Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Redefining Myself

Careers are funny things. You start out thinking you know where you want to go and what you want to do. I started out knowing I wanted to write code. I knew that by the time I finished ninth grade. Everything after that was in pursuit of that goal. I graduated with a computer science degree and quickly went to work: a game studio, a couple of 3D software companies, then onto the Interwebs in a dot com.

Then a funny thing happened. I found out that there were other problems than those solved by algorithms. These problems involved people, and, wow, they were much more difficult to solve. In fact, many times, there was no solution; the best I could hope for was a good compromise. What a change from the deterministic world of writing software!

I took advantage of some opportunities that were presented to me. I spent some time in functional management, I spent some time in program management, and I spent some time in product management. I grew a lot, and I found out a few things about myself:

  1. I am more happy focusing my energy outwards than inwards. I like working with customers.

  2. I am better with customers than I ever thought I would be. I'm not a natural extrovert, so this was a surprise to me.

  3. Understanding customer problems and turning that into working software that solved those needs was very fulfilling. Doing so profitably was awesome.

  4. Successfully working with people requires figuring out what makes them tick. That small amount of "psychology" has caused me more personal growth than any other aspect of my career, and I am a better person as a result.

As a result of those opportunities, I found that I really enjoy product management. I like herding cats to get a release out the door. I like getting inside a customer's head. I like working with engineers until they share that knowledge. I like jumping in at the end of a long sales cycle and giving that last little nudge that pushes a sale over.

Unfortunately, in too many ways, my resume still says "engineer" and not "product manager." In an up-economy, that would be challenging; in a down-economy, it is down-right painful. I am greatful to have a marketable skill, but I would rather be doing what I really enjoy.

I've struggled for a while with this, trying to figure out what the best path forward is. One path says, "Go get an MBA", another says, "Tough it out, things will change later", and another, more insidious one, says "You are stuck where you are, so just deal with it."

An MBA...there are so few MBA programs that specialize in product management. I've talked with many product managers about the value of an MBA, and, without hitting a specialized program, it doesn't seem to be valuable to the tune of $20,000 or more. From the people I've talked to, maybe 20% of the classes would be truly useful, and of that 20%, I already have a strong enough working knowledge to succeed. Hard to stomach $20,000 out of my pocket to get a single-digit improvement. Who knows, maybe I'll be revisiting this decision in a couple of years.

Toughing it out is sort of a default. I have to have a job. I will take employment wherever I can. That option isn't really doing anything; it's just staying alive. However, as time goes on, it will become harder and harder to change, so the option of doing nothing is, in all reality, regressive.

What I can't do is "just deal with it." My personality doesn't work that way. The only thing more frustrating than not being where I want to be, is not even moving in the direction I want to move at all. And frustrating it has been.

This week, I made a decision and struck off. This is a journey to redefine myself, and the goal is to come out the other side in the place I want to be, regardless of economies or degrees. Here are the steps I'm taking:

  1. Joining the Product Development and Management Association. This gives me access to research on product development, access to networking opportunities, and provides some indication that I'm serious about this transition.

  2. Increasing my reading on product development and management related topics. This will cover anything from Making Things Happen to Tribes, to The Journal of Product Innovation Management.

  3. Writing about product management. This is an important part of the redefinition, because it is the first place it becomes publicly visible. I'm going to write here on my blog, on Twitter, and on other sites.

  4. Joining and becoming involved in product management communities. Certainly the local product management associate (The Utah Product Magement Association), but also some on-line communities that I have yet to define.

  5. Certifying professionally as a product manager through the PDMA.

  6. Applying these things to a personal software project I am working on.

In the end, not only will I be a better product manager, but others will be able to see the capability and knowledge that I have. Wish me luck!

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