In this article they tell us why they chose this career move, they share their advice, and they tell you everything you need to know about this change (the good and the bad). Read about their experiences and find out more about career change that could bring you closer to the users, and to the world of business.
1. What is a Product Manager?
As a developer, it is increasingly common to work with product managers (PM) on a daily basis. The Tech - Product - Design trio is a must in today's tech companies. But this does not mean that everyone involved has a clear understanding of what each role entails.
Indeed, product management is a relatively new field in Europe. The French-language media outlet Le Ticket, which specialises in the subject, unearthed one of the first PM job offers in France… which dated back to 2011! It was a job for BlaBlaCar, the ride-sharing platform. "I remember that it was unusual to recruit for a position like this, which was different from that of a simple project manager," recalls Frédéric Mazzella, the company’s founding president.
An Architect for Digital Products
Since then, the profession has developed and gained recognition. Simply put, the job can be described as follows:
The objective of product managers is to influence their users' behaviour in the interest of their organisation's strategy.
"It's about transforming user needs and society's expectations into opportunities to build sustainable business models," explains Tanguy Verluise, former senior PM at Veepee and TheFork, and co-founder of Le Ticket.
The main point to remember is that in product management culture, success is measured in generated impact (= outcomes) rather than in the delivery of projects as such (= outputs).
To quote Marty Cagan, the author of the product management bible Inspired, PMs need to have a 3 dimensional view in order to create products which:
- add value (business component)
- are easy to use (design component)
- are achievable (technical component)
2. Why become a PM when you are already a developer?
Some might say being a developer is the greatest job in the world. Yet many in this profession end up growing frustrated. Many have realised that a background in engineering can be used as an asset to enter the world of product management.
Here are some of their reasons for doing so:
“To have more influence on the product”
After an engineering degree in Lyon, Marc Viricel became a mobile developer. In 2016, he spent 3 years working for IoT manufacturer Withings, first as an iOS architect and then as head of the iOS software engineering team. This position allowed him to interact with other teams (design, quality, product management, etc.) which made him realise that his personal interests were changing.
“I could give advice on the tech side of things but I was under the impression that the scope of my impact on the overall product was limited. As it happened I was becoming more and more interested in the business aspect of it all, like finding a product/market fit, or establishing a pricing policy” explains Marc, who became Product Manager in May 2021.
This same argument was used by Frederic Dermer (Critéo’s former senior PM, BlaBlaCar’s former Head of Product, and London-based startup Fixter’s co-founder and CPO/CMO) to convince one of his developers to switch to product management: “For me, the main benefit of becoming PM is that you increase your impact on the company’s strategy and future.”
"Web development was just a means to an end"
Armand Quainon, Head of Product at wenabi
For Armand Quainon, it all started when he was asked to do customer support. Suddenly, he found himself in direct contact with the users. This former developer at Airbus, now Head of Product at wenabi, realised that he was more interested in designing the product than in its technical realisation: "Development was just a means to an end. But I realised that the most important thing for me was to meet the users’ needs.”
“Rely less on other people’s decisions”
Marc Viricel highlights another common frustration, in keeping with the previous one: “I often got the impression that I wasn't building the right features. As an engineer, you may have some influence but you rarely have the last word.”
"I reckon half the code I've written in my life has never been pushed to production!"
Matthieu Cutin, Product Manager at Easyblue
This feeling is shared by Matthieu Cutin, who worked as a developer for several years for Web agencies or as a freelancer before becoming Product Manager for Easyblue, an insurance broker for professionals: "I reckon half the code I've written in my life has never been pushed to production! There were countless times when I knew a product was going to fail before it was even launched… That’s why I no longer wanted to merely implement other people’s ideas, I wanted to become a decision-maker too. I no longer wanted to feel like what I was doing was useless, I wanted to be closer to the users.”
"Becoming a PM is a way of taking your destiny into your own hands. You are no longer at the end of the chain,” insists Frédéric Dermern. You therefore have a better sense of why you are doing what you are doing.
“More interactions on a daily basis”
Following his CTO’s advice, after over 5 years in front-end web development, David Ronchaud became a PM and then a digital director of the Copines de voyage and Les Aventureurs travel agencies.
