Your route to a product role won't be a straight one

Your route to a product role won't be a straight one

Product Management is probably my fourth career in my life.

I started in professional sports, then worked in the cinema industry, before heading into recruitment, and finally into all things digital product.

As you can tell, this was not a well thought out plan.  It was a series of individual decisions that were right for me and my life at the time.

I've changed jobs because I had to (injured knee), because it suited my family life (moving to be closer to home to take on childcare), and because opportunities were just too good to turn down (my first official product role).

I have followed the things I've enjoyed, at the time I've enjoyed them, and when I've not been enjoying them, I've moved on to the next opportunity that met my needs.

It has led to my non-linear work life, but it's led me to be in product management.

In this post, I take a look at how the past twenty years has gone, in order to illustrate that it doesn't matter where you are now, but you can get there in the future, even if the journey there takes you on a few detours.

Career by role

Over the past twenty years I've had eight major roles all within the realm of digital activities, starting out in a role that supported corporate clients in managing and developing their online recruitment portals.

We had a SaaS product, but I wasn't the product manager, but day-to-day I was speaking to users of the software, finding out about how they operated and turning these conversations into projects that delivered the outcomes they needed.  In reality it was a Product Owner type role with a large chunk of sales thrown in.

My next move took me on to project management, not because I wanted to be a project manager, but I'd had my first daughter and was going to be heavily involved in childcare and needed to work out of the city and closer to home.  However, project management gets you used to the delivery aspects of software products, as well as managing stakeholder expectations, key product skills.

As I progressed, I got people working for me and my involvement in product strategy increased, although not officially.  It just came with job titles involving 'director' or 'head of'.

It was only in 2014 that I actually got the word "product" in a job title, as I joined a startup to build a team to deliver a new FinTech product.  Even then, 'product' wasn't the only part of my remit, as anyone who's worked in a startup will tell you.  I effectively had responsibility for everything non-technical, which included marketing, customer support, and operations.  It really helps to understand the wider business when you're a PM.

Career by industry

Another dimension to look at a career path is via the industry I've worked in, as this isn't also doesn't show a common industry throughout the last twenty years.

Some people will want to work within the same industry, and move around jobs in that space, but for me, finding opportunities in other industries has helped my understanding of the challenges that both organizations and customers have in those different areas.  I think this is valuable, so don't worry about not being the "finance industry expert" or the "ecommerce expert".

Salary by role

This one is perhaps the most linear dimensions to look at my career, and I think it illustrates the fact that I've moved roles mostly to suit my life and not to drive forward my career.

I've seen versions of this chart for those seeking to fill gaps in their CV with missing skills, and it's very up and down, as they gain experience and with it increased pay, only to jump roles to gain experience elsewhere and with it take a drop in pay in exchange for this experience.

For me, I've been driven by my lifestyle and so unwilling to take large drops in pay just to get skills I want.  I'd rather find an opportunity that could deliver both.

In summary

If your career isn't going in a straight line, that's absolutely fine.  Most careers don't.

If you have an idea of where you want to head, then great, but there are more ways than one to make that journey.

Lots of different roles, and different industries, can give you a breadth of skills that many candidates can't match, so feel free to look for opportunities that excite you, that fit with your lifestyle, and have the benefit of developing an area of your skills that you can use on your journey.

More information:

I'm a big fan of the Squiggly Careers podcast, where they address the fact our careers aren't linear and how we can take control of our journey.  you can also read about non-linear careers in The Atlantic and in Forbes