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Product manager's career roadmap

 

I've heard the term "career planning" very late. No one talked to me about a career in high school, nor later on my education path. I grew up in a poor country with a backwards education system (in 2006, the English theory book I was using was printed in 1968. It was full of "comrades" talking to each other in a way even British TV wouldn't use to mock Eastern Europeans). So I had no clue what I wanted to do, so as all my friends. 

I was a PM for a few years when someone mentioned career planning to me. At the time I didn't pay it enough attention, I was too busy learning the ropes as a PM. I got into product management by a chance. Just took on an opportunity without much consideration. The job was so diverse, I was learning quickly and didn't get bored. All was going well, I even got promoted a couple of times, until one day I realised that I was stuck. I settled into my role, fixed on ways of doing things and was no longer learning a lot. It was time to reflect and create a career roadmap. 

But I didn't do that. Instead, I've convinced myself I hate the job I was doing and need to quit. I was looking for a way out without even thinking what my next role should be. Perhaps it's not a surprise that I only lasted six months in my new job. Yet again I've made an impulsive, emotional decision about my career instead of really thinking about it. 

I'd love to end the story here, to say that I've learnt to plan ahead and created a shiny career roadmap. But it would be a lie. I went on making mistakes and only recently seriously attempted to come up with a career roadmap. Almost a decade into my product management career. 

Why a roadmap and not career planning? 

Planning assumes much bigger control that you actually have. Personal circumstances, market situation, luck - all these factors affect if and when you could achieve certain career milestones. Hence the roadmap is more honest, it's a commitment to a certain direction rather than a stonewall contract to be at the right place and time. 

Where do you start to build a career roadmap? 

You start from the beginning - from outlaying how'd gotten where you are now. Kierkegaard once said that life could only be understood backwards. Well, so as a career. Visualising your professional path might help you reflect and give you ideas for the future. 

Decide what do you want to do next

Now that's hard. At least for me, that is. I can do a ton of research and still wouldn't know how my decision will turn up to be. One indicator that used to work for me in the past, and sorry it will sound a bit cheesy, when it feels uncomfortable - it's probably the right thing to pursuit. The biggest professional growth I ever experienced came when I felt out of my depth. Yes, it is stressful but it's worth it. 

Alternatively, you can optimise for things you like to do. On your career roadmap, you can list your key activities in every job you had, then highlight those you enjoyed doing and look for more of those in your next gig. 

More than one path

For years, in product management, so as in Engineering, there was only one career path - from an individual contributor to a manager. Associate/junior PM > PM > Senior PM > Head of product > CPO. Or the variations of that. If you wanted to stay on the individual contributor path - you were forced to change companies, where you'd still hit the glass ceiling eventually. Luckily, that is changing. Progressive companies these days recognise that some people like to stay on the individual contributor path but still have professional development and progression. Hence you see titles like Principal, Group or Lead product manager more often. 

The decision between those two paths comes down to one crucial question: do you like to do the work yourself or help others do it even better? Individual contributor path is hands-on, actively doing while the managerial path is empowering, supporting others to do their best work. 

Leadership, I believe, doesn't exclusively apply to the managerial path. You can be an awesome leader as an individual contributor. 

Trialling the management path

There are not that many opportunities for individual contributors to try the managerial role and decide if they like doing it. Some companies offer rotating managerial roles and inter-departmental exchanges but that still doesn't happen often enough. 

However, there are some things you can do to try on managerial shoes. 

  1. Read books on management (Andrew S. Grove, High Output Management). If you like the challenges described there - that might be a good role for you. 
  2. Become a mentor. One of the key functions of a manager is to help their people learn and do a better job. You can test if you like that part by becoming someone's mentor. I'd even argue that being a mentor is better as you'd have no formal authority over people and it will be totally their free will to listen to you. 

Summary

I was thinking to list here all the steps to create a career roadmap but then I decided otherwise. Truth is, I am still figuring those things out, still trying things and see how they turn out. It's a shame we cannot A/B test our careers. What we can do is to analyze the path we've already walked, think of the next destination and find a possible road there. 

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