He does not regret his decision: “Staying in front of a computer screen all day has always been something that bothered me about web development.” But the PM’s job is also at the crossroads of the interests of many stakeholders. This comes with its own problems which we will discuss later…
“I wasn’t enjoying coding as much as I used to”
The final major reason we heard for making this career change was a decrease in motivation. Simply put: “I realised that I was less and less interested in things like debugging or maintaining legacy code” recalls Thomas Bianchini, who spent almost 5 years working as a fullstack developer, and who has been working as a PM since March 2020… for talent.io. He had two options: to become a tech manager or a product manager, and he chose the second option: “What I have always enjoyed the most is to solve problems, which is also what you do as a PM, but in different ways.”
“I realised that things like debugging or maintaining legacy code were becoming less and less interesting to me”
Thomas Bianchini, Product Manager at talent.io
3. What does a PM actually do?
You should now have a general idea of what being a product manager is about. Now, let's find out what the job entails on a day-to-day basis, straight from those who have made the switch from tech to product.
Thomas Bianchini, from talent.io, describes the job as having two main sides: 1) making users happy while at the same time 2) meeting business objectives. To achieve this, he takes part in 4 main activities:
In this phase, you figure out what needs to be built by understanding the needs of the users (for example, by meeting them, asking for their opinions on mock-ups, testing hypotheses, etc.) and of the stakeholders. The point is to maximise your chances of achieving the desired impact, to prioritise which topics to work on first, and to avoid working for nothing! This is the most valuable work you’ll do as a product manager.
In this phase, you build and put into production the results of the discovery phase. This is roughly equivalent to the role of Product Owner in the Scrum methodology and is sometimes (wrongly) considered to constitute the whole of the PM’s role. As a developer, this is the phase you have first hand experience in and therefore know the most. But now you know that there is more to being a PM than this!
3) The launching of a product or feature
This is known as product marketing. Ideally, this process takes place at the same time as the discovery process and involves the sales and marketing teams. The goal is to have a successful go-to-market, i.e., to ensure that what has been built meets its target and is actually used.
Examples include: working with the marketing team to establish an external communication plan with the right key messages (newsletters, social networks, advertising, additional information within the product, FAQs, etc.), or training sales and customer relations teams internally on the new features, etc.
4) Performance analysis
Product management is an ongoing process that does not stop when a feature is put into production. Generally, from the discovery phase, PMs define a success indicator. Then, after the launch, they collect data with the help of the data teams to measure the success of the project.
Then a new cycle begins! The roadmap is one of the PM's favourite tools, in which he or she plans the product's various incarnations.
PMs are sometimes referred to as the "CEO of product". Let's put that in perspective a little: “They are in charge of a given perimeter but remain constrained by the company's vision and strategy. They are not magicians who suddenly arrive with genius ideas to revolutionise everything,” says Jean Lebrument, co-founder, Chief Product Officer, and former CTO of the freelance platform Brigad.
In other words: it's a job that requires you to interact with very different people both internally (marketing, sales, strategy, design, tech, finance, legal, etc.) and externally (end-users, customers, partners, etc.) to design the best possible solutions.
4. How to transition from developer to PM
As you have probably already realised, technical skills only constitute one aspect of being a PM. Some PMs have never written a line of code. So let's see what skills you will need to develop and how to do so.
Three key soft skills: communication / leadership / empathy
"Communication skills are already very important for a developer, but as a PM you have to learn to adapt your discourse to many different groups," says Thomas Bianchini, “there is a real leadership aspect to it,” adds Frédéric Dermer.
"We act as facilitators between all the stakeholders."
Marc Viricel, Product Manager at Withings
Marc Viricel confirms this: "We act as facilitators between all the stakeholders. The job involves always being proactive and seeking out information". This implies acquiring a basic knowledge of marketing, design and how a business model works, to be able to understand and participate in discussions.
It’s worth noting that having authority is essential to make sure projects move forward efficiently: "Knowing how to say no is absolutely crucial when it comes to prioritising. But it's not always easy, especially when faced with the company's founders..." says David Ronchaud. He also adds empathy as a quality required both for design work and responding to the users' needs. As a developer, you should already have acquired these qualities… if you have been working without a PM!
Get into the right mindset before taking on your new role
To improve your skills, you can use external resources (see our next point) and/or step out of your comfort zone and learn on the job, starting with small initiatives!
"I regularly volunteered for demos, oral presentations or company strategy focus groups," says Thomas Bianchini. "Proving that you can be trusted with the role is often a necessary first step before officially getting the position”, adds Marc Viricel, who remembers taking on more product-oriented decisions to prove that he was not just a tech guy who knew nothing about design or business. According to him, it is important to show that you can also know what you are doing in other areas.
Moreover, he and Thomas Bianchini both started their new role working on a technical product, which required good knowledge of APIs and of technical documentation. This allowed for a smooth transition.
