Should I transition from Program Manager to Product Manager?

I’ve been asked this question in a mentoring capacity a number of times by Program Managers or Analysts that are in a transitional career stage, who’ve mastered their current scope/role and are curious about where they could grow their influence. They’d worked with Product Managers before, so they got a taste of Product as a bridge to tech – but they weren’t sure what it could do to progress their long term career goals and if it was right for them. 

I’ve been working in Tech since 2010, evolving my roles from Business Analyst, Project Manager, Program Manager and now Product Manager. But this wasn’t a linear path and I wasn’t always sure I wanted to direct my career towards Product. In the early stages of being a Program Manager, I couldn’t see myself “Owning” the end to end vision – and the ideation process completely terrified me (how could I possibly come up with new ideas for tech products?!). But as I continued growing confidence, I realized moving into Product was a natural progression for me. I’ll walk you through some of the distinguishing elements that differentiated Program vs Product in my experience. These insights are specific to my journey, so feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!

Influencing the Customer Experience

There’s nothing like seeing your ideas come to life on the website and hearing positive customer testimonials about your features! This is by far the best part of working in Product. That being said, the feature development process can be brutal. Unless you’re on a fast track project – it’s unlikely your idea for a new feature will manifest quickly. It takes significant time to identify customer needs, validate those, rank them against one another, scope the tech effort, design the tech solution, execute the engineering work, test the treatment and reach a conclusion about the customer impact to ultimately launch an idea. Despite the tediousness, it’s so much fun to develop features from scratch and eventually see them out in the wild. If you like the idea of showcasing your work to friends and family, consider extending your Program experience into the product space. The strength you’ve developed in process improvement, communication and execution will take you a long way. 

Having a seat at the table with Engineering teams

If you haven’t worked with Engineering teams before, there can be a pretty sharp learning curve. First, their intake and prioritization process is quite different from business teams due to most teams using Agile/Scrum – which is basically a fancy way of breaking down work and empowering engineers to reach productivity targets. From the outside, the process can feel like a barrier to getting things done but shifting from Program to Product gives you a voice to influence their scope of work. Where a Program Manager would identify operational requirements to drive efficiency or reduce defects, the Product Manager would take that feedback and weave it into a larger narrative (the Roadmap) and share it with the engineering team for scoping and prioritization. There’s something very empowering about not only identifying needs and requirements but also having a seat at the table to allocate resources to solve that problem. It goes without saying that you can get a lot more done when you have a team supporting you. But it’s not as simple as acting as the messenger on behalf of business stakeholders and customers – the Product Manager is a representative of collective needs across the business and has the job of stack ranking those needs against each other to maximize output or support a longer term strategy. The result is a Roadmap that ultimately achieves a step-up in customer experience while reducing operational paper-cuts for internal teams.

Owning a Long Term Vision

I’ve held 3 Program Manager roles at 2 companies. The common thread among my experiences is that I was executing a vision defined by someone else. Whether my objectives came top down from leadership or from an adjacent product team, I was the operations for a Roadmap conceived by someone other than me. This can be a great way to learn the ropes if you’re new to feature development and you can achieve some big wins by implementing, automating and scaling processes and tools. However when it comes to developing a long term vision, that’s where Program starts to evolve into Product. If your brain works like mine, you find it hard to hold back when you have ideas. And when you’re working in a problem space for long enough, those ideas grow in scope into something that affects not just you and your team but a broader group of stakeholders or even external customers. If you have an entrepreneurial mindset, you have a yearning desire to act on those ideas more freely to deliver long term positive outcomes. That’s a good indication Product might be right for you.

If you’re considering transitioning from Program to Product, I hope these insights helped you. Or if you had completely different journey making the decision to move to a product role, I’d love to hear from you!

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