Moving from engineering to telecom product management

In high-tech industries like mobile communications and wider telecoms, engineering and product management work closely with each other. However, there are times, especially when the teams are involved in detailed solution discussions, the boundaries between product management and engineering can be hard to define clearly.

This can be encouraging for you if you currently work in engineering and are considering moving to product management. But, at the same time, if the boundaries are unclear, it can be challenging for an engineer in the telecom industry to change their mindset when they become product managers.

To move from engineering to product management, you need a mindset shift where your primary focus is the value you create, 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.

Motivation for moving from engineering to product management

There might be many reasons why an engineer may feel the need to move into product management as a career.

In the telecom industry, especially mobile communications, the complexity of the network and often the large size of engineering teams requires many engineers to focus on their specific solution features and not always get involved in the business discussions.

Some engineering roles, such as customer services, technology consulting, and pre-sales, can bring you closer to the customers and their challenges. Spending time with customers allows you to gain first-hand knowledge of the problems customers face daily.

While it is great to be in a position where you can help customers with their challenges, sometimes the solutions do not exist and require an investment from your company. That is where product management comes in.

Being in product management allows you to help your customers better by officially owning the problems that are relevant to your customers. As a product manager, you can lead the way by working with engineering teams to develop solutions that address your customers’ pain points.

Can product management be a right fit for an engineer?

Becoming a product manager is a personal preference, not necessarily an evolution of your engineering role. If you want to help your company focus on the right customer pain points and find solutions for them, then product management may be a good choice for you. However, if the “how” aspects of the solution interest you more, e.g. design, architecture etc., an engineering-focused role might be more suitable for you.

Product management is about taking ownership of a customer’s problem irrespective of how the solution or architecture might look like. When you take ownership of a customer problem, you work with the rest of the business, including engineering, finance, marketing, legal and other teams, to develop solutions that solve a particular customer problem.

Generally, in engineering roles, your focus is more “vertical” because you are expected to be the subject matter expert (SME) for a specific technology area. Therefore, you dive a lot deeper into the technical details like the architecture, network interfaces and protocols etc., than your non-technical colleagues.

On the other hand, in product management, a particular solution is only important if it solves the customer problem you want to address. You work with the relevant subject matter experts (SME) in the engineering teams to get the solutions developed.

You work with many other business stakeholders, including Finance, Legal, Procurement, Marketing, Customer Experience, etc., to get things done and solve the customer problem while making money for the company.

What is telecom product management for an engineer?

Generally, a product management role in the telecom industry can be marketing-focused, delivery-focused or somewhere between the two. For a marketing-focused role, a telecom background is not always necessary; however, for a delivery-focused role, a background in telecom engineering helps.

Within a telco such as a mobile network operator (MNO), engineering roles generally fall under the CTO (Chief Technical Officer) organisation, where your ultimate focus is the network, its associated challenges and future network strategy.

Depending on the organisation, the product management role may or may not fall under the CTO organisation. In some companies, it comes under a more business-focused organisation, e.g. CMO (Chief Marketing Officer).

It is likely that if a product management role falls under the CTO organisation, it may be more suitable for an engineer because it is more likely to be delivery-focused and may have a very close collaboration with the engineering teams.

The other side of the spectrum is a role within the CMO organisation which may be closer to being a product marketing manager where you work closely with the commercial teams. In roles like that, business strategy is very important and is always more of a focus than the network strategy.

How To Transition From Engineering To Product Management?

The telecom industry is technology-led, which is often reflected in many product management roles also. An engineering background, therefore, helps in grasping the technology concepts when defining new products and services. However, product management is about taking ownership of all aspects of products and solutions, even if you are not the expert.

As an engineer, you are involved in the development, operations and maintenance of a product to support the product teams. When engineers become product managers, they have to own the product and all the associated customer and business challenges. Let us now go through a list of things to be mindful of if you are an engineer considering moving into product management.

