🌞 Earlywork #55: From Engineering to Product Management
Featuring a guest piece by Daniel Sutherland (Product @ Canva) + a Top Gig from Fresh Equities + a One Minute Hustle with Juliet Kirby (Founder @ Crack That Coconut)
Ello ello Earlyworkers!
Dropping it like it’s hot, here’s Earlywork #55, a careers newsletter providing free weekly career resources, news, jobs & real-world career stories for 2.5K+ young Aussies & Kiwis in the tech, startup & social impact landscape.
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💪 Corporate Associate @ Fresh Equities (Melbourne)
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💡Weekly Cheeky Tip
You rarely see ‘Product Management’ degrees in the tech world, so where the f*ck do all these product managers come from?
One of the most common pathways is to first be a software engineer, but it’s no easy leap.
Whereas engineers spend their time on the ‘How’, product managers spend their time on the ‘What’ and the ‘Why’.
Writing code vs. customer interviews feel like two very different worlds, so what can product-focused engineers do to make the jump?
To find out, we chatted to Daniel Sutherland (Product @ Canva), who spent several years studying and working as software engineer before transitioning to the dark side…
Heres’s what he had to say 👇
Earlier last year, I set my mind on transitioning into Product Management.
I had been working full-time as a backend software engineer for a couple of years, which while stimulating, wasn't the perfect match for me.
Before I get into the details of how I transitioned and how you can too, allow me to channel my inner Simon Sinek to explore why I made this move.
'But wait!' some of you may be exclaiming through your screens, what even is product management? Good question, I didn't even know it was a role, let alone what it involved until after I had graduated.
At a high level, the key role of a product manager (PM) is to determine what the most important thing to work on is, craft a plan and then rally their team to deliver.
They should strive to have a high level of customer understanding and empathy, while also being a conduit between a variety of stakeholders (such as engineers, designers, analysts/researchers and senior leadership).
In short, PMs wear many hats and can be largely responsible for the success or failure of a product.
With the formalities out of the way, let's take a look at why I set out on this journey:
Since I was young, I've always been curious about why and how things work the way they do.
I admittedly drank the Elon kool-aid quite early on in high school, which jump-started my obsession with the outsized positive impact some people can have with enough determination and luck. In addition to this, I've always identified as a jack of all trades—its fun being able to do a variety of things.
When I started as a software engineer, I noticed there were some people whose role it was to be curious and determine what our part of the company should work on. I could tell they were wearing many hats—interviewing users, working with very different team members, the list goes on. They were like mini-founders!
I continued to realise that thinking about databases and new backend logic didn’t give me the same joy that thinking about product problems did. It turns out I was interested in strategic and people-oriented work all along.
An even bigger motivation for taking the plunge, were some health issues that had become chronic. I considered going back to uni to study medicine with the hope that I would be able to help others with similar conditions.
However, I realised that getting experience as a PM would equip me with the skills and confidence to potentially make an even bigger impact in the health space one day as a founder. When life gave me lemons, I decided a product manager is what I wanted to be.
Something that I eventually noticed is that many PMs have formerly worked as engineers, designers, linguists or anything else in between. Coming from another field gives you a unique lens through which you can make the best possible product.
Engineers looking to transition are especially fortunate, as they’ll likely have a greater ability to understand other engineers, who generally form the majority of the valuable colleagues a PM will have.
Before dedicating myself to the goal of getting into product, I had been slowly working to make myself a more suitable candidate. I realised one of the most common attributes of good PMs was their communication.
I worked on this by consistently facilitating team meetings, and frequently volunteering to present at wider company meetings. In addition to this, I spent a lot of the last year practicing improv—this transformed my ability to express myself and convey stories.
If you want a cheeky tip on how to level up your ability to ask and answer questions, then I’d recommend taking a brief look at the XY problem.
Having now worked in product for a little while, other skills I’d recommend fostering include:
Curiosity: It’s expected that you are curious about what can be done to drive better outcomes for users and the business. You’ll also often find yourself trying to make sense of user research and data from experiments. To get some exposure, try to get involved with user research before you transition—you might find you really like it!
Prioritisation: Try to be laser-focused on what could move the needle of the user experience and key metrics, not things that won’t. Before doing anything that will take more than 5 mins, ask yourself why you are spending valuable time on this. In a former life, I was intentional to include a “why” section in pull requests and Jira tickets as a sanity check.
A great way to upskill before transitioning is by working on small projects from a product angle, either at work or personally.
The two most common roads into product include applying internally and externally.
Applying internally is a good way to get into this role without much or any prior experience. You’ll probably have a pretty good understanding of the company and its culture, and there might even be some people who can vouch for you!
This was my path. After speaking to our head of product, I took part in an internal application and interview process. Talking to the person at the top is a massive piece of advice I wish I knew earlier. I likely would have saved 6-12 months if I had done this earlier.
If you’re already working at a company willing to take on an Associate PM (APM) or Junior PM, and you enjoy working there, my advice would be to attempt an internal transition.
Applying externally is also an option. For engineers or people with no/little formal product experience, you’ll want to be targeting APM roles at established companies or PM roles at early-stage startups.
It’s worth noting that these opportunities can be harder to come by, and there will often be additional rounds in the interview process (compared with applying internally). However, it can be a viable path.
Making It Happen 💪
Before kicking off my interview process, I spent a solid month grinding interview prep.
It all started with reading the sacred writings of product in ‘Inspired’, a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about the role. And was followed up with ‘Cracking the PM Interview’ for some cracking interview advice. Both absolutely worthy of impulse buying right now (no, I, unfortunately, don’t have an affiliate link).
