When I interviewed for a technical product manager’s position with my current employer I was asked if my background managing a low-power wireless networking stack for embedded devices with 128K of flash would be transferrable and appropriate for a company who provides educational software sold to school districts and running on large enterprise-scale systems in the cloud. I said ‘sure’ it can.
My argument ran that a good C engineer could become a good Java engineer. The good in the engineer does not come from his knowledge of a particular programming language but rather from his aptitude for abstract thinking, ability to decompose problems and to work as part of a team. A good product manager is a good product manager. Whatever the product vision is (and whatever the product is) it needs to be articulated in simple terms to audiences internal and external, it needs to be launched, its performance and metrics tracked; it must be squared against competition and it must be decomposed into a set of requirements and priorities for the engineering.
Admittedly, in making this argument then I put my own interests ahead of the truth. I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t worry that once I transitioned into this new universe there would be a huge learning curve to overcome, much like there is a huge learning curve to overcome in going from C to Java. I also knew that the chances of this hypothetical C developer being hired by a Java shop were infinitesimally small. “How much better were my chances”, I wondered?
Whether through the sheer powers of elocution or luck, the chances turned out to be much better indeed. I was hired, and the transition I worried about for myself has gone off without a hitch. I’ve now been in my new role for 6 months, and I don’t feel particularly disadvantaged by my background to be in this very different domain. And that’s the essence of my lament…
Is there something intangible about a market that my 5 years of experience failed to surface? If I’d been in embedded for 10 years, would I be less capable of making this transition or is it all ultimately the same stuff? Are we, the product managers, just delusional about our so-called vertical expertise and are our skills more interchangeable than we care to admit?
If this is indeed the case, count me disappointed. It means that either we can never become exceptionally good or that there is just isn’t that much that’s specific to any one product. While there is still no limit to how much experience and expertise we can accumulate, would this observation imply that it doesn’t matter where we do it or whether we hop across multiple domains in the process?