#What to doHow to do it
1Be more problem-led rather than more solution-ledProduct Managers build products, services and solutions, but you need to be problem-led as a product manager. Therefore, the solution that you get developed must always follow a problem and not the other way around.
2Familiarise yourself with some basic business terminologiesUse a reliable resource to understand some basic commercial and financial terminologies like value proposition, business case, revenues, depreciation, cost of sales, EBITDA, cash flow, cumulative cash flow, net present value (NPV), IRR (Internal Rate of Return) etc.
3Get involved in broader product discussions whenever possibleProduct Managers own their products and represent them in governance or board discussions. As an engineer, you can develop this skill by getting involved in meetings that focus on wider product discussions like product vision, strategy, roadmap etc.
4Be comfortable with technology and business audienceAs an engineer, it is natural to think about a product from a “how” perspective rather than a “why” viewpoint. When you focus on the”why” aspects, it becomes easier to work with the business audience because then you are “problem-led” rather than “solution-led”.
5Learn to make a distinction between features and benefitsWhen you come from an engineering background, it is not unusual to think of features and benefits in the same way. By focusing on the customer problem and asking “why” for every feature, you can make this important distinction when communicating with the business audience.
6Get some experience through job shadowingIf you already work with a product as an engineer, you can spend time with the existing product manager for that product to learn the business aspects. You can do this formally or informally through job shadowing or asking them to invite you to some of their business meetings for that particular product.
7Start your new role with a product you know wellIf you are an engineer who wants to become a product manager, then aim to start with a product you know well. That makes moving into a new role slightly easier because you can focus on learning product management rather than the product itself.
8Be comfortable with the lack of clarity and the unknownsAs an engineer, we look for specifics, whereas in product management, there are occasions when the specifics are not available. So it is OK to be OK with the unknowns. Being a product manager is like owning a business where you don’t always have 100% of the information available.
9Think like a parent of the product rather than a friendProduct Managers need to be able to take ownership of their products which is similar to being a parent. Like a parent, you need to take accountability for everything about your product, not just the fun parts.
— Table summarising how to transition from engineering into product management —

1 – Be more problem-led rather than more solution-led

When you work in engineering, your job revolves around the solution. However, when you work in product management, your key focus needs to be on customer or business problems that require you to be led by the problem rather than the solution.

It can be challenging for a new product manager from an engineering background to shift their focus from a solution-led approach to a problem-led approach. With a problem-led approach, a product manager works with engineering and other business stakeholders to find solutions that solve a particular customer problem or a set of customer and business problems.

Product management is about delivering value to the customer while making money for the business. Since all organisations must make money to do business, your company has to use its resources to identify and prioritise the customer problems that must be solved to deliver the best value to their customers and the business.

If a product does not solve a customer or business problem, it can be hard to convince your company to invest in it. Therefore, the “why” question must be answered when defining a solution for the customer.

For example, suppose you are an engineer who works with a mobile broadband solution currently based on a 4G LTE broadband router. If you are solution-led, you may naturally think upgrading to the next generation 5G broadband router is the best idea in the world. However, as a product manager, you always start with the problem, i.e. are our existing customers struggling with their mobile broadband speeds or are they happy with the existing solution?

2 – Familiarise yourself with some basic business terminologies

Even before you move into product management, you can make your job interviews and the transition easier by acquainting yourself with basic business terminologies like the business case, value proposition, revenues, ARPU, OPEX, CAPEX, EBITDA, depreciation, payback period, cash flow, NPV and IRR etc.

As an engineer, you may not have a lot of interaction with the financial statements or business terminologies. A great start to your product management journey is to familiarise yourself with some basic terminologies used by commercial and finance teams. The terms value proposition and business case are among the top ones for a product manager to understand fully.

In addition, it is important to be conversant with some financial terms like revenues, ARPU (Average Revenue Per User), cost of sales, EBITDA (Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation), cash flow, cumulative cash flow, depreciation for hardware and software, OPEX (Operational Expenditures), CAPEX (Capital Expenditures), payback period, net present value (NVP), internal rate of return (IRR) etc.

Familiarising yourself with the Income Statement for a company can give you a quick start because business cases follow a similar format. In addition, using a reliable resource like Investopedia can help with financial terminologies. But let us cover some of the basic terminologies here. If you just want quick definitions, refer to our abbreviations and acronyms page.

Revenue is the money generated by a product or service through its sales within a specified period. So, for example, if your product is a mobile broadband SIM where you charge an average tariff price of £10 per user per month, your average revenue per user (ARPU) will be £10. If you have 100k users who pay this price each month, your annual revenue will be £10 x 12 x 100k = £12 million.

This is a very simplified example, and usually, within a mobile operator, the company revenue is built up of many things, including hardware, third-party products, services etc., to name a few. Generally, it is not a straightforward exercise to get hold of the exact figures for your particular product.

The document, usually a spreadsheet supported by PowerPoint presentations, that calculates the revenues, costs (OPEX and CAPEX), EBITDA, cash flow, payback period, NPV etc., is the business case. A business case is a financial justification for investing in your product. Every product has a business case, which is a financial statement similar to an Income Statement showing the projected revenues, costs and other metrics over a period of at least three years.

When you take your business case to the relevant investment board in your company, financial metrics like NPV, payback period, and IRR of your product are compared with other products to see which products your company would like to invest in.

The value proposition of a product is the main problem it solves for its ideal customers. Value proposition focuses on the primary problem (pain point) of the customer that a solution addresses. On the other hand, customer benefits are a bit wider because they can include all the good things the product can do for the customer.

