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Transitioning from Front-End Development into Product Management

Transitioning from Front-End Development into Product Management

In reality, Product Management is a relatively new career, which means that many individuals taking up the profession won’t have followed a well-worn learning and development path.

Instead, those starting to develop their Product Management careers will likely be transitioning from a related career and learning on the job.

The Product Management Festival runs an annual survey into Product Management trends, and when it comes to transitioning into this area, the top three prior roles are:

  1. Project Manager
  2. Business Analyst
  3. Software Engineer

This means that if you’re currently a front-end developer looking to make the transition, you’re not alone. Many others have made the leap across the disciplines, and you can do the same.

Product skills in front-end developers

There are two main reasons that there are considerable numbers of front-end developers making the transition into Product Management:

  1. Their proximity to product roles
  2. The skills that are shared between the roles

What do we mean by proximity to product roles?

It is as simple as the fact that front-end developers work closely with Product Management teams. This proximity means that individuals can closely observe the role of a product manager, understand and learn what’s required, and then become aware of opportunities that might be available.

When it comes to shared skills, these tend to fall into the following areas:

  • Confidence with system interactions
  • Understanding of the need for a good user experience
  • Being task driven
  • Determining solutions to problems
  • Learning and adapting
  • Paying attention to detail

Due to the nature of front-end development tasks, there is a closeness to what the end user actually sees and interacts with, giving insight into the kind of work needing to be defined by product managers.

In addition, the ever-changing technologies and the need to be very precise on deliverables allow front-end developers to be prepared for regular adaptation to new requirements and then define what these requirements are.

Product skills gaps in front-end developers

However, as the two roles are distinctly different, a number of skills gaps may also appear. Of course, these are generalizations, and some developers may well have these skills as well:

  • Managing stakeholder relationships
  • Communication with different audiences
  • Understanding the overall business needs
  • Workload prioritization
  • Thinking strategically rather than operationally, not devising the solution.

In development roles, there is less exposure to the stakeholders who drive the work to be done until perhaps quite late in the process, when requirements are well defined, and the need to balance one stakeholder’s needs against another has long gone.

Many believe that a product manager’s core power is communication: Communicating what we need to achieve and why to a variety of audiences, each of whom might have a different level of understanding and a different expectation of what they want out of the communication.

One day might involve communicating with engineering teams, designers, business users, senior managers, and end-users, so communicating to different audiences in both written and verbal ways is key to the product manager’s success.

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Filling in product skills gaps

Once a skills gap has been identified, the next step is to determine how this can be filled, and the good news is that this can be done in numerous ways.

For example, there are many ways in which to fill skills gaps, many of which aren’t too far from your current activities, including:

  • Taking on the role of scrum master — which can assist with exposure to managing stakeholders and prioritization of workloads
  • Taking on a support role — which will allow closer proximity to the user and the needs of the business
  • Getting involved in user research — which will expose you to understanding customer needs and diving down to the real challenges being faced

The most important thing to get started with any of these additional activities is to speak to others in the business and ask for these opportunities. If you don’t tell people what you want, they can’t help you get there.

In addition, as with any new subject, undertaking some direct learning will be vital to understanding some of the key principles and activities of the new role.

The good news is that when it comes to the world of Product Management, there are ample sources of information on how you can go about this role, including:

  • Product meet-up groups where you can listen to talk from product experts (for example, Product Tank)
  • Online videos, including historical product meet-up talks (for example, Product School)
  • Community groups in services like Slack (for example, Mind The Product)
  • Blogs from both individuals who have been through the process to some of the leading product-focused organizations (for example, Roman Pichler)

Taking your first steps into Product Management

Of course, as well as these activities that help fill in some skills gaps, you can of course dive directly into Product Management itself.

For this, the easiest place to start is by supporting your current product team with their activities.

Show an interest in their processes, ask questions, and start to think like a product manager when undertaking your own allocated front-end tasks.

How will you measure the success of the work that you’ve been asked to do? How can you report that back to the business? Is this work going to solve the problem that’s been raised?

The more you can demonstrate Product Management traits, the easier it is for the product to see you as a potential product manager.

Most people get their first product role by transitioning within their organization to be on the lookout for opportunities.

Applying for your first product role

Once you’re ready to apply for your first Product Management role, the challenge is that a recruiter will be looking for a candidate with experience, and you won’t yet have ‘product manager’ in any of your work experience.

Of course, this makes it challenging, but your task is to make writing your CV or LinkedIn profile a Product Management task.

Put yourself in your customer’s mind (i.e., the recruiter). What outcome are they hoping to achieve? You then work back to ensure that your profile starts to deliver on these outcomes.

This means you bring forward all of the Product Management skills and experience you’ve developed in your front-end roles and push back the technicalities of the front-end languages you can write.

Speak more about user experience, data analysis, and communication with different stakeholder groups and less about JavaScript libraries and React gesture animations.

You then gather feedback, learn, and adapt until your profile ticks all the boxes that a recruiter needs.

It’s possible to do. Others have done it in the past, so there’s no reason why you can do it too.

A TIP FROM THE EDITOR: For more on management concerns, do not miss our Breaking Down Engineering Silos article, on a closely related topic.

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