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Becoming an Engineer after 10 years in Product | Why it’s never too late

Ed Halliwell

24 March 2022

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As I write this at the beginning of 2022, I find myself in the middle of a career change from product manager to software engineer.

Whilst I was contemplating my career switch, I found surprisingly few articles written about people making this particular transition, so I wanted to share my story in the hope that it helps anyone thinking of making the same change.

This is my story and my reasons for switching.

Why the change?

I was a product manager for over 10 years. After university (and a brief stint as an intern), I moved into a product role when I was in my early twenties. This means that almost my whole career so far has been as a product manager. I have been lucky enough to work across multiple industries and companies of different sizes and maturity.

I loved the varied nature of the job and I am exceedingly grateful for the opportunities it afforded me. When I started out, I loved it — I remember thinking to myself that I couldn’t believe I was being paid to do the job. However, over the past year or two, I have found myself enjoying product management less and less.

In a cross-functional team, a product manager is less of a ‘player’ but more of an orchestrator, a go-between. I’ve been to a lot of meetings, made a lot of slide decks, spreadsheets and reports, but I am rarely able to point to something and say that ‘I did that’ and that I was fundamental in delivering the value for customers. I had started to feel like a passenger in my team.

Whilst the role of product is critical to the overall success of a team, I was no longer sure it was right for me. After 10 years, I had risen to Lead Product Manager, probably the top of the individual contributor tree for that role in most companies. I felt like there were two paths in front of me: to push up the chain into management or to continue at around the same level as an individual contributor.

Neither of these options appealed to me. I love being in the weeds, close to the implementation and seeing products delivered and customer reactions and feedback. I also didn’t feel that people management was something I wanted to do just yet.

I made a decision that I wanted to make a change and that, in my next role, I really wanted to be closer to the value creation and take ownership and responsibility for making things and building products myself.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros

Why engineering?

As a product manager, your role is to deeply understand ‘why’ you are building something, but I have always taken an active interest in ‘how’ as well — more active than most product managers perhaps. I love to understand how things fit together, the technologies that were used and know why things were built in the way they were.

Product management requires time spent on a wide range of concerns such as strategy, customer relationships, positioning and so on. As a result, a typical product manager role would never allow me to spend the time I would like on technology.

When I started looking into how I could make a change from product to engineering, I found lots of stories of people making the switch from engineering into product management, but found it far less common for product managers to go the other way.

Whilst some career changes can be achieved through utilising transferable skills and on the job learning, I knew this wouldn’t be the case for me in a change to engineering. My degree is in economics and my experience was almost exclusively product management, so I was missing the ‘hard’ skills required of an engineer.

Having built my career in product management, I knew that switching would mean going down an uncertain path. Starting at the bottom again and learning to code would mean a significant monetary and time commitment, as well as a serious commitment from myself to see it through.

Making the change

Having made a decision to explore an engineering career, I knew that I needed to take some purposeful steps to make it happen. To start with, I needed to determine whether engineering was something that I could do, and do well. I also wanted to find out whether it was something I would enjoy doing full time.

I had dabbled with coding in the past (doing CodeAcademy courses and building some simple websites) but I had never managed to find the time to properly dedicate myself to learning outside of my day job (which, as all product managers will know, can be pretty full on).

However, in 2020 and 2021, the UK entered a series of lockdowns as a result of the coronavirus pandemic which suddenly left me with a lot of free evenings and weekends. I leapt at the opportunity to use this time to do some courses. I purchased a couple of lengthy Udemy courses for the first time and set about completing over 100 hours of online learning.

Colt Steele deserves a huge shout out here. I found his online courses to be excellent and I really connected with his teaching style. It was a slog, but I loved doing those courses and each time I finished a section, I was hungry to move on and learn something new.

I was fortunate to have friends and former colleagues who are software engineers to speak to about my decision to change. People were really encouraging and pointed me in the right direction for reading and resources. My confidence was growing but I knew I was still a million miles away from being able to apply for a software engineering role.

Starting again

By the middle of 2021, I felt sure that engineering was the path for me and I was ready to leave my product role at Beamery. I know a few people who have done paid, bootcamp courses and gone on to start a career in engineering and so I started exploring options and pricing up training courses with the likes of General Assembly and Makers Academy. I knew that a course like that would be the quickest way to kick start my transition and put a significant marker on my CV that I was serious about moving into engineering.

Beamery was (and still is) growing fast and software engineers are in high demand as the company grows. The company had previously run a graduate program for engineers, which had been a great success.

When I spoke to my manager at Beamery about my decision, he was really supportive and told me that the company was planning to run another bootcamp later in the year and that I might have the opportunity for a place on it. At this point, I’d worked at Beamery for two years and I had seen a few other folks given opportunities for internal mobility but I’d never considered that it could allow me to transition into engineering.

I spoke with the engineering leaders and People (HR) team and explained the training I’d done and my intention to change careers. From Beamery’s perspective, I was already very familiar with the product, people and customers and so I hope I represented a known quantity. They were all amazingly supportive and encouraged me to join the four month program which started in October 2021.

Beamery partnered with Academy to carry out the teaching — you can find out more about them here. The course covered the basics of HTML, CSS and Javascript / Typescript, as well as providing full stack training across React, Node, Express and PostgreSQL.

One of the big benefits to Academy’s course is having a cohort of students going through the same experience at the same time. It’s been fantastic to have a group to pair with, learn from and collaborate with — it’s made the experience much more enjoyable than any of the solo learning I had done previously.

I feel really fortunate to be at a company like Beamery that doesn’t just ‘talk the talk’ about providing opportunities for internal mobility, but is also prepared to ‘walk the walk’ and make it happen.

I am hugely grateful to everyone who worked to make the program a reality and for giving me the opportunity to have a place on it.

Looking ahead

At the beginning of 2022, I am coming to the end of Academy’s program and I am amazed at how much I’ve learned in a short period of time. I feel privileged to have had the support of Beamery to make my career change, and I have loved every minute of the course.

I’m really looking forward to making the transition into working in one of Beamery’s engineering teams. I am well aware that I am starting at the bottom of the ladder again but I am keen to get stuck in and keep learning every day. This is just the beginning of my journey in engineering and I’m excited about doing something I love again.

Photo by Ian Taylor

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