by Sari Harrison
My path from software engineering to product management
And some advice on how to do it yourself
I am often asked how to make the move to product management. By software engineers, project managers, product marketing managers, data scientists, people in QA… I wonder if they know what they are asking for.
Here’s how it happened for me.
Love at first program
My father bought the family a computer when I was 12. It came with a BASIC programming manual and I dove right into everyone’s first program — Hello World! Then moved onto copying the code for the “Sorry!” game from the manual, finding and fixing a bunch of bugs.
As a kid, I always loved doing puzzles, and programming was like solving puzzles to make the computer do what I wanted. I was instantly hooked and I decided that I was going to major in computer science. Yes, at 12.
I look back at that and marvel a bit. So decisive… Such great listening to my intuition… Why can’t I do that all the time ?? I’ve only experienced that kind of clarity a few times in my life. Another one being the move to PM. But I’m jumping ahead.
Apple Round 1
After college, I landed my dream job as a software engineer at Apple, back in the days of John Sculley. I worked on the Apple Internet Router under Alan Oppenheimer, who literally wrote the book on Apple’s networking stack.
I was practically the only female engineer on the team. The guy that was setting up my phone asked me if I was “supporting” Alan. Took me a few minutes to realize he thought I was Alan’s new admin. But again, I digress…
I worked at Apple for 8.5 years in round 1 (we’ll save round 2 for another time). I had 4 CEO’s. After John Sculley, there was Michael Spindler, Gil Amelio, and then the return of Steve Jobs.
When Steve came back, he laid off huge parts of the workforce and canceled many projects, including the one I was working on. I didn’t manage to get a severance package though, which at the time, we all considered the better option (what did we know?).
I continued on at Apple for a few more years, delivering the first version of the Apple Keychain and the first ever Internet API suite (Subwoofer). The iMac launched. I spoke at WWDC 3 times. I was successful by most definitions, including my own.
Total Quality Management (TQM)
Apple didn’t have product management back then (or now, for that matter). There was a very lightly staffed product marketing team that hypothetically wrote “Market Requirements Documents” (MRDs). But if I ever saw one it was done after we had written the engineering specs and added ~0 value.
Fortunately, I was born a first principles thinker. Simon Sinek was probably still in grade school, but I was starting with why anyway. My need to figure out the right thing to do next and having no one to guide me, lead me to something called TQM.
There was a TQM consultant floating around Apple working with other teams that I got wind of. And I had him come teach it to the routing team.
As it was taught to me, TQM was basically design thinking but solely focused on technology. And to be honest, there are elements of it that are above and beyond design thinking (sorry IDEO). In particular, the focus on having the whole team develop empathy for the customer, as opposed to just the designers.
So I was off and running doing customer visits and gaining product insight through empathy. Back in 1995. This lead me to my first product idea — the Apple/IP Gateway. It was a big success until IP took over most existing networks and AppleTalk was deprecated.
And it wouldn’t have come about without customer empathy. Especially since this was a B2B product. Our customers didn’t “ask” for it. I just saw the problems they had first hand and that tunneling IP through AppleTalk would help.
Directly Responsible Individual (DRI)
After my time in routing, I moved onto the Cyberdog team which was developing a suite of Internet apps. FTP, Telnet, Gopher, SMTP, and HTML … I’m guessing many of you need to look some of those up ?. We did all this with a team of about 25 or so and I was one of the engineering managers.
After our first release, I was anointed “DRI” of Cyberdog. This concept is unique to Apple and is why there is still no product management there to speak of. The DRI is usually an engineering manager and includes both product ownership and running the engineering team creating the product.
It is a great gig if the team is reasonably small. I loved it. Except for the minor detail that I still had to write code.
I liked writing code well enough, don’t get me wrong. But it required me to be completely focused, which is not always possible in a fast-paced environment. And I much preferred the rest of my job.
I got pretty cranky sometimes. I remember the feeling when my primary tester came to my door when I was trying to figure out a super tough bug. It would take all my energy not to scream “leave me alone — I’m working!”. In hindsight, this was really good data ?.
All in all, I was a decent coder. Better at iterating on someone else’s code than starting from scratch. But I was a great DRI. I loved making tough prioritization calls. I loved user research. I loved driving the team forward, cutting through the ambiguity. I even loved writing specs.
Microsoft Program Management
As the DRI of Subwoofer (first ever Internet API suite), I went to Microsoft one day to see if we might want to do some code sharing with their Mac Internet Explorer team.
I sat down in one of their conference rooms and in comes this guy who introduces himself as the program manager. I’m thinking “uh… can I talk to someone technical, please? Where’s the dev manager?”
But it turned out he was technical and understood the business. Interesting, I thought… what is this role exactly?
Side note for those that haven’t worked at Microsoft. Program management is product management. The discipline started there when other tech companies had product marketing and product management as a single person. Microsoft was the first to split them up. The first to have someone completely focused on what we should build, why, and a little bit of how. And they call it “program management”.
In 2001, I got a call from a friend who used to be at Apple with me and whose company (WebTV) had been bought by Microsoft. “Sari,” he said, “we need program managers here and I thought of you.”
He knew, before I did, that I was a PM. Even though we had both spent most of our careers at Apple where they didn’t exist.
I joined the team (leaving a ton of Apple stock behind, whoops…). My friend left for Google shortly thereafter. But I had found my calling from a discipline perspective and never looked back.
Final Thoughts and Some Advice
My story is one of someone who is a PM at heart and found her way to it organically. So my first question for you is exactly that:
Are you a PM at heart?
Look hard at why you want to be a PM. It’s hard to understand what the role is if you aren’t already doing it, so how do you know? Why are you drawn to it? Read some of my other blogs. Are you sure?
Are you doing the job already? Without the title?
If you are in an engineering, project, program, or design role today and you don’t have a PM, who is doing the work of the PM? The work — defining the product, driving things forward, being the catalyst for hard decisions getting made — has to get done. By someone.
If it’s you, and it’s your favorite part of your job, then that’s a good sign it’s the right role for you. It’s also how you can pitch yourself in an interview.
Try it where you are.
If you do have a PM, ask them if you can help in some way. Most PMs are going to jump at the chance because they are overwhelmed with work. Yes, you’ll have to do it in addition to your day job. Sorry ?♀️.
Making the switch in your current organization is what I recommend, if at all possible. You already know the product and the technology and that is a tremendous help.
Let your PM leader know you are interested. Find out what they look for. Ask for ideas for how you can practice the skills required or prove you have them.
Take a class.
Get some training. There are a bunch of product management classes you can take. I’m not going to recommend any particular one. Ask around. The main thing a class will help with is getting you exposed to what the role is and give you some vocabulary. And show hiring managers that you care enough to devote time and energy. It will also extend your network.
Speaking of network… What I don’t think helps all that much is “networking”. What I mean by that is attending networking events, meetups, or conferences. The relationships you start there may help you in a couple of years if you nurture them. But they won’t help anytime soon.
Use your network.
I do think your existing network can help. That’s how I landed my first PM role without really even intending to. Someone thinking of you as a great option is the best way to get any job, including PM. So let your existing network know you want to make the switch. And no, I don’t know a short cut to building a good network ?.