Why quit consulting to join a startup

I’m often asked about my decision 2 years ago to leave a great consulting career to join a startup. Here I explain my key considerations when making the decision, and why I think it was the right decision for me. The rationale follows many of the reasons Raj outlined in his post “Don’t Waste Your 20s at Google or McKinsey”.

When I graduated college in my early twenties, the key goal for me was to get some real world working experience and maximize learnings. I joined consulting with the following goals:

  • Learn “business” to complement my engineering background
  • Get real-world experience on what it takes to run a company
  • Reevaluate whether I needed to pursue an advanced degree to further my career

The general guideline was clear, make the most of my time by learning through real world experience, and be compensated in the process. I would only go back to school, I decided, if I couldn’t further my growth fast enough in my job or was being undervalued given my lack of an advanced degree.

I spent 3 years in consulting at Accenture, a period in which I learned about managing a multi-million dollar a month project effectively, financial considerations of a services public company, managing client relationships and, among others, delivering value despite any crises that emerge. I had the opportunity to make contributions to large projects, I had great mentors, and financial compensation was great. I realized that, however, the learnings I wanted to pursue were no longer in alignment with what consulting would offer, but I was afraid to make a change and give up great compensation and benefits. Somewhere along the way I started valuing compensation more highly and lost focus of my initial goals, maximize learnings in my 20s.

I just believe that the way that young people’s minds develop is fascinating. If you are doing something for a grade or salary or a reward, it doesn’t have as much meaning as creating something for yourself and your own life.
– Steve Wozniak

The key factor that was bothering me was my inability to gain experience that would be relevant in a startup environment. Entrepreneurship had always been in the back of my mind, yet I didn’t see a path to building the skills necessary to start a new company. The kind of problems I was helping tackle in large enterprises had little resemblance to those that would determine whether a startup succeeds. The companies I worked with had resources and challenges very different from a startup environment. The longer I stayed in consulting, the harder it would become to acquire the right skills in the right environment.

I decided  to re-focus my career to maximize learning, particularly the learning needed for me to run a new venture in the future. This time I wanted to be part of a team growing a company from relatively early stages. How small the company was would be a consideration, but there were other key considerations that would drive the kind of startup I would ultimately join.

First acknowledge the key risk. There was little I could have done to truly understand the chances of a startup succeeding. I could look at how much funding the company had raised and from who, but that wouldn’t tell me whether management would blunder or the market would tank, and the company would collapse shortly after I joined. Statistics for how many startups are successful were not reassuring. As such, I had to join an environment in which I would learn and grow quickly, even if the company failed.

Find a team that will appreciate your skills. A consulting background comes with a set of skills that most tech startups often don’t appreciate or understand. This is particularly true if a consultant doesn’t have a technical background, which in Silicon Valley translates to having studied computer engineering. I had to find a team and a role that wouldn’t hinder my ability to grow by under-appreciating my skills. Ideally, this would be evident by the company having leadership with similar consulting-like background, and a role that leveraged those skills effectively.

Find a team you admire. The company could cease to exist, but the people within that company wouldn’t dissipate overnight. It was critical to find a team I could learn from and with which I could work with in future opportunities were this company not to work out. In other words, I looked at the company and thought “if I work here for a year and the company fails, would I regret having spent that time working along these people?”  My goal was to answer this with “absolutely not.”

This search led me to join BloomReach in 2013. I admire the team, the company is tackling interesting problems, and the leadership has truly leveraged my consulting background. Joining a fast growing mid-sized startup gave me the ability to both meaningfully contribute to the company outcome, have real impact and ownership, but still have enough experienced mentors to help me as I learn and grow. These mentors truly care for my development, and have helped me pursue great opportunities as the company continues to grow and so do the career opportunities.

Giving up a high-paying consulting career to join a startup was not easy at first, but I’m confident that it was the right choice to acquire the experiences that will prepare me to lead teams in an entrepreneurial environment. I was lucky to make this decision while it is still relatively easy, earlier in my career, and encourage others in similar positions to consider maximizing their learnings and experiences in their 20s.

Wishlist: Product Manager bootcamp manual chapters

A product manager does just about anything under the sun to make her product successful. This makes it difficult for new product managers to know what to focus on first. I often wished there was a bootcamp manual on how to be a great PM. In particular, I’d love to read chapters on the following:

  • Prioritizing what to learn among the many responsibility areas.
  • Making a decision with insufficient data (and tips on sleeping soundly after that.)
  • Communicating to others that you’ve considered their feedback, despite many of those requests not making it to the product roadmap.
  • Balancing responsiveness to customer demands and other product differentiation.
  • Enabling true engineering creativity and innovation despite market and customer time pressures.

