This week, Product School hosted Bryan Wan, Product Leader at Microsoft, for a special #AskMeAnything session. Bryan discussed his experience transitioning from engineering to Product Management, as well as giving tips for how non-technical PMs can work better with their engineers.
Bryan has spent over six years delivering software products at Microsoft. He is currently a Product Leader working on Product Pages and Installation for the Microsoft Store on Windows 11. Before this, he was a Program Manager for Xbox Analytics and Growth, delivering infrastructure and building KPI dashboards for key business units.
Before joining Microsoft, Bryan was a Full Stack Software Engineering at FanXchange, creating financial reporting features for the seller’s portal and administration site. He was also the founder of hueclues, determining the overall market strategy, product vision, and roadmap for the company, as well working as a Product Intern at Work Market and CloserIQ—all while earning his Bachelor’s of Engineering Sciences at the University of Toronto!
What books do you recommend for sharpening the Product Management skillset?
I’d highly recommend reading Mastery by Robert Greene. It teaches you to think about different industries as skill sets to acquire. I believe that to be a good PM you need to have breadth of experience, not just depth. It can be intimidating to pick up new skills but the book really breaks down how to think about the importance of lifelong learning and putting in your 10,000 hours.
During sprints, how do you deal with tasks that become roadblocks for the rest of the sprint to get done?
It depends on the team, but sprints are usually just a way to break down work into more manageable time windows. So if a task is not possible, scope changes. You as the owner should feel empowered to move the task out, deliver a smaller scope of the original item. The process is meant to help organize the team so to me it’s not that important that you start and end the sprint exactly according to plan as long as everyone is clear on what is happening and why.
What are the top things non-technical PMs can do to earn/maintain the respect of their engineering team?
This is a great question. From a technical perspective you can educate yourself on the problem space your engineers are working in, for example why certain features will take a longer time or restrictions in what you are able to do. These two particular points will help you push back when an unrealistic ask is being made by other teams or management, or to set a realistic timeline that a feature is not cheap.
Beyond that I think it’s important to have empathy with your engineers—you can earn the respect of others by understanding and respecting their boundaries such as work hours, personal motivations and being mindful of their time when pulling them into meetings. I like to practice giving/doing something to help them before taking/asking for something in return when I work with someone new to establish trust.
What did you carry over from your engineering experience to your Product role? How do you continue to build your technical knowledge?
I did full-stack web dev in the past, so when I got into PM it was easier for me to assess complexity and cost when teeing up a project. The most important things I try to do working with engineering is understanding technical limitations, things that are high cost/not easy, calling out technical debt. This way you can save your engineers a lot of time by representing them in meetings and holding the front for randomization/new asks.
Outside of my immediate role I try to stay up to date on the applications of new tech such as crypto, VR and 3D printing.
Are Product Owners and Product Managers the same?
Depends on the company but I’d distinguish Product Owner/Program Manager as someone who owners the day to day, whereas Product Manager also owns strategy, roadmap and vision longer term.
Read next: What is a Product Owner?
What motivated you to change from engineering to product? What obstacles did you face in the transition?
I coded a lot in my undergrad and also had startups that failed where I did everything. One of the main lessons I learned about myself was that I actually really disliked coding—I would sit there and get frustrated when I had to debug issues and I didn’t like reading documentation before I started. So naturally PM was the next step because I loved building things.
Luckily because of my experience, I was hired as a PM pretty much right out of college. Having a technical background definitely helps when you’re working with engineers and understanding the technical cost/limitations of your product increases your ability to execute. One of the main obstacles I hear other people facing is they focus too much on the eng side and not enough on understanding the customer’s needs when going from eng -> product. I think that’s something that requires you to change your mindset about product more so than any tangible skill you can acquire.
How to grab an internship or full time role in a good company?
Build things in your spare time that can be seen like websites or apps that are submitted into app stores. Find hiring managers on LinkedIn and message them directly. Send out as many applications as possible and don’t stop until you’ve sent out more than >100
Do you have a playbook to share on how a PM should approach onboarding in a new job & team?
Based on the team but usually PMs can be onboarded through calls since things can change quickly
The most important piece when onboarding is understanding your team’s objectives and key results, especially what the Metrics/KPIs should be.
What kind of strategies do you generally use for making product decisions?
The best way to make decisions is to understand how to make the customer’s life easier. This can be done by doing direct user feedback or looking at unbiased user sentiment (I.e browsing Reddit or Twitter for related topic threads). But really it requires drawing out what the customer’s problem is, not just what they want, because…
“If I asked customer what they wanted they would have said faster horses”Henry Ford
In general there is no single way to make a decision. I like to think of every product decision as a risky bet; we just want to make sure the engineering investment is worth it—either by building the minimum needed to test an idea (like an MVP) or focusing on engineering changes that lead to new or tech improvements.
You might also be interested in: How to Use Data to Drive Product Decisions by PayPal Senior PM
Have you seen anyone be successful as a product strategy consultant? If so, any advice?
Definitely. I think the challenge for consultants is they don’t get the opportunity to execute after they’ve laid out plans. It would be easier to partner with a TPM or Program Manager who can follow through on the suggestions after the fact as well.
I have been unsuccessfully applying to full time product roles. What are some other types of roles I could apply to at this point with the end goal of getting into product?
I think this depends on what your personal goals are. A few ways you can get to your end goal if you want to be in a purely product role:
1. Try to transition to product ownership in your current team
2. Apply to a product role at a direct competitor of your current company
3. Build something on the side to develop domain expertise in an area or industry you want to be in
4. Build a mentorship relationship with a hiring manager who may eventually take a chance on you even if you don’t have directly relevant experience