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5 key learning switching from development to product management

One of our Astrato Product Managers, Martin Kierkegaard, shares his thoughts on switching careers in software. 

Have you ever been asked, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” It’s one of those classic interview questions, and one you often don’t have an actual answer to. I’ve asked myself the same question from time to time and usually have only been able to think of pretty vague answers.

My career started in development and that question seemed less relevant then. The important thing back then was what I would be working on. What industry? How much innovation would I be involved in? Will I work close to the user experience? Those were important questions for me at the time and maybe not so much if it was backend, frontend, fullstack or what programming language or framework, etc. I would be working with.

But, after around 4-5 years as a developer I asked myself that question again “Where do I see myself in 5 years?”. Opening up my editor every morning continuing on with whatever tasks lay ahead? Maybe with some more technical responsibilities and better problem solving skills. Even though in development, no two days are the same, I wanted something new.

Narrowing down my takeaways from my transition from development to product management to 5 takeaways was tricky.  But these are the top ones for me!

1. No week is the same

Or even day. So being flexible is key. As a developer the day to day work is pretty straight forward. You have your planning, stand-ups, retros at a set time each week and in between your tickets to work on. Most time is spent in your IDE (Integrated Development Environment, where a developer writes and manages code) tackling the issues described in a ticket. Sometimes there’s a meeting to kick off a new project or collaboration between other developers but you know what to expect from a working week.

Product management is very different. There may be a few recurring meetings in the calendar. And in between any scheduled meetings, the work changes from day to day. Making the most out of this time between meetings can be the tricky part. It took some getting used to at first, and showed me the importance of being organized. Having task lists and a powerful tool to take notes like Evernote or Notion helps me out a lot. I’m actually writing this post in Notion as a sub document to other blog ideas I’ve jotted down.

2. You have to understand the user

Understanding the user is about transitioning from “how” to “why”. As a developer, you would have a task defined and most likely some design to fall back to. You’d also know what the end result is you are working towards.

The product management role flips this on its head. Now you need to figure out what development work is achieving. From time to time it’s also good to ask Why the development is actually happening.

Ultimately, your mission is to find a way to solve user needs rather than how to solve the roadblocks during development. So market research and getting to know who you are targeting is important. User personas are a great place to start from. And if no user personas are defined it is a good idea to define these so you know where to start researching for solutions that’ll make life easier for each persona.

3. Reach out when you don’t know

You can always reach out to an expert when you’re unsure about anything in product management There is probably no one else that knows the product or product area you are responsible for. But that does not mean that you know everything about it.  If there’s something that is unclear or you need to understand better – ask an expert, whether it’s a developer, designer or even another product manager.

And it’s always better to ask than to stay ignorant.

4. Communication matters

Good communication is more important than ever in product management. Other people will know how to do their part better if communication is handled in a good way, which then reduces your workload as the product manager. The better others understand their tasks, the more time for planning a roadmap, research or whatever’s needed at that moment. It is something that is learned over time, since being flexible and adapting to different people in the organization is required.

This is also something that is different when communicating externally from this role. It’s definitely a soft skill that takes some time to get used to. But being able to adapt and be flexible in the way things are communicated differs a lot depending on who you are reaching out too. Explaining a new concept for personas that are not necessarily technically skilled can be something new to reach that audience. A better approach could be to start again, from the problem you are solving rather than the solution.

5. Find a way to measure outcomes

Why? It’s the key to success. One of the first things I did, which I believe is quite common for those getting into product management is reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. In the book the author describes products taking shape iteratively in three steps: build – measure – learn. The steps are all connected and influence each other depending on the outcomes of the previous one. But one of the more interesting parts in it I found was how the measure step takes place. The most straightforward approach is simply to measure the outcomes of what you built with usage analytics but with some innovative thinking there could be more ways to measure a product’s outcomes.

I’m very lucky in this case as we use our own platform to measure some of the outcomes of the product I’m managing. ‘Eat your own dog food’ is a phrase that is often used here. Use it yourself to find where users would struggle and fix it. Sometimes that is all that is needed to find an opportunity or issue in the product.

These are the 5 things I have learned so far. I am still new in the shoes of a product manager and am always finding new things to learn. The learning never stops. There’s always the next thing to dig into, a new subject to learn, new people to interact with or a new standard in the industry to research and understand.

And to answer the question “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” – I have no idea, and that’s what excites me!