Hire Us

From QA to Product Manager: How to Change Your Career in Difficult Times

Isn’t it funny how a single decision can change your professional life forever? One minute, I’m a trained Quality Analyst, testing feature requirements for Coupler.io and wondering what my next career step will be. The next minute, I’m a product manager for the same product, shaping its features and future direction.

Of course, the transition didn’t happen quite that fast, but sometimes I wonder how on earth I got here! It’s time to put it into words, and hopefully help those of you considering a swap from manual tester to product manager. With any luck, my story will help you confront your own hesitations and make the right decision for you.

Searching for a path

I won’t even try to count how many years I’ve been working in IT, but it’s fair to say that I’ve spent the past seven honing my QA skills. Like everyone else, I went through an active learning stage (although it never ends), a stage of gaining experience, and finally a stage of ‘Where do I go from here?’

In 2021, I joined Railsware as a QA Engineer on the Coupler.io product. My previous experience was mostly in service IT companies, so at first, working in a product team was a step out of my comfort zone.

The absence of familiar processes or a typical ‘manager’ – who determines what you should do, and how and when you should do it – was particularly challenging. But once you get used to shaping and prioritizing your own workload, you can achieve some great things.

Qualities like T-shaped-ness and curiosity will also get you far at Railsware. If you identify a problem or an opportunity for improvement, you’re often encouraged to investigate it further.

For example, one day I was testing the requirements for a new Coupler.io integration with a third-party API, and I noticed some room for improvement. So I decided to spend more time on this task.

My research revealed undocumented API features (as is often the case, documentation updates lose out to ‘hotter’ tasks). The use of other API methods allowed us to include more diverse data in the final report and retrieve it with fewer requests. This made the integration more useful for users and also more stable, as we were less likely to hit the rate limits of the third-party system API.

How to kickstart a change of direction

Think of your career and personal development as a product. Its only user and beneficiary is you, so why not give yourself the best possible experience? A mindset like this helped me take the first step in a new direction. It removed the internal block of ‘why do I need to do this’ or ‘I’m fine as I am’ and allowed me to work on a better version of myself.

More generally, what drives us to make a change? For some, it’s a hunger to grow and achieve new milestones. For others, it’s financial or personal ambitions. For me, it’s boredom, or rather, the desire to get rid of it and try something new.

At the end of the day, motivations are different for everyone. Look for ways to channel yours in the direction you need. For example, take on tasks that match your interests in the project you’re currently working on.

Making a choice

Of course, the more options you have, the harder it is to make a choice. When it came to professional development, my first thought was to pursue automated testing. I was also drawn to security and performance testing.

Unfortunately, Coupler.io doesn’t have such tasks, because the product is still in the early stages of development. But I wasn’t ready to quit my job, go back to school, and then look for a job again without experience, especially given the situation in Ukraine.

That’s why management appealed to me. I liked the idea of formulating product requirements, but I didn’t want my entire role to revolve around coordinating a team and establishing processes. That’s what a typical ‘project manager’ does.

A middle ground would be perfect. Because what intrigued me at Coupler.io was the process of creating a product. It was a chance to work behind the scenes, and to understand: Why did they do it this way, not that way?

Then one day, after completing another study I’d initiated, one of the product managers straight up asked if I wanted to try myself in this role. I was confused at first, but it didn’t take long before I realized that this was a logical step in my career. I would be able to shape product requirements from the very beginning – not just work with them at the end. And I’d get to have an even bigger influence on the product. Pretty cool, huh?

The beginning of the transition

I’d made my decision, and the ball was finally rolling. I have to say, the support of my more experienced product colleagues was invaluable at this early stage. Together, we drew up a plan for my training and transition and discussed the timeline. There was no induction ceremony, no symbolic passage from one role to another. The switch promised to be smooth and uncomplicated.

But the stars were aligned in my favor too. I was surrounded by an experienced and highly skilled team, which allowed me to challenge myself and learn quickly. At Railsware, the more knowledge and experience you gain, the more complex and important tasks you are entrusted with.

Of course, it helps that some QA skills are transferable to product management, such as:

  • Attention to detail. It goes without saying that QA work requires thoroughness and the ability to see small details. This skill will help you understand user needs and product requirements, as well as uncover non-obvious connections.
  • Analytical skills. When you have a good eye for data analysis and error detection, it will be easier to solve problems in the product and find ways to improve it.
  • Knowledge of product development processes. Needless to say, experience in testing gives you an understanding of how software development is structured, and this will help you to effectively manage and develop the product.
  • Communication with engineers. QA and developers don’t always get along, but having experience communicating with developers will definitely help you in your new role.

And if you are following the same path as me (or just moving towards product management), I recommend paying attention to the following:

  • Strategic planning. Testing is often about the ‘here and now.’ On the other hand, developing a long-term product vision and development strategy requires the ability to switch between time frames.
  • Stakeholder management. A QA engineer mainly communicates with developers, but product managers interact with various stakeholders. These include customers, business leaders, and marketing, design, and sales colleagues.
  • Data-driven decision-making. Working with data is nothing new, but in product management, you’ll need to take this skill up a notch. You’ll use multiple data sources to make informed decisions about product development.
  • Marketing knowledge. Any good product manager has a solid grasp of the basics of marketing. This knowledge helps you understand how to better position the product in the market, and your cooperation with the marketing team will be more productive.
  • Communication (leveling up). Product demos, client calls, and taking the lead in team meetings – those are situations you’ll have to get used to. So, it makes sense to improve your negotiation skills, leadership, and ability to motivate the team.

