What IS my job, anyway?
October 10, 2022 10:12 AM   Subscribe

I have a job title and employment history that seems to imply that I should be a great computer programmer. My job is actually maybe only 10% writing and reviewing code, and 90% synthesizing complex information, defining specifications for product features, negotiating said specifications with various uncooperative groups, and preparing really good presentations about all of the above. If I never want to sit through a whiteboard coding interview ever again, what kinds of jobs could I be looking for, and how can I tailor my resume/cover letter toward them?

My degree (undergraduate and graduate) is in a physical engineering discipline, not CS. I know a lot of people with similar backgrounds have made the transition to pure software engineering and really love it, but all signs suggest it is not for me, in the long term.

Luckily for me, my current job does value my skills - to generalize wildly, my group functions as a bridge between the super-concrete hardware engineering groups vs the head-in-the-clouds design groups, and our work is to break down a nebulous problem into well-defined, measurable chunks that can then be presented to upper management, negotiated and/or solved. It turns out I am quite good at this, but when looking for a new job it's certainly more difficult to articulate on a resume than "knows C++"! What kinds of jobs or job titles should I be searching for, and how can I emphasize these strengths in my application?
posted by btfreek to Work & Money (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You are a combination of a product manager and a systems analyst, who can code. Believe me, that's pretty freaking valuable for most companies that write software.

To put it another way, you have technical skills, plus analysis skills, plus people skills. Most people can do one of those things well, some can do two of those things well, few can do all three well. I'd absolutely emphasis the "technical x people" skills more than anything, those people are like gold dust (I work in IT/Dev arenas, we love people like you).
posted by underclocked at 10:22 AM on October 10, 2022 [22 favorites]

I'd look for positions with titles like director or senior director not technical ones.
posted by emd3737 at 10:26 AM on October 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Product manager, product owner.
posted by bleep at 10:28 AM on October 10, 2022 [5 favorites]

Sounds like a Product Manager.
posted by amaire at 10:30 AM on October 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

Yes, I agree with Product Manager as a possibility, but be aware that companies define this job wildly differently from each other (this goes for most of the other "PM" roles too: project manager, program manager, technical program manager, technical project manager, etc.). I've worked in a lot of tech companies, and your set of skills could potentially fit into any of these job titles depending on how they define it and what you actually want to focus on. In your shoes, I'd search across this entire set of titles and carefully read the job descriptions to find the ones that are actually a good fit.

That said, the big name tech companies prize (and pay very well) Product Managers who can code, so if that's something you're interested in, I'd take a look there. Watch out for other companies that make Product Managers (or often "Product Owners") glorified data entry people who sit in Jira all day long (unless that's what you want to do).

I'd only recommend Director and Senior Director if you are good at and enjoy people management and sitting in meetings. I say this as someone who has had pretty much all of the titles being discussed here.
posted by primethyme at 10:59 AM on October 10, 2022 [9 favorites]

Sorry (to not abuse the edit window), on re-read, I should clarify. Most of these jobs will involve a lot of sitting in meetings. But leadership positions will involve almost exclusively meetings, and those meetings will be usually be much more removed from the nuts and bolts of the work. Some people like that. I do not.
posted by primethyme at 11:01 AM on October 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Product Manager for sure. Could also be a technical business analyst - that may get you somewhat more junior roles but it depends a bit on the company.
posted by crocomancer at 11:27 AM on October 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think you might also be what people are calling a Staff Engineer these days! That has all of the fun of spending your days getting alignment from random teams without the same amount of dealing Gantt chart. These roles often including a small coding interview, but (in my experience) we’ll basically ignore the result for somebody who is going to be a systems thinker and isn’t spending the majority of their time coding.
posted by Brassica oleracea at 11:33 AM on October 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Cool, it's rare that an AskMe question I ask has such a definitive consensus around it! Interesting to hear about "product managers who code" - I guess that is perhaps what I am right now? (I do in fact work for a big name tech company, but AFAIK we have no defined product management role, they just throw it all at the engineers to sort out amongst ourselves while the program managers tweak their gantt charts 🙃)

Would I have a decent shot at just applying to product manager roles as is, or would some sort of course/cert help? I am still fairly early career, 5-ish years out of school (but officially a "Senior Blah Engineer" because title inflation)
posted by btfreek at 11:50 AM on October 10, 2022

I would just apply. I am not aware of any product management courses that have credibility (and certainly no certifications). The "product management" training I have seen (admittedly not a lot) seem to be about either project management but they want to make it sound more glamorous, or are about Agile, which is... well, Agile. I am not aware of any Product Manager I've worked with who had formal education in it.