3 – Get involved in broader product discussions

In your current role as an engineer, look for any opportunities to get involved in broader product discussions on product vision, strategy, roadmap, business case and release plans etc. That way, you can gain a well-rounded knowledge of the product and be seen as someone who understands the business.

When you have acquired some knowledge of the business side of things, it becomes easier to study a product not only from a technical viewpoint, as engineers already do but also from a commercial and financial viewpoint. By collaborating with the relevant product manager, you may also join decision-making meetings for the product to observe the kind of questions that are asked frequently.

Exposure to such meetings can give you the confidence to answer any product-related questions with the product manager’s permission. However, it is essential to highlight that if you speak on behalf of the product on anything that is not within your remit, it must always be done in alignment with the relevant product management team who are accountable for the product.

4 – Be comfortable with technology and business audience

As part of your journey to becoming a product manager or when you start as a product manager, you can use your well-rounded product knowledge to engage in discussions with various key stakeholders from multiple departments, including finance, marketing, legal, procurement etc.

In product management, you work with various stakeholders, including engineering, finance, marketing, legal, supply chain, and others. Each department in business has a certain mindset and work style, so, naturally, you may not feel at ease straight away in a product management role.

It may even feel slightly intimidating initially, but with experience, it becomes more manageable, and you start enjoying it. If you move into product management from engineering, it may be natural for you 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.

5 – Learn to make a distinction between features and benefits

Engineering is generally feature-led, so it is important to distinguish between features and benefits for your discussions with the business audience. A feature is a subset and part of your product, whereas a benefit is a positive value your product delivers to the customer.

It is common for someone from an engineering background to perceive product features and product benefits in a similar way. However, when you are in a meeting with a predominantly business audience, it is crucial to be able to differentiate features from benefits. This allows you to answer one of the most critical questions you get as a product manager “why should we invest in this feature or product?”.

The benefits of a product can be broken down into two categories: customer benefits and business benefits. For your feature or product to be successful, ideally, you always want it to deliver a customer benefit, but in some cases, you proceed with a product or feature to achieve particular business objectives that are important for the long-term sustainability of the product.

For example, suppose you work as a product manager within a mobile operator and product-manage a solution that offers video & image compression in mobile networks. Suppose one of the features of this product is JPEG image compression. In that case, a customer benefit can be something like “reducing your monthly mobile data consumption”, and a business benefit for the mobile operator can be something like “improving network capacity by reducing network load”.

6 – Get some experience through job shadowing

You can voluntarily pursue any job shadowing opportunities within the product management department of your current employer. That way, you can work with an existing product manager within your organisation to gain some practical experience through observation.

If you work closely with the product management teams within your engineering role, an excellent way to get real-life experience is to consider a voluntary job shadowing opportunity. You can contact a friendly product manager within your organisation, ideally, for a product you already know and check whether you can spend some time with them. Depending on how job shadowing works in your company, you may need to first speak with your line manager.

7 – Start your new role with a product you know well

When moving from engineering to product management, your smoothest option is to become a product manager for a product you already know well. That way, the learning curve in your new role will focus on the product management function rather than the product itself.

For example, suppose you have some experience working within an engineering team for mobile broadband service. When you apply for a product manager opportunity for this particular product, you may have a better chance of getting the job than if you were to apply for a completely new product. It is even better if the job is within your existing company because you may already know the right people, and it is generally easier to transition into a new job function within your current company.

8 – Be comfortable with the lack of clarity and the unknowns

In a product management role, especially for new or upcoming products, the decision-making is often based on competitor research, insights from the market and potential customers, discussions with sales teams etc. There are usually a lot of unknowns because factual information is not always available.

When you work in engineering in high-tech industries like telecoms, you are expected to do things in a particular way. As an engineer, when you design, support or implement a solution, you must follow the exact specifications in most cases. As a result, there is always a right answer in technology, and if something doesn’t match the right answer, then it is the wrong answer.

Product management involves a lot of decision-making, and sometimes, there isn’t a lot of clarity available. While we all prefer to make decisions based on concrete evidence, there are instances when you have to go with intuition or reasonable assumptions.

9 – Think like a parent of the product rather than a friend

The concept of product ownership is similar to how a parent takes care of their kids. It is a good practical way to think about your product when you start your role as a product manager. If you are not a parent, think about a pet you own or your car or bike where you are not the expert but still accountable.

Moving from engineering to product management requires a mindset shift. As a product manager, you are the owner of the product, and you need to be able to feel comfortable with that responsibility.

An excellent way to have this mindset is to think like a parent or guardian of the product. Just like a parent is responsible for the development and performance of their children, a product manager is responsible for how their product performs.

A product manager is accountable for the performance of their product. However, that does not necessarily mean that you are directly responsible for the profit and loss of the product because that responsibility depends on your seniority level and the size of your organisation.

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