A recent MIT graduate contacted me over LinkedIn and asked for an informational interview. She had few questions about how to combine her background in engineering with her passion for people. In our conversation, she shared that her career goals were to look for ways that engineering can make an impact. Her recent internship experience in user research revealed that she enjoyed gaining insights about people and then implementing them into a product design.
I heard this intro and immediately told her that she’s a born product manager – her combination of understanding her users, their needs, and then translating that into an actual product are what successful product managers do. Her engineering background means she’s a maker, so she can build and prototype that best product for users. However, it’s her empathy of the users and their needs throughout the design process that will make her products meaningful and impactful.
She asked me a few questions about my career path and I did my best to answer the in a way helpful to a new graduate. Here are my answers to some of her questions.
How did you move along in your career? How do I decide where to work?
I typically create a vision for my next position, write it down, and I get it. This sounds magical because it is; it’s always worked out this way for me. For example, when I left my position as a director of user experience at an enterprise company, I wrote down what I wanted my next job to be like – a director at a small to mid-size company with an excellent team all creating a product they believe in for a better purpose. A few weeks later, I got an email from a former colleague who’s at Akili and now I’m at Akili. The position is exactly what I asked for and I was able to transition from UX to product management seamlessly. This has happened to me many times since 2008. The important action I took was identifying what I wanted and getting it out of my head by writing it down.
I think about my career in two- year increments. I have no answer for, “what do I want to do with my life?” But I do know what I’m doing for the next two years. Whenever considering a role or a move, I think – can I do this for the next two years? What will I have gained after two years in this position? What can I contribute to the company in two years? If the answer is positive and full of growth and service, then it’s a positive choice. This two-year vision also alleviates the horrible pressure of believing any career decision I make will last forever. Nothing lasts forever, especially in technology, and if I made decisions under the weight of forever, I would never move forward or make any decision.
For a new graduate, work for a company that is the best at what you want to do. Find smartest people you can learn from at that company and learn from them. Your first two years out of school are the practical application of what you’ve learned at school. It’s like post-grad work. Get out there and continue learning from these new teachers in a real-world environment. There are a lot of companies out there with teams of people who don’t know what they are doing in technology. Stay away from them, as they will teach you the wrong things. Find the leaders in your field and work for them. Commit to two years there and do the best you can and learn the most you can from them. It’s an investment that will always pay off.
How do I know I’m making the right choice?
Making the right choice is asking, “what is next thing I need to do that aligns with my goals?” To answer this question, I do research, identify what’s needed for success, and then find out the best way to achieve that success. In product, that’s usually identifying what will make people find valuable and creating the best solution through a user-centered design methodology. In the last 10 years of my career, I’ve brought in more scientific method and data analysis to make sure that I’m measuring what success looks like along the way.
Experience is my greatest teacher and I seek out new experiences so I can learn. I get hands-on to fully understand how things work, diving deep into the details, asking a lot of questions, and then reflecting on what I learn afterwards. This experience creates the wisdom from which I draw upon to make the right choices.
I also remember, that I’m a beginner on every new project, so I start at the beginning, ask a lot questions, and then be flexible when I find answers. I admit to myself that I don’t know everything and this relieves the stress I place on myself and frees me from the trap of perfectionism. I used to handcuff myself to a solution, but now I’m more flexible and open to how solutions can morph into something better with more feedback from users along the way. In product management, I’m learning and loving the MVP process. It’s showing me how to whittle down every solution to its essence of what’s most important and then hypothesis, prototype, and measure to prove it out.
Making the right choice is also about listening to your intuition. Traveling for two years without a plan and learning the flow of life taught me this. I took many leaps of faith since 2008. Some meant landing in happiness and some meant falling into great sadness, but in leaping I learned who I was and how to trust myself. I also gained wisdom and a fine-tuned gut. Now, I know when something is wrong, I feel it. My body feels itchy and my chest gets tight when I’m doing something that’s not right for me. I also have learned never to force an answer. When I don’t know what to do or say, I do nothing. And in this stillness, the right next answer usually appears.
When I look back at my 21-year-old self as a new graduate starting my career in this great digital frontier, I don’t know if I would tell her anything different career-wise. My path has been winding, but I had to live it as I did. Where I’m at today is a product of my choices and I wouldn’t have it any other way.