Developing skills to be a great Product Manager

Finding a consistent definition for what a Product Manager (PM) role entails is no easy feat, as I have quickly figured out while starting to dip my toes into the product management world.  This is true even when try to narrow my scope to thinking about product management within tech companies in the San Francisco Bay Area. There seems to be as many definitions for ‘product management’ as there are roles out there, and a great deal of opinions around what makes someone a good product manager.  At first I found the many ways in which people thought about product management a bit puzzling and disconcerting, how am I supposed to find out what actually works well?  But after some thought, I realized that there is a common thread around most people’s perspective of what a PM is, and the variety of opinions about what the role actually is gives me the flexibility to explore where I would fit best based on how I would like to define my career.

One way in which the PM role has been described to me, which seemed to capture the essence of how PMs approach their work at BloomReach, is to see themselves as the mini-CEO of their particular product or features.  Putting it this way, it becomes clear that at the end of the day although as a PM you are not actually doing the product’s development, you are ultimately responsible for making the product successful.  This may mean that you should be well-versed in many different areas across the product development cycle in order to do your role well.  However, depending on the company size, product phase, and team size your responsibilities and areas of focus may be very different.  Here are a few things that have come up over and over as good skills to have.

Getting technical and knowing how to code

There seems to be a lot of discussion around the need to know how to code to be a successful PM, particularly given the success of non-technical/non-programmers as PMs in various companies.  That being said, something that Amazon GM Ian McAllister very succinctly pointed out is that not being technical is never an advantage for a PM.  That is, you may do well in the role, but knowing more about the technical side of how products are built is always advantageous.  I talked to various PMs so far and this sounds true to many.  They encourage non-programmers by pointing out that the engineering team will do the coding and thus you don’t necessarily have to be a great programmer, which would take many years of hard work, but I have always seen their heads nodding while discussing the benefits of knowing how to code when being a PM, even if knowing the basics and building from there.  Given this, I am embarking on a journey to learn how to code using a few highly recommended resources: Code Academy’s Python Course, General Assembly’s Dash course, and using the JavaScript & jQuery: The Missing Manual book.

A few other things I have been told to learn from a technical standpoint include scripting for data analysis (to get insights), learning how to scale products, what levers can be used to make products faster, determining the right database structure/schema, among others.

Learning about User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) design

Steve Jobs is well-known for his brilliance in having focused as much on product design as he did on functionality.  He pushed the boundaries of how a product should be thought about to include an end-to-end view that would not only be technically impressive, but also ‘really cool.’  This allowed the products to enchant users through its ease of use.  It meant that graphics and design were smartly and intently applied to create a pleasant experience and remove any layers of frustration with the product.  Great UI and UX can very strongly influence the user’s reaction to the product, regardless of its complexity or how impressive is features actually are.

I would like to continue developing my eye to catch what is it that makes a product fun and exciting to use, and look for ways in which to bring this into the development of the products that I may have the privilege to work on.  For now, I am simply going through and reviewing the products that I love, and determine to what extent it may be a function of smart design instead of just technically impressive features.  Are there any great resources I should look into for this?  Let me know.

Understanding user needs

Ruthless prioritization seems to be one of the most critical aspects of successful product development execution.  Where PMs are most impactful is in determining which of the many great product ideas they should implement first, which ones to defer, and which ones not to implement at all.  There are many complexities introduced by each ‘minor’ feature developed given the need to make it work well holistically with the rest of the product.  As such, a great product manager needs to determine which features will make the most impact towards achieving the product’s vision and value proposition, and resist the urge to try to implement the rest of the features that may delay these from getting out to the users.

Going back to Steve Jobs as a great example, I have included below the transcript of one of his conversations explaining the big difference between having great ideas vs. actually executing on the right things.  That is where the rubber meets the road, as people say.

Steve Jobs on the importance of great executino

Focusing on Product Management – how I am planning to develop my product management skills

I have always found intrigue in the idea of writing posts for this blog, but the reality is that my focus has jumped around from topic to topic, making the site frustrating to follow.  The main reason this has been the case is a lack of a topic of which I would like to extensively write about and continue to learn and share things.

I decided to bring some focus to the blog around the topic of Product Management.  I think it is a intriguing and interesting topic and I recently started more strongly focusing my career on Product Management, at least for the next few years, and there is a ton for me to learn as someone who does not have a computer science background.  I am sure it will be an intriguing ride and I will use this blog to write about my learnings as well as to engage other interested folks in conversation.