Most of my time was then spent time mock interviewing on StellarPeers. This sharpened my ability to work on the fly under interview conditions and helped me learn some common product interview frameworks. I also set up a Notion table where I recorded things like self and partner learnings from each mock.
Throughout the actual - final boss battle - interviews, in addition to showing that I was capable of the skills mentioned earlier, I attempted to display some of the competitive advantages that engineering had imparted on me like:
Comfort working through ambiguity
Bias to getting sh!t done, over perfection
Attention to detail
The Wrap 🤙
Getting into product, or even changing careers for that matter, is a lot of work.
Something that helped me massively was knowing people already in or aspiring to be in product. They provided much-needed motivation through the harder times, which made it all so much easier.
Now that I’m on the other side, it’s worth pointing out this isn’t some magical role.
I find it fulfilling, but that doesn’t mean you will as well. Do your best to first understand what the role involves and why it may or may not be a good fit for you. If after all this, you’re more excited than before, double down and don’t look back.
Hopefully, this has provided some context on why you may want to consider moving into product management and how you can engineer your path forwards.
Thanks for reading and best of luck!
You can follow more of Dan’s product journey on LinkedIn here, and check out his side project Sail Health navigating chronic health conditions here.
What content would you like us to cover next? Anything we missed? Keen to share your own Weekly Cheeky Tip?
🌏 Earlywork Community
🐝 The Buzz
What’s been happening in the community?
Free PM Interview Prep - Making Sense of Product Sense: This Friday at 10am GMT +11 (Sydney time), join us for a free product management interview workshop with Kenton Kivestu, ex-Google PM, ex-Zynga PM, former management consultant at BCG and now leading RocketBlocks, a platform helping candidates prepare for product management and consulting interview
Generation 2 Keen Beans: Applications for the second cohort of Earlywork’s community advisory group are closing Jan 30th. If you’re a young person looking to change the career landscape of ANZ, chuck in a cheeky app!
New Sub-Communities: Join the discussions & events around #sustainability, #health, #education, #diversity-equity-inclusion and #science-and-deep-tech now!
Earlyworkers Twitter List: If you’re a fellow Tweet and Earlywork community member, we’ve curated a list of ~200 Earlywork community members on Twitter so you can tap into conversations from Australia’s next generation of founders & operators
📚 Trending Topics
Our favourite reads and resources being discussed in the Earlywork community.
Open Source VC Kit: AirTree re-launched an updated version of their top free resources for folks looking to deepen their understanding of the VC and startup funding landscape in Australia
Aussie Startup Intalayer Shuts Down: Read the Intalayer team’s raw, honest and eye-opening journey of the decision to close down their startup after 2 years of venture funding
Why I Left Atlassian to Join a Startup: Community member Joe Harris, Head of Growth at Eucalyptus, sits down with David Quan to chat through his journey from big tech to startup
Healthtech Predictions 2022: Community member Em Casey from What The Health gives us the lowdown on what to expect from Aussie healthtech in 2022
Sahil Bloom’s Guide to Building the Foundations For a High Impact Career: Investor and creator Sahil Bloom shared a brilliant, actionable guide on how to find the best early-career opportunities for outsized growth
Paradigm: Big Money, Bigger Mission: Community member Archie Whitford does a breakdown of the latest a16z crypto company investment: Paradigm
Feeling Lost in 2018 to CEO of Australia’s Largest Startup Accelerator, Startmate: Community member Vidit Agarwal from the High Flyers Podcast sat down with Michael Batko, CEO of Startmate, to chat through his journey from the startup ops world to operating Startmate.
1️⃣ 🕐 💪 One Minute Hustle
We are back once again with One Minute Hustle, a bite-sized interview with an emerging Australian young startup founder or operator, brought to you by the good folks at Folklore Ventures.
This week, let’s get inside the noggin of a young founder kickstarting more conversations around mental health…
Juliet Kirby, Creator @ Crack that Coconut
⚙️ What are you working on?
Crack that Coconut - a podcast and card came cracking the mental health stigma, one story at a time. So many of our mental health experiences are shared yet we feel a need to deny or play them down because of the stigma that persists.
Each fortnight, I host a podcast episode where I interview a guest who opens up about their experience with mental health. We cover a whole range of different topics from both individuals and support professionals designed to be accessible to anyone.
For those who are inspired by Crack that Coconut, we also have a card game to spark more meaningful conversations with family and friends.
🌱 How’d you get started?
The idea of Crack that Coconut has been brewing for a while. After deciding to face up to my own mental health issues in May last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about what could have helped me earlier in my journey.
I realised that while there are a lot of tools & support options out there, what makes them so hard to reach is the stigma that prevents us from acknowledging an underlying issue or bringing it up with friends & family. I love connecting with people and so the idea for the card game came first. I wanted to get people off technology and actually connecting with each other in person
Creating a podcast felt like the natural next step to create a platform where people could share their own experiences and open up that dialogue on a larger scale. I think technology is a great enabler to help us break the stigma and the podcast is leveraging that.
🤔 Why do you do what you do?
After experiencing my own struggles with an eating disorder & anxiety, I came to appreciate how important it is to seek support & open up. No one should have to go through these experiences alone and it was through opening up to friends, family and professionals that I got the support I needed to strengthen my mental health.
Not only does opening up & sharing our experiences help us to get support, it also creates space for others to share their vulnerabilities or concerns with us. That’s why I’ve started Crack that Coconut, to encourage more people to share their stories, get the support they need and change the dialogue around mental health.
Keen to share your story, or know a young startup founder or operator we should feature next?
Share your deets and we’ll get in touch!
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Ciao for now,