A few key resources
There is practice... but also theory. Here is a (far from exhaustive) list to deepen your understanding of product management (in English):
- Silicon Valley Product Group newsletter and Lenny's newsletter
- Shreyas Doshi's Twitter account
- Training courses: Udemy, Reforge, Product School, Product Institute
- The Mind The Product conference
- Some books: Inspired by Marty Cagan and Empowered by Marty Cagan and Chris Jones
5. What are the advantages of becoming a PM who has a background in tech?
As we have just seen, you need to strengthen your skills in certain areas to become a PM. But since you have experience as a developer, you are not starting from scratch! Here's a quick overview of the advantages of being part of a product team.
You’ll be able to communicate smoothly with the engineers
“When I’m talking to the developers, I definitely don’t have to adapt my language and I’m not afraid of getting highly technical to explain, say, performance or database constraints,” says Thomas Bianchini. This is a clear advantage when starting out in the profession, because at the beginning, a PM is mainly evaluated on the delivery side of things. “I know what they are looking for in terms of rigour and detail when it comes to writing user stories, because I have experienced it myself," explains Matthieu Cutin.
"As a former developer, I know what they expect when it comes to writing user stories."
Matthieu Cutin, Product Manager at Easyblue
Your background will also allow you to make technical decisions more rapidly. "The advantage is that I know when it's just an “if” statement or whether the functionality will be more complex to build," he continues.
However, having the ability to put yourself in developers’ shoes is a double edged sword: “It can be an obstacle to creativity and can make us forget that our role is not to write beautiful code but to meet the needs of the users," adds Thomas Bianchini.
A clear technical vision
According to Frédéric Dermer, a good product team is made up of diverse and complementary profiles. In fact, this was a factor in the recruitment of his new PM, a former developer. "It's much more common in Silicon Valley to have former tech people in PM positions," he says.
In Europe, it is still quite rare to find people with a tech background in product management. But it is this background that allows you to understand the complexities of technical architecture or the maintenance of existing code. "In my team, I have design, business and tech profiles... Your team should reflect the different facets of your product," says Jean Lebrument.
6. What are the downsides of your new life as a PM?
But be careful not to look at everything through rose-tinted glasses. There are some downsides to becoming a PM too.
You are no longer the one who “does”
This is THE point our interviewees brought up the most. "I can no longer implement solutions myself. I have to explain things to everyone in the loop", says Matthieu Cutin with some regret... although he admits that he now enjoys the discovery phases a lot more. "I miss not being able to test my idea directly," agrees Armand Quainon.
"You have everything ready in your head... and you are going to entrust it to others when what you really want to do is code it yourself to see how it works in detail. You have to accept this...", shares Thomas Bianchini. "When you're a developer, you feel like a craftsman working with your hands. As a PM, the notion of creating something is more blurred, since you are organising the work of other people," summarises Marc Viricel. "But I still continue to code as a freelancer on the side, for fun," says David Ronchaud.
Another negative point: "You can't stay in your bubble anymore! You're always interrupted when you're a PM", says David. Thomas Bianchini has also noticed this. When he was a developer, he could plan long programming sessions. "I used to have two meetings a week, whereas nowadays they represent half of my time," he says. This is the price of having more interactions with the other teams. "The problem is that everyone in the company has a strong opinion about the product. You have to do your homework to make people understand that you know what you’re doing," concludes Jean Lebrument.
A (slightly) less dynamic job market
Being a web developer usually comes with a higher salary, even though the pay gap tends to disappear as you make your way up the hierarchy ladder.
Our last salary survey even showed higher median pay levels for product managers. In fact, pay appears to be roughly equal in both roles.
However, it is very clear that there are fewer job offers for PM positions than for developers. "I used to get two job offers a week. It's been quieter since I've become a PM", confided one of the interviewees.
Being a PM is still a very attractive position which is still very much in demand. As proof: none of the people we interviewed are considering returning to code!
So, what have we learned?
- Being a product manager is not (just) about shipping features. It is also about having an impact on the users and your company.
- Delivery is only a (small) part of the PM's job, to which we can add discovery, product marketing, data analysis, strategy...
- Software engineering is a good gateway to becoming a PM... but you need to improve your soft skills (communication/empathy) and hard skills (marketing, understanding how a business model works, design...)
- Working on the product means getting closer to the end users and the company's strategy...
- ... But it means leaving code aside and having to interact with a very (very) wide range of stakeholders