How to transition to hybrid roles from a technical background

Interview with Lei Pan, Partner Technology Manager, Google Assistant at Google
July 5, 2022
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Lei Pan is a Partner Technology Manager, Google Assistant at Google. Her mission is to democratize AI to create a radically better world. She used to be a software engineer and later transitioned to a hybrid role. In addition to her coding experience, she has technical sales, leadership, and teaching experience. She used to help bring in millions in sales at Databricks and teach 100+ kids coding when she was in the Capital One coder program. One fun fact about her is that she wants to go to Mars one day.

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Tell us about your career journey. 

I started out as a web developer, then dabbled in back-end engineering work, payment API, and machine learning. I also became a tech lead, where I led the team to build and launch a fraud scoring ML pipeline that could save around $30 million in fraud costs. 

During my time at Capital One, I really appreciated the experience with the payment projects because I got exposed to more product-related work that helped me discover the business side of tech, which I found super interesting. That's when I started looking to transition to a role where I could still be technical and use business skills. I looked for hybrid roles like a technical product manager and solutions architect role. Eventually, I settled on a solution architect role at a startup, which I was pretty fortunate to get since I had no prior experience in business roles.

How is the Interview process different from a typical Engineering interview?

There are still technical interviews, but not exactly like a typical engineering role where there is a round of coding and system design. They are some technical questions, but I’d say about 80% of the interviews are looking at your communication skills/presentation and how you handle questions, especially since you will be talking to partners and customers. There might be a section where you will have to present a topic and answer questions that they give you to see if you can formulate a coherent response on the fly. 

What do typical solution architect responsibilities look like?

Your responsibilities are pretty dependent on whether you are in charge of pre-sales or post-sales. 

For pre-sales, you would typically work with sales reps to convince a client that you can address their problems with your product using a technical standpoint. We are responsible for talking to the clients and doing demos, and in later stages, we do something called proof of concept, where we find and prove there is at least one problem that our product can solve. The role is quite technical but, at the same time, business-oriented because you need to know the right people to talk to and how to solve the various problems that are brought up. Post-sales typically does similar work to consultants, where they have to know how the product works and how to fix problems with the product. 

What advice would you give to someone looking for a career change?

For someone with an engineering background who is trying to move into product management, it can be very hard to get an interview if you have no relevant experience. During my transition, I only heard back from a few startups that I wasn’t super interested in. I would say it’s best to get a little experience at your current company before going for a full transition – try to find similar roles or projects within your company, as external role changes are a lot more challenging. If you want to move into solutions architect/solutions engineer roles, you should just give it a try. Those roles are very open for people who have engineering background even if you don’t have any relevant experience.

What got you interested in the role of a solution architect?

After doing purely engineering roles for a few years, I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the long term, as the backend engineering work wasn’t really my passion. I wanted to find a role that I would continue to be interested in and one that could lead to more opportunities, like starting my own company. Being a solutions architect allowed me to learn the business side of tech, which I enjoy learning. 

What kept you going initially through challenges?

The first transition from engineering to the Solutions Architect role wasn’t very easy. To be honest, for the first few months, I contemplated going back to coding. But over time as I adapted to the role and helped close more deals, I was more excited. I loved the feedback I received, good or bad, and just kept improving. Getting immediate feedback and knowing how much I had accomplished gave me the confidence to keep going. 

Read more from Lei Pan on Linkedin.

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