills he had to learn: https://blog.thatharmansingh.com/p/a-year-without-deploying-...

At application/interview time, you're too late.

Trick is to talk to all the existing product managers, and their managers, ahead of application/interview time and figure out what they need, when, and why.

Do that, and the application/interview will be a formality.


There are two ways of doing it. Get the title then do the job, or do the job then get the title.

To be a "product owner", own the product.

The link[0] is a reply to someone who wanted "more interesting work". It starts with links to support the pointers given at the bottom of that post.

- [0]: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26654251


I've only seen this as an internal move, which is how I did it. Ask to take ownership of a project, even a small one. Do it successfully for at least one delivery. Learn the technical ins and outs and the political relationships within the organization. Become known as the $PROJECT person. Every organization handles projects differently so learn and use the specific lingo and process in yours.

Once you do that, you can formally ask for the role.


The simplest way is to make the transition within the company you're already working at. I have seen many software engineers convert into PMs successfully and that's usually the way they do it. It works best when you are working on some product and slowly take over more of the PM-type responsibilities, proving you can do it. With an SRE/DevOps background, it's going to be a little harder to do that.

Interesting advice. I have attempted to do so in my position, motivated by a desire for career change, but eventually find I lack the wherewithal to give adequate attention to both the PO-related and technically-related responsibilities simultaneously.

Perhaps a factor is the level of complexity of the project in question, influencing the practicality of such a dual focus.


This is worth a read from a former Airbnb PM

https://www.lennysnewsletter.com/p/how-to-get-into-product-m...


Very on-point reference article - thank you!

If you have any interest in Product Management then I highly recommend the paid subscription to the newsletter and then Slack group that comes with it.

Not really an answer to your question but this resource might help https://www.reforge.com/blog/crossing-the-canyon-product-man... - reforge courses are great (especially for networking in the US) so that might be an option for a credential.

I think you would be "upsold" to engineering because its where they believe they'll get the most value out of you.


It definitely differs by organization but you can leverage some of the free resources offered by https://productschool.com as a starting point.

architecture is a similar move in terms of day-to-day, but there's a larger likelihood of success for an engineer to transition.

was thinking this too!

1. Study what the product needs.

2. Know exactly who can do what and get them to do it

3. Convince the execs you have a plan and prove it with improving numbers.


The only/ or best option you have is to speak with current managers, and go higher up.

Unfortunately, there is no way to pass it... it would be a waste of time to try and hack it :)


should be trivial. Just apply for them. My company does product owner/product management as a professional services job and we love ex technical people. They make great product owners.

We would probably hire you right now :)


I’m curious. What’s your company? I work in software consulting and often find that our enterprise clients are unwilling to hire product managers.

I’d be interested in reaching out to your company if that is the case. Would you mind messaging me what it is?

I don't know anything specific about shifting from an engineering role to product management one; but in my career I shifted from a sales job to marketing management then shifted to graphic design and lastly to writing, and found that the action I took to make the shifts are similar(except the graphic design — my second college degree), so I would like to share my two cents.

Every role requires different skills but if you have been in the job market for a while, you probably also have some of those skills already. It is important to research the role you'd like to have and objectively analyze the skills you lack and the proficiencies you have that you can lean on.

For example I know sales, marketing, and graphic design, and that makes me one hell of a copywriter. There are better writers out there for sure, but I can edit my writing a million times to make it look decent. Yet, my understanding of sales and marketing trumps the thought processes of many copywriters, and my design background makes me understand how the text I have written can be utilized. I can also help with either one of these skills in an emergency.

I don't wait for somebody to give me the job. As some likeminded individuals advised in the comments, as soon as I am sure that I want to change what I am doing as a job, I start doing the tasks related to that job. When I was a graphic designer, I started offering changes to the copy we are getting. I started working closely with the editors and made sure that they know that they can trust me to help them. I became their go to guy in the department when they need help.

I work hard to get the necessary skills for the task. I spend my private time to master the tasks that the new occupation requires.

I market myself, my desires, my loyalty and my skills. Show that you want to move towards that area and also that you are working hard to learn about it. If you want to stay at the company you are working at, make sure that you say that you love the company, but you think that the other role might be more suitable for you.

I change the work of the other department for the better in ways that only I can. Provide a lot of value in the other occupation you'd like to do for free. Do the basic tasks nobody wants to do, help them solve their bottlenecks. While doing that do your normal job perfectly as well. Do not get demotivated. Just do both jobs at the same time and show everyone that you are capable.

If you do this for some time, the management starts to see that you are working hard on improving the company and an asset. In my experience, this alone is not enough to make the change, because usually there is someone else doing the job already, and you might have to work doing part of their job for a long time before they resign or get fired and management(whom you have been showing your desire and skill) might consider you for that position. That's rare and I wouldn't depend on it.

But don't be hopeless. You are coming from another occupation and you probably have skills others lack. Find out what is your unique proposition. Mine was English. The company I work for has to communicate with a lot of expats and ambassadors and even though we have a huge translation department, nobody could write eloquently enough in English. I could communicate in English to a certain degree and I can also do all the other tasks that are required from copywriters. Voila! Matchmaking in heaven!


Thank you very much for your insight!

I hope it was helpful. I wish you luck on your journey to the new role!

There will be sacrifices you will have to make to succeed, but I hope that in the end you will achieve your target. Every time I was in the middle of a career change, I feel all this effort and sacrifice aren't worth it; I can just enjoy what I have. I don't succumb to that feeling and work harder.

You are the only one who can decide if the prize at the end worth the sacrifices along the way.


Product Manager is a term that was borrowed from Industrial Manufacturing. Just like Software Engineers are not necessarily “Engineers” in a regulated profession sense, Product Managers in Software are basically glorified Requirements Analysts. What used to be senior Requirements Analysts during 1990s are Product Managers now. Basically you need to “speak the made up software Product Management lingo” watch YouTube videos. There are literally 1000s of hours of them with everyone and their grandma blathering their version of product management.

Basically the first step is start to think you are a product manager. Read the low quality crap your current product managers produced. It will turn out not to be to rocket science.




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