How to transition from a program manager to a product manager
Understanding the nuances, challenges and opportunities of the two roles and building a transition plan
Program managers and product managers are both essential roles in the tech industry, but they have different responsibilities and skill sets. If you're a program manager interested in transitioning to product management, it's crucial to understand the nuances and opportunities involved. In this blog post, I'll provide insights and tips on how to understand and enable this transition.
Distinct yet, nuanced disciplines
Whether you are interested in managing programs or products, it's important to understand that these are two different fields that require different skills and approaches. Here are some key differences:
A program manager oversees the execution of one or multiple programs or initiatives that are aligned with a common goal or strategy. A program manager is responsible for planning, coordinating, tracking, and communicating the progress and status of the program, as well as managing risks, issues, dependencies, and resources. A program manager typically works with multiple stakeholders, such as project managers, engineers, designers, testers, customers, and executives.
For example, a program manager at Spotify oversees the launch of a new subscription tier for premium users. They work with different product managers and stakeholders to coordinate the program strategy and execution. They track and report the program's progress and performance and resolve any issues or risks.
A product manager defines the vision, strategy, and roadmap for a product or a feature. A product manager is responsible for understanding the customer needs and problems, validating the product ideas and assumptions, prioritizing the requirements and backlog, and collaborating with the development team to deliver user value. A product manager typically works closely with engineers and designers and conducts user research, market analysis, and competitive benchmarking.
For example, a product manager at Spotify develops and designs a new feature for personalized playlists. They conduct user research and market analysis to define the product vision and value proposition. They work with the engineering and design teams to deliver the feature according to the product roadmap. They also work with the marketing team to launch and measure the feature’s success.
Assess why you want to become a product manager
Before you dive into the world of product management, it's important to understand why you're drawn to it in the first place. Take a moment to think about what you enjoy most about creating products - maybe you get a thrill out of solving real customer problems, or you just love seeing users get excited about what you've built. If you're looking for more influence over the product vision and direction, or you're excited about collaborating with different teams to make things happen, product management might be a great fit for you. And if you're eager to develop your skills in areas like user research, data analysis, experimentation, and product design, this could be a great opportunity to grow your career.
Whatever your reasons, make sure you're clear on why you're interested in product management - that way, you'll be able to pursue it with passion and purpose!
If you are directionally convinced that product management is the right fit for you, it’s worth considering the career growth opportunities that you are uniquely positioned to access. Let me break it down for you:
Leverage your existing skills and experience: As a program manager, you have some valuable skills and experience that can help you thrive as a product manager. Think about it – your technical knowledge, project management skills, and cross-functional experience are like gold! They'll help you understand the feasibility, viability, and desirability of your product. For example,
Use your project management skills to manage your own work as a product manager to plan your tasks, track your progress, manage your time, handle risks, and report your status.
Use your communication skills to articulate your product vision, strategy, roadmap, and features to various stakeholders. You can use the methods you used as a program manager to write documents, present slides, and lead meetings.
Use your collaboration skills to build strong relationships with your cross-functional team members. You can use the same approaches that you used as a program manager to establish trust, resolve issues, and align goals.
Expand your skillset and knowledge: As a product manager, you'll have the chance to learn new skills and gain knowledge that'll take your personal and professional growth to the next level. Imagine being able to research, validate, and prioritize customer problems and needs. Plus, you can learn how to design, test, and launch solutions that deliver incredible value to both customers and the business.
Deliver a bigger impact: As a product manager, you'll have the opportunity to build products that solve real problems and make a significant impact on your organization by driving customer satisfaction and business growth. This can potentially enable more fulfillment in your existing role.
However, as a program manager, you may also have some gaps or areas of improvement that you need to address before becoming a product manager. For example, you may need to:
Embracing a new mindset: As a program manager, you're accustomed to following pre-defined plans, scopes, and timelines for your projects. However, as a product manager, you must navigate daily ambiguity, uncertainty, and change. Embracing a more agile and iterative approach will be essential, where you consistently learn from feedback and data.