It's probably easier to shift to Product within your existing company than to do it as part of a company change, but if you can compellingly pitch why that's what you've been doing all along, you could probably make it work.
posted by primethyme at 12:02 PM on October 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

my company specifically seeks out PMs who are above average in technical skill/former SWEs, and at a former company the PMs in certain areas also had to be able to write a little SQL code themselves, so that kind of profile is not unheard of in product and is a niche at certain places. These companies would not care about PM certs, they want evidence that you already did PM-like things in your current role so just be very prepared to give examples or present a case study of that and really target places looking for this specific kind of technical PM instead of the human ticket factory kind ;)
posted by slow graffiti at 12:20 PM on October 10, 2022

I have a friend who is a civil engineer, mainly large specialist buildings, her speciality is helping all the other disciplines communicate across silos as well as thinking well outside the box (or the building). Very few engineers (of any kind) can do this. Her company headhunts people with potential for this skill or trait. IDK if this is helpful for your case.
posted by unearthed at 12:30 PM on October 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

I agree with the consensus that you should look at product management. I think you should look especially closesly at product management on "platform" teams. These are the teams that build and operate the platforms (tools, systems) on which the other engineers rely. Their products are therefore highly technical, and their customers are internal engineers, which is where your background as someone who can code might be valuable.
posted by caek at 12:39 PM on October 10, 2022 [7 favorites]

I haven't read all the answers here but the things that spring to mind immediately are Scrum Master and Project Manager. There are senior roles for both of these and they are really common transitions.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:04 PM on October 10, 2022

You sound like a Technical Product Manager. In some companies you could be a Business Analyst, the job description will give you an idea of whether it's a senior or junior role (typically the years of experience expected, and mention of interaction with upper management, etc.).

There's some fuzziness regarding the title of Product Manager, some companies may actually expect you to be a project manager and just track project progress via Jira and status calls, while some companies may expect you to come up and make a case for new markets for the product, or a new product altogether.

Check out some of the free videos in Exponent's YouTube channel:
What does a product manager do all day?
Top 10 product manager interview questions
posted by needled at 1:06 PM on October 10, 2022

"Technical Product Manager" is the word for a product manager looking after a platform or an API , or something like that where the customers are engineers.

There are three ways I know of to get the title for the first time if you're struggling to get hired because you don't already have the title.

1. Get a job in Engineering for a company that also has the Product discipline, then move sideways.
2. Look for jobs in some very specific vertical that you're unusually knowledgeable about, for example if you're a former customer of their specialist product
3. Put "Product Manager" on your CV anyway and put "formal job title: senior engineer" or whatever, underneath

You probably need to demonstrate at interview that you're good at taking responsibility and getting stuff done, identifying problems to solve rather than waiting to be told, dealing with disagreements and assertive stakeholders, and having some understanding of the commercial context that your product and company operate within. Honestly if you're really good at this stuff people are likely to bite your arm off. It's worth interviewing them back quite assertively to make sure the job isn't some thinly disguised project management spreadsheet wrangling or business analysis, unless that's something you want.

You don't need a cert but you might want to go read some Teresa Torres and Marty Cagan to get the general zeitgeist (which your employer may cheerfully ignore but still like to discuss at interview).
posted by quacks like a duck at 1:15 PM on October 10, 2022 [4 favorites]

Assuming you have a title like Senior Software Engineer or higher, all these product management roles almost certainly make (significantly) less money than you do. Business analysts also. You may be a little stuck if you like your salary, which honestly is unfortunate because I bet you easily provide plenty of value compared to your salary doing what you do.

You could always take the engineering interviews and hope to impress with your skills even if you underwhelm on the coding side. I know if I were the interviewer it wouldn't bother me too much if I were looking for a senior or architect position. But it is probably going to be an uphill battle. You could just get really good at explaining this and interview a lot until you got lucky and found someone appreciative of your skills.

If I had to bet though, you're going to get pigeonholed and expected to be a developer unless you're willing to take less money or go into management.
posted by cmm at 3:40 PM on October 10, 2022

It sounds like Business Analyst is most of what you've been doing, but with the addition of genuine coding skills. As others have mentioned, this is a goldmine for many companies. Maybe describe yourself as Senior Business Analyst or I also think Technical Product Manager fits.
posted by dg at 3:43 PM on October 10, 2022

Assuming you have a title like Senior Software Engineer or higher, all these product management roles almost certainly make (significantly) less money than you do.

This surely varies by company, but having worked as a senior and above software engineer as well as a product person at major brand name tech companies, this is not accurate as a blanket statment. Product manager compensation in these companies is vastly higher than a "business analyst" in any company that would have that role in my experience (I personally consider the existence of that title in a company to be a bit of a yellow flag, but again all these things can vary wildly).

I made the same or more as a similarly-leveled PM as a software engineer.
posted by primethyme at 3:54 PM on October 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

TPM or Business Analyst
posted by matildaben at 6:31 PM on October 10, 2022

Ooh, you are me! I call myself a technical product manager.
posted by rockindata at 3:16 AM on October 11, 2022

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