Moving from engineering to product management in telecom

Making a change in your career trajectory can be intimidating, especially if you move into an area that is outside of your comfort zone. While there are various types of moves you can make, the more significant ones are those that require you to change your entire mindset. Transitioning from an engineering role into product management in a fast-evolving industry like telecommunications is one such move. However, it is not unusual for an engineering professional to move to a product management role in the telecom industry.

To move from engineering to product management, you need a mindset shift where your primary focus is the value you create and not the technical solution. You need to take ownership of the customer problem so you can work on all product aspects including business and technology to define solutions.

In mobile communications, where solutions depend on the network capabilities, many product managers have to stay close to technology, so an engineering background helps. If you are from a technical background and looking for a career in product management, this post can provide you with some basic information to get started.

Motivation for moving from engineering to product management

There might be many reasons why you may feel the need to take the product management route in your career. In the telecom industry, especially mobile communications, the complexity of the network and the size of the business can make most engineers very solution-oriented. However, some engineering roles, such as customer services, consulting, and sales, bring you closer to the customer and their day-to-day problems. When you spend time with the customer, you are usually the one with first-hand knowledge of customer problems. However, being in a position where you understand the customer problem but cannot solve them can be frustrating. Of course, you can always talk to the product management and raise a feature request, but that is not satisfactory for everyone. Leading the way to solve customer problems requires ownership which is what product management allows you to do. Therefore, empathising with the customer problem is one of the most fundamental traits in a product manager.

The focus on value for customer and business

Product management focuses on the value that is delivered to the customer whilst making money for the business. That requires a product manager to focus on the customer problem and create solutions that solve the problem. But since all businesses must make money to do business, your company has to use its limited resources to focus on those customer problems that make the most significant difference for the customer and business. If a product does not solve a customer problem, it can be hard to sell it, which means the overall value it generates for the business is low. Therefore, the “Why” question must be answered when defining a customer solution so that value of the solution can be the main focus. The term ‘value proposition’, which focuses on this exact point, is commonly used in product management and marketing. The value proposition of a product is the main problem the product solves for its ideal customers. Customer benefits and value proposition have similarities, but they are not the same. For example, suppose you are product managing a 5G mobile broadband router; its value proposition is high-speed wireless internet connectivity without a dependency on a fibre line. The fact that you can take the router to different rooms within the house is a crucial customer benefit but not the value proposition. Value proposition focuses on the primary pain point of the customer that a solution solves. While value proposition is about the customer value, the value a product adds to your business is also significant. If your product does not add substantial value to its overall business, its existence within the company portfolio can be challenged.

How can an engineer become a product manager?

Product management is about taking ownership of products and solutions even if you are not an expert. The telecom industry is technology-led, and therefore an engineering background helps get a better grasp of the underlying technologies when defining new products and services. As an engineer, you are involved in the development, operations and support of a product on behalf of a product team. However, when an engineer becomes a product manager, they have to own the product and all the customer and business challenges associated with it. Product management is about the customer problem and the solution developed to solve those problems. The least disruptive way of switching from an engineering to a product manager role is if you make this move for a product that you already know well. For example, suppose you have a lot of experience working with a mobile video optimisation platform in an engineering capacity. In that case, you may find the transition to a product manager role for this platform easier. That is because you may already be familiar with all the customer problems this platform solves, and you may also have seen the roadmap and plans for this product before.

Commercial vs Technical product management

While being from an engineering background has its benefits, it does not mean that people can’t come into product management from other professions. Depending on the type of product management role, in some cases, it may be easier for a company to hire someone more skilled on the commercial and stakeholder management side. Look at this dedicated post to find out about the different types of product manager roles. Irrespective of the job titles, product management roles are either more inclined towards the commercial aspects of a product or the delivery aspect. In some cases, there are very clear definitions, e.g. technical product manager with a focus on delivery and product marketing manager with a focus on commercial aspects. If we take the example of the mobile communications industry, the role type depends on who your customers are and what their challenges are. For example, suppose you are product managing an OSS/BSS Solution for a network equipment vendor like Ericsson. In that case, your customers will be the CTO (Chief Technical Officer) organisation within a mobile operator which means the audience you are selling to are engineers. In that case, you can expect your customers to be mainly delivery focused. Other than the pricing negotiations, you may not have to deal with many commercial areas like value proposition and strategic fit etc. On the other hand, if you are product managing a consumer solution, e.g. a signal booster (femtocell) for a mobile operator, your customers are likely to be less technical. Therefore, you may have to work closely with your commercial teams (e.g. proposition managers) to make sure the pricing, value proposition, promotional campaigns etc., are just right. That may require you to have a good understanding of the commercial teams so that you can work with them to give the desired results to your employer.

Finding the right balance

It is common for us to stay within our comfort zone unless challenged to get out of it. If you move into a product management team from engineering, it may be natural to enjoy the technology side of things a bit more. You may get into detailed discussions with your engineering counterparts on the nitty-gritty of the solution and may feel great about it. But finding the right balance is really important so that you don’t miss out on the other essential aspects of product management, including the overall business strategy, business model/cases, legal aspects, marketing communication, etc. People who join product management from Finance backgrounds tend to spend a lot of time on business cases and search for financial company data before making decisions. Product management role is pivotal to any organisation. It requires a balanced approach where you work with the relevant stakeholders to get the necessary outputs from them whilst also focusing on your own output.