To start, I am doing a few things to learn more about product management (in addition of learning from the Product Management team at BloomReach.)

I am looking to learn about topics that I am not familiar with given my lack of a Computer Science background.  I know that by not having studied Computer Science in college I am at a big disadvantage in knowing about the technologies powering current products and what is possible, but I am confident that doing my due diligence, continuously learning and immersing myself into relevant topics I can work my way through.  
If you have any recommendations, I am all ears.  I know there are many talented Product Managers out there and I would love to make the most from your learnings.  

Everyday kindness is the true antidote to senseless violence

My thoughts after the terrible Boston Bombings on Marathon Day, 2013.

There are many disheartening news, heart-wrenching stories about civilians getting killed, attacks on innocent people, senseless aggression.  The world, as seen through the lenses of what the news portrays, looks bleak.   Our sense of security proves to be just a creation in our head, quite illusory, and although we must do what we can through legislation to reduce violence and senseless killings, the more powerful antidote to this is to bring out of everyone what truly makes humanity special, our sense of love and compassion for each other.  There is true goodness in everyone, but it needs to be nurtured through our everyday interactions, and this is something that we each are responsible for.  Bullying, racism, discrimination, hatred… are actions that will make all of us weaker.  Were we to teach everyone to be kind and compassionate, rather than strive to follow a creed and seek power & influence, we would not need legislation to protect ourselves from each other.

We often think that parents are the ones responsible for educating their children and teaching them all these good values.  But, as part of society and a community, we are all somehow responsible for the impact we have in each other’s lives, be it through direct interaction or through ignoring what’s wrong. With over 7 billion people in this world, there will always be conflict, good & evil will always coexist, but as we allow for the good in people, the compassion, to flourish and continue spreading through small everyday actions, evil will remain controlled, and we will continue to live and make the most of this world.

Nothing can be taken for granted, so we should strive to make the most out of every single day we are gifted.  The following quote by the Dalai Lama gives me strength in weeks like this one, and reminds me that by doing good for others not only do I help improve the world, but I also do good to my own soul.

“Today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”
– H.H. The 14th Dahlai Lama

Pebbles & Excellence

“Nobody trips over mountains.  It is the small pebble that causes you to stumble.  Pass all the pebbles in your path and you will find you have crossed the mountain.”  ~Author Unknown

Focus on being excellent at conquering the small pebbles.

Impermanence, change, losses

Impermanence is, to me, what makes life thrilling and worth living.  Knowing that things constantly change means that there is a possibility that today will be a great day filled with wonder and great surprises.  And since things will change no matter what, we might as well use this to create opportunities for a brighter future and to improve everyone’s lives.  Impermanence is a great thing.  But, it is this impermanence that also brings ‘losses’ into our lives as it makes way for new things, and coping with these losses is perhaps the most difficult thing for me to do. 

There is a big part of me that is driven to understand the what, the how, the why and then to try to control it, try to make everything predictable, manageable, manipulable.  The engineer and consultant in me just wants to be able to design a future, cut out the painful parts, sprinkle in a little bit of more happiness each day, put it to production (an optimized production, of course) and then see it flawlessly come to life.  Yet life has a funny way of reminding me constantly that things will continue to change whether I like it or not, and that I should not think of the future as something known or predictable.  
The main problem I have is losing a strong connection with someone.  My feelings towards people change as our relationship evolves, or dissolves, without any conscious effort on my behalf.  Similarly, people’s opinions about me, and their feelings toward me, will inevitably change over time, for the better or worse.  Trying to somehow predict how someone will feel about me, or overly trying to make them think about me or feel about me in a certain way will only result in pain and a quicker deterioration in our relationship.
As people move on with their lives, either physically or emotionally, I must adjust to accept the reality of the moment.  I shall always cherish the bond we have or used to share and take this new reality as a potentially temporary situation that will in the future reverse.  Distance and time help clear up our thoughts and bring to life the true feelings we have, sometimes even bringing people back to your life with an even stronger connection.  But if that’s not the case, and the change is permanent, I must accept that new reality and be grateful for the great memories of what used to be.  

I must focus on the present moment and what life is bringing to it right now, and make the best of it.  I need to leave the things that are out of my control at ease, let them get sorted out, and trust that anything that is missing to complete a chapter in my life story will come at just the appropriate time and place.  I should now focus my attention on cultivating what is appropriate at this time.  One step at a time.