The first big tasks

To be honest, I haven’t gone all the way through this process yet. But I have worked in a few different areas so far. In the very beginning, I was involved in planning sessions, and this gave a clearer understanding of where the team was going and why.

After that, my first “official” task as a product manager was the product website. I had been involved in its development before, when I was asked to test certain changes. Now I was in charge of its end-to-end management, from collecting information, writing requirements, presenting them to developers, designers, and other stakeholders, distributing tasks and communicating with the content team, to monitoring intermediate results and validating the final ones.

I also worked directly on the product. Coupler.io is growing in no small part due to its increasing number of integrations. Each individual integration is an important epic that a separate product manager is responsible for.

My first big task was to review one of them. I had to conduct research, compare the development costs with the potential output, and decide whether it was worthwhile to start working on this integration. It was a test of strength, since decision-making is the most difficult part of a product manager’s job. After researching, I realized that at this stage of development, it was better not to work on this epic. At the presentation, my colleagues agreed with me. To say I was happy is an understatement!

The next tasks I took on were quite similar. Together we defined the integration, I conducted research, and if the integration was included in the work, I was fully responsible for the process of working on it – from idea to implementation.

Facing doubt and uncertainty

Now let’s talk about the fears and challenges that arose along the way, and how I dealt with them.

Ideally, I could recommend a dozen books, courses, or videos that will ‘make you a product manager?.’ But let’s be honest: I haven’t read or watched them all. And I’m not sure how foolproof they are anyway. After all, theory can’t replicate real-life cases and tasks that happen in a particular team with a particular product. So, I preferred to focus on gaining knowledge through experience.

I recommend sticking to training materials specific to your context. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t gather knowledge from a broader range of sources. But in the beginning, it’s often easier to learn as you go.

Lastly, besides the reasonable fear of changing career direction, my main obstacle was the fear of making decisions. I’m not afraid to take accountability, but I need data to make an informed decision. My QA brain craves confirmation and evidence, and sometimes that’s impossible to get. Here’s what can help you along the way.

Communicate and ask questions

Sometimes, you need to push aside the fear of looking stupid, and ask the question you’re afraid to ask. The truth is, there’s no such thing as a stupid question – only a stupid answer.

Speaking up and asking for clarification or guidance isn’t a sign of weakness. Rather, it will allow you to build stronger, more supportive relationships with your colleagues over time. But don’t forget to take notes and organize the information you receive, as you will most likely have additional questions.

Work in pairs

It’s challenging to face new contexts and tasks on your own. But having an experienced partner by your side will make the learning curve feel far less steep.

Many people believe that working in pairs is a practice exclusively for engineers (i.e., pair programming). But compared to two people working alone, a pairing is almost always more efficient and productive.

For beginners like me, it provides opportunities to learn directly from my peers. In my case, we initially worked in pairs on each feature, which gave me space to relax, organize my thoughts, and execute new tasks with confidence.

Make decisions quickly

In startup product management, it’s more important to do things quickly than perfectly. The tech product market is constantly shifting, and if you can’t make decisions quickly, it gives your competitors the upper hand (for example, the chance to launch a new feature before you do).

My advice is to put perfectionism on hold. It’s better to launch an imperfect feature and capture a portion of the market than to do everything perfectly and lose customers because they’ve already found a better solution elsewhere.

What do I miss about my previous career? Well, I liked getting practical directions from experienced product managers – for instance, advice on how to approach a problem. What can I say, I’m a fan of instructions. But it doesn’t work like that in my current role and discipline.

Every product management task is unique. There is no such thing as a universal manual or step-by-step instructions on how to fix a problem. Even research has to be done differently every time. But that doesn’t mean I can’t collect data and consult with experts from time to time, just to ask for advice or get their opinion 😉

Efforts are rewarded

Change is hard, especially when the world around you doesn’t offer stability and comfort. Nevertheless, I’m glad I started this journey. So let’s summarize what I’ve learned and achieved since my career swap.

  1. Unlike testing, there is almost no routine in product management. The same task can be performed differently depending on the context. Not only does this kind of work keep boredom at bay, but it allows for a lot of experimentation, which is what I love to do.
  2. I now have a much greater influence on the product development process, which is highly motivating. Instead of working on the functional requirements assigned to me by someone else, I formulate the requirements myself, and prevent issues I faced many times as a QA.
  3. Finally, I understand how I will grow and improve. The product manager profession has many prospects and opens new doors for me.

Many people are now changing their profession, learning new things and adapting to new realities. Even if this isn’t your personal decision, but a forced step, here are some tips from me:

I hope that my post was useful and helped you with making such a difficult decision as changing your profession – or even the direction of what you do.