There are many paths into product management, as Steven Haines says so eloquently in his Product manager’s Desk Reference, most product managers don’t start there. I thought it was time to add in the path I took, that of Applications engineer. Instead of a list of traits and attributes, I will probably go a little deeper, due to my insight, and experiences. Plus, as with all good product managers, I love to tell stories.
I “fell” into the role of Applications Engineer quite by accident. I was known as the “Instrumentation Guy” where I worked as a process engineer supporting a wafer fab. One day I was doing source acceptance (as I would do anything to avoid being in the yellow light of a wafer fab for 12 hours) and I made an offhand comment that I knew more about the particular instrument I was testing than the supporting engineer did. Next thing I knew, I was offered a job. Great pay, travel the world, cure cancer (ok, well, not the last attribute).
As an Applications Engineer, I mostly did post-sales customer support. Primarily conducting acceptance test to prove conformance to the specs and the purchase contract, but also training new users, and providing “for hire” solutions to existing customers (in today’s parlance – “Professional Services”). The key word here is “customer”. I would walk in, assess their situation, determine their status, identify the problem (needs), and deliver a satisfactory solution before moving on to the next engagement. Time was important, but, customer satisfaction was king.
To be a successful applications engineer you need to be able to:
- Observe and evaluate the current state – Understand the underlying need (not always known by the customer)
- Rationally and quickly evaluate solutions – There are always multiple ways to skin a cat, but you have to balance time and quality and deliver an optimal solution to meet the customer’s needs, but with an eye on the budget
- Establish a rapport with the customer – You are the face of the company. You are making lifelong contacts, and building a network of trust. It may not seem like it at the time, but you are.
In these three key roles, it practically jumps off the page how you can transition into Product Management from this role. To be fair, it is also a great path into Marketing.
When I was an Applications Engineer, I naturally brought back requirements, and insight into customer problems (i.e. where they would trade accuracy for speed), as well as ideas on how to make our products better under the hood. Again, a natural transition into rigorous, formal requirements gathering.
Like my prior post on Sales Engineer, the core thread here is the focus on “Customer”. The Sales Engineer is a pre-sales role, Applications Engineering is post sales support. Both are strong sources of future product managers.
But, what is a good applications engineer?
Of course, there is the hurdle to being a good applications engineer, and how to identify one. Not sure I have ever seen a recipe, so here is what worked in my case. Again, back to story telling mode, sorry:
First, let’s limit this to technology and high tech. I am sure that what makes a good applications engineer in a polymer coating world (AKA paint) has some commonality with tech, but my comfort zone is in instrumentation and communications industries.
An Applications Engineer is by nature a curious person. They were likely the kid taking apart the toaster to see how it made bread brown (radiant heat from resistive conversion of electricity for those who are curious) and managed to not electrocute themselves. They are not satisfied with just using a piece of technology, but are driven to understand the foundation, and the various components built upon this foundation. For example using look up tables to approximate square roots in inexpensive hand held calculators from the 70’s.
(Sidebar: Doing some research for this, I stumbled across this link – Look at the answers at the bottom. Sad state of US Education)
They often studied a hard science in university. Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology are common fields. Engineering, not so much. Not sure why that is (engineering), but my guess is that engineers like to build things, and are more focused than the general science guys.
An applications engineer is a stickler for details. They may be aware that they can never have perfect data, but they, like all good engineers, know when it is “good enough” and how to trade the last digits of accuracy for ‘git r’ done’.
A successful applications engineer is comfortable standing up in front of groups from very small to immensely large and presenting their work. They can also write technical documentation, fluffy trade rag blurbs, training agenda and supporting documents, and finally, technical papers and articles.
Good product managers are made. Nobody in College decided that they wanted to be a technology Product Manager one day, and studied for it. There are many paths into the role, but the common thread for the truly great product managers is early access and immersion in customer interactions. Gaining that insight that is impossible if you take a class, or lock yourself in a lab all day. Sometimes that insight comes from being a customer (as in my case) first.
Did you check out the link? Do it. I promise you it will be worth it.
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