This blog article is the response to the question I received from a reader’s email:

Hello Freeman,

I ran into your Chinese blog site when I was searching “Femtocell” over Internet. Currently I am a test engineer working on home networking gadgets like xDSL home gateway, etc. My current job is way too far from customers. We do not have to talk with our customers in person. Instead, we just hold the PRD (Product Requirement Document) and make sure if all of the requested features are working fine. Therefore, it’s not easy to get a deep understanding of the industry and marketplace. Actually I feel that I am kind of losing the big picture. That’s why I am always thinking to be a product manager. But I just have no idea where to start.

Now I think maybe I can learn something from you. How did you become a product manager? Transitioned from developer? And what is important to be a successful product manager (of course I have read the articles like “10 tips to be a good product manager”, I just want to know what you think from your own experience).

It will be great if you can take some time to read and reply this mail :-).

Thank you.

As I have said in the previous post “Motivate team by Big Picture“, it is very normal for the email author, as a R&D engineer, to have a feeling that “losing the big picture”. I have had the similar feeling when I was doing my first job as an entry level software development engineer, and this became part of the reason that I changed that first job later.

Actually I have initiated career transitions to cover some different functions: R&D engineer, sales support engineer, department manager, and product manager. As a R&D engineer, I was involved in designing, implementing and testing some sophisticated telecommunication networking systems, giving me some solid engineering experience. As a sales support engineer, I did both pre-sales support such as having delivered presentations to many companies in different industry sectors, making me a good listener/communicator in front of customers. Also I did post-sales support job such as trouble shooting on site under the enormous pressure from customers.

I appreciate my sales-support experience very much because it makes me empathetic and considerate to different customer/partner in different companies. In short, it gave me deep people awareness and customer understanding. Actually, “people awareness and customer understanding” is a very essential skill (especially for people who transitioned from engineering team) for any managerial position and directly helped me later to work as department managers and product manager.

So based on my own experience, I agree with this article very much: February 09, 2004, “Where DO good product managers come from?

This most consistently successful source of good product managers that I’ve found is from the ranks of successful pre-sales product specialists. These folks have lots of different titles in different companies, but they are the technical sales resources who work directly with sales reps on understanding customer requirements, they often take the lead in presenting solutions to customer problems, and on planning the implementation of the product/solution in the customer environment.

So basically I think, if you want to be a product manager, it is very essential to have some customer interaction experience, so that you can really know how customers think and behave, and what is customer really want.

Why? Because Product Manager is a tough job! Again, let us quoted from “Where DO good product managers come from?“:

The skills mix and knowledge mix for a good product manager is pretty broad.
You need someone who absolutely understands the needs of the customers that you are targeting.
You need someone who understands enough about the technology so that they can build credibility with the engineering team, so that they can translate user needs into something engineering can understand, and so that they can filter and evaluate the technology team’s designs and schedule estimates.
You need someone who is a good communicator and negotiator.
You also need someone who can negotiate with the sales force and distinguish between the one-offs that every sales rep needs tomorrow to help close whatever big deal is in their pipeline from the true broad requirements that are going to improve the marketability of the product on a broader basis.

What do you think? It is really hard to be a good product manager. So be patient, and you might just need more time to try different related jobs. I would like to recommend any engineering people to try to do pre-sales, post-sales support, or sales, marketing… whatever job that is more business-oriented and more customer-facing. Engineering itself is just too technical, and you need different mindset to move into other jobs. Then after you have real sense for those jobs, you might begin to know what is product management, and whether you want to do that.

Anyway, just my own experience and own idea, and I am afraid that this is primarily only make sense to engineering people. And of course there are quite many successful product managers who are from very different other background. There is just no uniform way to become a product manager, and there is no such a course, or degree program dedicated for product manager career. Yes, many MBAs start their post-MBA job as a product manager, but MBA is not a mandatory requirement. A lot of good product managers do not have MBA, or even do not have any graduate degree. It is totally up to you to have your own career path to move into product manager position. But I believe the “people awareness and customer understanding” skill is very essential.

Some related links that you might be interested:

Where DO good product managers come from? February 09, 2004

The Silicon Valley Product Group (SVPG) articles (many many good articles here):

All About Product Management blog:

The interesting part of this blog is that it has a section of interviews with different people how they move into Product Manager position.

How others have moved into Product Management `

From R&D Engineer to Product Manager

From Technical Support to Product Management

If you want to get into Product Management – then ask a good Product Manager.

Other articles related to the career can be found:

The sad thing is that the All About Product Management blog is actually banned from mainland China because the hosting site is banned in China. So you might have to find workaround to access it from mainland China.