My Career Transition (PART I)
“How did you transition into product?” is one of the questions I got a lot. I believe for two reasons: For one, product management in tech has gained popularity very quickly over the last decade or so; Second and even more importantly, the transition process is far from easy. As someone who went through the transition myself, I cannot understand more the challenges, confusions, or even frustrations that one would face in the journey. Reflecting on where I first started, I wish I had access to a blogpost about someone sharing his own journey to transition into product, the trial and errors, the lesson-learns, and tips.
Well, this is what Introvert in Product is all about! Before I share specific advice and tips in every step of the journey, let me tell you about my own journey to begin with. Keep in mind:
Your journey will be different from mine. I do hope though you take away part of it which overlaps with yours and that it can be helpful simply as a reference
No, my transition wasn’t easy at all. So just when you thought you’d never “make it” right after the most recent frustration, pick yourself up and....read on :)
I’ll write it in 3-part series (in weekly release):
PART I - The Decision (THIS POST)
PART II - The Strategy
PART III - The Preparation
A little about my background: I was born and raised in Taiwan where English is just a second (non-official) language. Unlike many successful people in tech, I did NOT touch computers until high school, and when I finally did, I used it for video games only (and begged my tech-inclined friends to install them for me). I stumbled upon the Computer Science undergrad program in college simply because I surprisingly outperformed any expectation on me in the entrance exam. I then carried low self esteem (and maybe a dose of imposter syndrome) into what’s considered the most prestigious CS program in Taiwan studying alongside some of the classmates who had won more than 5 Olympia programming or math titles with their names well known by the professors even before they joined. Nonetheless, I kicked off my journey into software, and to my great surprise, not only did I survive; I was liking it.
I continued to pursue a master degree in CS here in the US, dreaming that it would lead me easily into highly paid software engineering jobs. The reality after graduation was not that far from the dream, except it was 2004 when it was still slowly recovering from 911 economic downturn and it took me more than half a year to barely land my first job (as a software engineer, before getting kicked out of the country) at a sweatshop Chinese startup who finally could sponsor my H1B but paid below average. I escaped the moment I received my visa, finally going to a real higher paid software engineer job at a well known enterprise to begin my American dream.
And I went on with it happily ever after...not so fast!
A few years into the job, I hit my first career “crisis”: I was unsure where I was headed. I realized two problems:
I was too comfortable
I wasn’t passionate about what I did
They sounded like first world problems that I actually never thought I’d have. But I felt I suddenly woke up to the feeling of something terribly missing from the stable job, the decent paycheck, and full sized onsite gym facility. That was when I started to think, and the very origin of “the journey”.
Then I went through a thinking process, as follows:
Do I love tech/software? Hell yeah I do, so I’ll stay.
Do I like the role (as a software engineer)? Probably only a small part of it
What do I not like about it? Being told what to do (as a junior engineer), talk to computers more than human, lack of ownership and insight into real “business or user” problems
What do I like to do then? Hmm, I like to work with people more. I’m more excited about business and user problems (than pure technical problems), and how to go about solving for them.
What roles might provide me with what I like to do? Hmmmmm…
After much exploration, I learned about the role of a product manager. At first I didn’t know what that was, whether I liked it or not, and whether even people with my background would ever get a foot in the door. Ultimately I decided to pursue it. Because:
A product manager does NOT just manage products and work with people. She manages people (all kinds of them) well to build great products. It’s a people centric role (which I like!)
A product manager owns (business/user) problems, not the solutions. She oversees problems and solutions, true. But she always starts from the problem, owns it, understands it, and communicates it completely. She’s a problem manager (which I like!)
A product manager develops a multifaceted, all around skillset. From business acumen to technical depth, from vision/strategy to roll up the sleeves execution, from communication to negotiation, from taking ownership to being completely selfless. It’s more breadth than depth, yet requires one to go very deep when needed. (which sounds like a superhero , though challenging, which I like!)
To be sure, I didn't know all about these overnight. It was after lots and lots of research and conversations with people. Anyway, made my mind I did, just like that. Little did I know what I was about to get into. At least I knew what I wanted, firmly. So my advice to you if you’re in this early phase? Think about what you really want, and how product management might actually have to offer. It’s important you know it’s really what you want and why. Because trust me, you’re going to need it down the road especially when it gets tough.
My Career Transition PART II - The Strategy will be coming soon! Subscribe to receive notifications.
(Like this post and want to read more? Subscribe and send me topics firstname.lastname@example.org)