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Navigating Career Advancement: A SWE Mentor Conversation

Want a behind-the-scenes look of what mentorship can look like for women engineers? Renee LaRocca shares the recent advice she gave to one of her mentees in the SWE Mentor Network.
women engineers in a mentor mentee discussion

As a mentor in SWE’s Mentor Network, I have seen firsthand the value of mentorship when it comes to supporting women engineers along their career journeys. From developing leadership skills to navigating difficult situations, mentor conversations are an avenue for growth and connection among women in STEM.

To demystify how mentorship works and encourage the SWE community to participate in the SWE Mentor Network, I wanted to share (with permission) a real-life situation that one of my mentees was experiencing in her engineering career. We worked through it together to ensure she is moving towards her overarching career goals.

Kate, my mentee, posed the question: “Will my career have a higher possibility of advancement by moving from a product owner to a functional program manager?”

Mentee’s Question: Product Owner or Engineering Manager?

Kate has her Ph.D. in math and computing and has worked in technical positions for over 10 years. Six months ago, Kate moved from a product owner to a functional engineering manager at an aerospace company. Kate wanted to know which position would help her advance more quickly.

As a functional engineering manager, Kate is a cross-team delivery manager, responsible for delivering a solution for products and processes. To succeed, she uses her leadership skills and her ability to influence other functional groups to work together to achieve the team’s goals.

As a product owner, Kate had specific areas of responsibility for the delivery and final result of the product solution. Kate directly managed team members and worked with other functional team members to achieve the goals, but she was not responsible for the results of the other functional teams on the product.

Mentor’s Response

Kate is clearly accomplished and technically competent based on her education and achievements. Moving from a manager of a small team responsible for specific tasks to leading a team of functional areas is complicated, and working through issues can be ambiguous.

If Kate’s goal is to become a senior leader of the company, I believe that her experience influencing other functional teams to successful product and process launches will get her there faster. If you look at leaders of larger organizations, they lean on experts from other departments to achieve their goals. They know they can’t do it all on their own.

It can be overwhelming to think about managing all of the deliverables from each team. To reach her next level, Kate will need to focus on developing relationships with people on these teams to gain their trust. Once that trust is established, they will be more likely to include her in decision making and let her help them succeed. Go Kate, go!

The SWE Mentor Network is an exclusive members-only community that helps facilitate virtual mentoring conversations during one- to two-week cohorts scheduled throughout the year.

SWE members at all levels are able to offer mentoring services, receive mentoring, or both. Check out the FAQ page to learn more, then sign up to participate in the SWE Mentor Network!


  • Renee LaRocca

    Renee LaRocca is a SWE mentor with a focus on mid-career transitions. She worked for 40 years in senior product management, marketing and development roles across multiple markets and technologies. Renee’s educational background includes a BSME, MBA and MS in engineering management.