Transitioning to Engineering Program Management
My professional life has changed a lot in the last year and a half.
Back then, I was working as an electrical engineer at a small hardware consultancy. My days were filled mostly with the tools and tasks of the trade - architecting solutions to problem, figuring out the components to get the job done, bench-top prototyping, schematics and layouts, board bringup and test. You might know the drill.
It was a great gig, with great coworkers I was (and still am) privileged to call friends. But I was restless. It was time to try something new, and I was interested in getting a broader picture of what it takes to get a hardware gadget from concept through to mass production. How does a company decide what to build next? Apart from the electrical design work, what all goes into testing and manufacturing? What kind of bumps in the road do you hit on the way to making thousands of units a day?
So, with a bit of time, effort, and luck, I made a change. I signed up for a hardware program manager position at Cisco Meraki. And boy, has it been a wild ride. I’ve learned everything I set out to learn, and many, many more things I didn’t even know I didn’t know. And while I’ll talk shop in some future writing, today I want to talk about the job transition itself. A few words of warning, and a few tips to surviving the change of pace, for all of you out there who might be interested in moving from engineering to engineering program management (EPM).
A few words of warning
Thinking about an EPM role? Keep these characteristics of the job in mind:
1. The scope of the role is large
Your sphere of knowledge and influence is going to expand rapidly overnight. Previously, you had to know a few systems very well. The exact efficiency of your switching regulator, or exactly how your code was going to handle invalid user input. Now, it’s more about knowing a little bit (or maybe a lot) about everything, and how all the pieces tie together. As an EE, I was mostly focused on a solid electrical design, with a touch of making sure my work could integrate well with mechanical and software needs. As a project manager, I quickly realized I needed to grasp the big picture of electrical, mechanical, and firmware development timelines and hurdles, as well as whole other disciplines like vendor management, component sourcing, compliance, supply chain management, and more. Be ready to learn a lot, and fast. And because you have so much to learn…
2. You’ll experience information overload
There is going to be a lot coming at you, relentlessly. Likely, far more than you can remember. If you’re joining a well-established team with a system for bringing up new hires, you might have an internal training process or knowledge base. If you’re joining a newer or scrappier endeavor, you might be expected to pick up the information quickly with a few one-on-one meetings and info dumps. Whichever it is, you’ll have to be ready to ask questions and take notes.
3. Communication is key
A huge part of the role is communication. There is so much e-mail. Getting to inbox 0 will be a rare luxury. Don’t forget the constant buzz of company chat programs. And of course, the meetings. Lots of meetings. Your job is now to coordinate efforts across a lot of teams to keep the broader effort on track, and that involves a lot of being plugged in. And partially because of that…
4. It’s a lot of work
The role can take a lot out of you. It’s a lot to ramp up on, a lot of time, a lot of energy. Don’t go in unprepared!
If what I’ve outlined so far sounds tolerable (or even exciting), then read on for some more specific survival tips.
The first three tips generally fall under the heading of “have a system.” Tip #4 is about using the system effectively, and tip #5 will help you maintain your sanity.
1. Structure your learning
As I mentioned, you’re going to have a lot of new content to get up to speed on. Know how you learn best. If you haven’t, read Peter Drucker’s seminal piece “Managing Oneself.” He proposes a clever framework for being introspective about you learn. Are you a listener? Reader? Talker? Think about it. Then use that information in your new role. If you’re a reader, ask to be forwarded to books or articles that can help you. If you’re a listener, set up 1-on-1 meetings with knowledgeable team members.
2. Structure your information
As I mentioned earlier, a mountain of information is going to be coming at you every day. It’ll be particularly high-volume when you’re ramping up on the job, learning new processes and disciplines, but it will remain significant on a day-to-day basis. It’s critical that you have a system in place for capturing and structuring information and open-items. In a fast-paced environment, you don’t want to be the person asking the same question multiple times or forgetting important to-dos (though it will happen at least a few times, and that’s ok! relax).
For me, this is a two-part solution. First, I take notes in Evernote constantly. During my on-boarding, I created a whole series of Guides relevant to different parts of the job. And every day, whenever someone teaches me something new, I jot it down. I periodically review and organize all the knowledge I’ve captured. Second, I track my action items in Asana. Asana lets me create to-do lists organized into different projects and priority levels, and lets me set reminders for when they need to be complete. If it needs doing, it goes into Asana with a due-date first thing.
3. Structure your time
As a PM, the days can slip away really quickly if you’re not paying attention. Meetings get booked on your calendar, colleagues are popping by your desk to ask questions, emails and Slack pings are constantly streaming in. Eight hours can go by in a flash — often without much “real work” getting done.
To combat this, I have recently taken to proactively blocking time on my calendar for focused work. I shoot for setting away at least half of each day (often in 90 minute chunks). I’ll then sneak off to a quiet corner of the office, turn off my chat programs, and get to it. This lets me focus on things like getting all my program schedules updated, working on that big presentation or report, or even just hammering my inbox down 0.
It took me entirely too long to adopt a structure for my days, but this tip is critical to maximizing your effectiveness. My strategy comes primarily for Cal Newport’s Deep Work, which I highly recommend.
4. Prioritize ruthlessly
At some point, the volume of open items you have on your plate will likely balloon out of control. It’s just going to happen. It becomes critical to prioritize. To do this, think about your role on the team. Your job is probably something like “get the right product out of the gate on-time.” So when new action items come in, filter it through this description. Ask yourself - “is this task critical to making the best product, and getting things done on time?” If it is, that’s a high-priority items. Keep track of your highest priority tasks in your task management system, and work on them first during your concentrated work time blocks.
The PM role can be stressful. There’s a lot coming at you, all the time. Remember to relax, take a breath, take a break. It’s just a job, and (in all likelihood) nothing you’re working on is a matter of life and death. Don’t work all night or all weekend. Keep up with friends, hobbies, and your life outside of work. Maintaining a sense of perspective and work/life balance will not only make you a more complete person, but the downtime will make you more effective at your job.