Product requirements

One of the never-ending discussions between technology and product management teams in large organisations is regarding the product requirements. Product requirements are captured in various documents by product managers (e.g. PRD, BRD, MRS, BRS etc.), and these requirements are sent out to the technology teams who are the recipients of this information. So as a former engineer, when you join a product manager role, your mindset has to change, and you have to position yourself as the sender of the requirements rather than the recipient. The challenge here is that you are closer to the solution as a recipient, and as the originator of the requirements, you are closer to the customer problem. In product management, if you have 50-70% of data available to support a particular product requirement, you may be in a position to go ahead based on your intuition. In technology, intuition is not generally the way to do things because decisions are based on accurate data. It would help if you were mindful of this when you get into a product manager role.

What do product managers do all day?

This is a big question and worth a separate post but let’s cover some of the essential critical points in this section. Product managers spend their time working with other stakeholders within the business to define products and services that solve customer problems. As a result, product managers spend a lot of time meeting other people in many companies. For example, suppose a new product has been defined and being delivered. In that case, it is common for a product manager to attend many regular project meetings to ensure that the delivery of all the product requirements is on track. There is no such thing as a perfect product or perfect launch in real life, which means that as a product manager, you spend a lot of time prioritising and reprioritising the requirements. Product managers own the product and manage the roadmap for the product’s future development.

Telecommunications is a mature industry, and many products and services rely on existing or evolving technologies. The benefit of that is that the customer value for many products and services is not too hard to establish. As a result, product managers in many telecom companies spend more time on the business justification, which requires creating business cases and getting the buy-in from other stakeholders for moving things forward. When you have to define a new product or service, the ideal trait required in a product manager is the ability to take the initiative and drive the discussion until something tangible comes out of it.

Product managing a service

A product manager role is not limited to physical products only, and many product management positions look after the introduction and lifecycle management of a service. While product managing a physical product is more tangible because it is very visual, managing service can be challenging initially. For example, when I first started my product manager position, I had to own and manage the lifecycle of a complex service dealing with radio network testing. The service had elements of consulting and outsourcing, and at the same time, it also fell in the category of software-based tools, which made the overall service hard to manage for a new product manager. The key to managing a service is to know exactly who the service is for (primary customer) and what is the ideal value proposition of the service. Just knowing what the service can deliver today is not good enough. You need to understand the long-term business need that is driving the evolution of that service.

New vs. existing products

Launching a new product is an outstanding achievement, and it feels like the hard part is done; however, that is where many products struggle. Moreover, launching a new product is just a start where the actual product journey begins. The day-to-day tasks for maintaining and evolving a product or service are a big piece of work and must be addressed before launching the product. That requires building the necessary processes to provide customer support, introduce new features, fix bugs within the product, to name a few. For products that involve software, this is where the Agile methodologies can help to continuously evolve the product in sprints rather than one big launch.

Capability vs usability

It is easier to understand the product capability when you come from an engineering background. For example, let’s suppose you join a new product manager role at a mobile operator where your job is to introduce a new 5G based mobile broadband router. The capability side of this role requires you to manage technical enablers like having a 5G chipset inside the router so that it can connect to the 5G network. But the usability aspect will require you to understand the journey that a customer (user) may have to go through to set this router up and start using it. For example, the router may involve using an app or website to enable WiFi connectivity (SSID and password) through the 5G router. The app, website and WiFi are all capabilities, but the user journey and experience for each defines the usability aspects. The usability here can be things like how a customer finds the app in the app store, do they need a QR code, or do they have to type the app name manually in the app search etc.

Stakeholder alignment

Product management is not a one-person show, and you need to be able to work with many other stakeholders in the business to get things done. As an engineer, you generally have the answers to the problems. In some engineering roles, depending on your seniority level, you can pretty much finish the job independently without having to instigate a two-way conversation with others. That being said, it is not the case for all products and services. For example, let’s suppose you work as an engineer at a mobile operator focusing on video quality performance in the mobile network. You may have to capture and distribute network KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) to a wide range of stakeholders in that role. You don’t necessarily have to go to others for help, and you may be able to access the network directly to do the job. In product management, you have the ownership of the product, and even if you know how to do all things, you still need to align with stakeholders responsible for different areas of the business. For example, the business case for your product is your job, but the Finance team has to say “yes” to make the business case work.

The processes

In product management, especially in large organisations, you work with many processes, and it isn’t uncommon to find a process for almost everything you do. Processes define how to do certain things within an organisation in the best possible way. Ideally, processes can make the work more efficient and aligned with company needs. However, sometimes there are too many processes that can slow things down. It can feel like running a laundry machine for hours to wash a pair of socks in those situations. But refining the processes is continuous in most organisations to make things better for the organisation and the employees.

Conclusion

In summary:

  1. Moving from an engineering to a product management role requires a mindset shift. You need to be able to take ownership of the products and solutions even if you are not an expert. You represent the customer and are the originator of the requirements rather than a recipient.
  2. As a former engineer, you may find the technology side of product management more comfortable but finding the right balance is important to make sure you don’t miss other important aspects of product management including the overall strategy.
  3. Product management is about focusing on the value that is delivered to the customer and business.
  4. Product management roles are either more inclined towards the commercial aspects of a product or delivery.
  5. The usability aspect of the product is as important as the capability.

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