New Delhi (India), October 26: In recent times, product management has emerged as one of the hottest career paths, especially for engineers who are looking for more strategic roles that involve critical decision-making and have the potential to create a bigger impact. However, the job description of a product manager varies vastly, not just across industries and companies but also within the same company. There are different types of product managers: technical vs. non-technical PMs, hardware vs. software PMs, consumer-product vs. enterprise product PMs, experience vs. platform PMs, and a spectrum of variations within each of these. Consequently, there is no conventional path that engineers can follow to transition into successful Product Managers.
Ashlesha Kadam, currently working with Amazon Music as a global product team lead, spoke about migrating from engineering to product management. With an in-depth understanding of both technology and business, she has transitioned successfully from being a software engineer to a product leader and, at the same time, has also mentored many software engineers to transition into successful product careers.
Ashlesha’s unique blend of deep technical understanding and business acumen has led to her to become a top tech leader of global renown in the space of AI and voice assistants. She was recently awarded the Technology Executive of the Year (silver) and Executive of the Year (Internet / New Media) (gold) at the 2023 International Business Awards and is a finalist for the prestigious Woman of the Year – Tech title at the Women in Tech Excellence Awards in November 2023.
“There certainly isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to transitioning into a product role”, says Ashlesha, “but engineers, particularly software or hardware engineers, are well-suited to transition into product roles if they have the right motivation, interest and willingness to learn the skills that are needed for succeeding at a product role that might not have been as important in an engineering role”. According to her, one of the most important skills is the ability to be able to empathise with the users of the product. Additionally, a product manager should have a deep understanding of business, be data-driven, have a metrics-oriented style of working, have fluent verbal and written communication skills, have the ability to articulate ideas and have the ability to influence others.
As someone who has transformed her career path from engineering to product, Ashlesha believes that any engineer who decides to move from an engineering role to a product one should talk to as many people from the product background as they can, preferably those who have made a similar transition. According to her, it is important to understand the motivation to move to a product role and the specific expectations from such a transition. Looking back to her own journey, Ashlesha mentioned how she talked to a few product managers as well as engineering leads during her time at Cisco Systems to understand their journeys and try to gauge which of these journeys seemed most appealing to her.
A lot of engineers who are interested in shifting to product roles are concerned about whether they should get an MBA to fit the new role. Ashlesha clarified while she herself pursued an MBA degree, she has seen and mentored several engineers who did not follow that path before making the transition.
“One successful path I have seen quite a few engineers follow is that they pitch themselves to try out a product role in the same problem space that is familiar to them from an engineering perspective”, says Ashlesha. “For example, if you have been working in the ads space, try to convince the product hiring manager that you will bring that understanding of the ads space with you and demonstrate your willingness to learn product ropes by working with other product, UX, design and marketing peers”. For the MBA path, Ashlesha suggested that while an MBA isn’t a mandatory requirement, it helps accelerate the development of business acumen by providing a foundational understanding of strategy, finance, marketing and operations, all of which are helpful as a product leader, especially when it comes to influencing cross-organisational and cross-functional stakeholders.
Lastly, Ashlesha cautioned that sometimes engineers who shift to product manager roles tend to “solution-ize” the problems instead of focusing on identifying and sharply defining the problem. It is important for a product manager to focus on deeply understanding and articulating any customer problem instead of spending more time trying to think of technical solutions to solve those problems.
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