Acquiring familiarity with new tools and frameworks: While you may be well-versed in using tools like Gantt charts, work breakdown structures (WBS), or status reports as a program manager, as a product manager, you'll need to acquaint yourself with new tools such as customer interviews, value proposition canvas, or prototypes.
Collaborating with diverse stakeholders: As a program manager, you may have already established solid relationships with project teams, stakeholders, sponsors, and vendors. However, as a product manager, you'll need to work alongside different types of individuals, including customers, partners, users, engineers, designers, or marketers.
Providing customer value: As a program manager, your focus may have been on delivering solutions that fulfill the specifications and expectations of your stakeholders and sponsors. Yet, as a product manager, you'll need to validate your assumptions and hypotheses about your customer's problems and needs. Testing your solutions with actual users and evaluating their impact and value will become crucial.
Enable a gradual transition
Transitioning from program manager to product manager is not easy, but it is possible if you are willing to learn new skills, take on new responsibilities, and demonstrate your value as a product manager. Here are some steps that you can take to make the transition smoother:
Learn the fundamentals of product management: Books, blogs, podcasts, courses, and certifications can help you learn the basics of product management. Some topics you should familiarize yourself with are customer development, lean startup, agile methodology, user stories, user personas, user journeys, wireframes, prototypes, MVPs (minimum viable products), metrics, OKRs (objectives and key results), etc.
Find a mentor: Getting a mentor who's been through a similar transition or an experienced product manager will be a game-changer.
One of my coaching clients went from program managing customer-signals data to building a customer-signals product that could scale to multiple teams. He delivered a bigger impact on his team and moved up in his career. What a win-win for him and his team! (learn more about my coaching at https://www.criya.site/pmnirvana)
Build a portfolio: Showcasing your passion and potential as a product manager is key, and building a portfolio is a fantastic way to do it. Whether it's the projects from your current or previous roles as a program manager or something you've worked on independently, like a side project or a hobby, creating a collection of your achievements speaks volumes. For instance, you could build a low/no-code product to help non-profits recruit volunteers or automate the billing process for a local small business.
Network with other product managers: Engage with other product managers who can share valuable insights and experiences with you. Attend events, meetups, webinars, and podcasts, or join online communities all focused on product management. And to get started, check out active forums like Product School, Product Tank, or Women in Product – they'll get you on the right track.
Seek feedback and learning opportunities: Seek feedback from your mentor, peers, managers, customers, users, engineers, designers, marketers, and all those amazing cross-functional teams. Feedback can come from data, metrics, experiments, and user testing too. Working on different types of products, industries, markets, customers, and challenges is another incredible way to enhance your learning.
Apply for internal or external product manager roles: Finally, when you feel ready and confident in your skills and portfolio as a product manager, you can start applying for internal or external product manager roles. You can leverage your network of contacts within your organization or industry to learn about open positions or opportunities.
After I switched from engineering, my first job resembled much like a technical program manager. I was tasked with an initiative to shard the database horizontally. Instead of functioning as a program manager, I asked hard ROI, feasibility, and risk questions. Eventually, the CTO agreed to pause the project. This helped me focus on finding and launching growth features for our product which helped me earn the trust of the leadership team as a product manager.
Start exposing your profile to product roles at LinkedIn, Indeed, or Glassdoor to assess your brand. When applying for product manager roles, make sure to highlight your relevant skills, experience, and achievements as a program manager and as a product manager. Also, prepare well for the interviews by researching the company, the product, and the customers, as well as practicing common product manager questions and scenarios. Here’s an action-packed resource to accelerate your resume-building and job application endeavors.
You're ready! With these insights and guidance, you have what it takes to shift from program management to product management effortlessly.
Transitioning from program manager to product manager is a challenging but rewarding career move. It requires you to learn new skills, take on new responsibilities, and demonstrate your value as a product manager. However, if you are passionate about creating products that solve real customer problems and delight users, you will find the transition worthwhile and fulfilling. I hope this blog post has given you some useful tips and insights on transitioning from program manager to product manager. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or contact me at pmnirvana.com. Thank you for reading, and good luck with your transition! 🚀