Startups won’t build your career on your behalf. You must.

Startups are sexy. Here in Silicon Valley, most people I meet either work for a startup or are thinking about starting one. Working for a startup is an alluring proposition for those seeking a challenge. Startups promise ownership, exciting work, and the opportunity to be part of the next big thing. If you’re considering a switch, I’ve written about the case to quit consulting to join a startup.

The often unspoken assumption is that career growth opportunities in a startup will be abundant. With dreams of revolutionizing an industry, it may seem frivolous to think about career management. Yet, challenges unique to startups complicate career growth. I discuss these below not to dissuade you, but as a starting point towards a solution. In fact, I encourage you to make the transition from a large company if you haven’t already. Be prepared to do the necessary work to succeed.

Career difficulties in a startup.

Startups face many challenges related to its product maturity and funding status. Cash reserves are limited and the prudent thing is to be conservative when hiring. These conditions bring in some of the following challenges to a startup.

Quick changes in initiatives. Efforts that you are working on may get cut. You may not be able to go through the full learning cycle of completing the effort.

Not enough people. There may be more critical items to address than the team can absorb. You may stress over having to deprioritize a critical request.

The pace of change far outpaces communication. Startups must also be quick to incorporate new market knowledge to remain relevant. You often feel that you’re learning about important changes late.

Because of these issues, employees’ career growth can be overlooked. It is often not a top priority for the company to focus on career development plans. The executive team may recognize the importance of it, yet be pulled in other directions. This will bring the following challenges when working on your career development.

Unclear career path. Startups rarely have a career path defined for most employee functions. This gives you flexibility but doesn’t provide you with a growth framework.

Unclear promotion requirements. You may have a general understanding of what it takes to get promoted, but no specifics. You may not understand why someone was or wasn’t promoted. Titles may change in confusing ways. The company structure may change quickly and often.

Promotion timing may be odd. Due to business needs and finance’s forecast uncertainty, startups have to be extra careful about promoting. The business may have growth spurts in which many promotions happen at once. You may be ready for a promotion but have to wait until the business needs your skills at a new level. This may come as part of growth or when a leader in your group resigns, both situations more likely to be unexpected at a startup.

No starting cohort. You will rarely find a group of peers that joins the company at the same time and position as you. This is often a group leveraged in large companies for growth discussions.

Difficult to find mentors. There will be a small percent of experienced mentors and managers in a startup. They will be managing many people and initiatives. This will make it difficult to get their undivided attention on your career growth.

Lack of personal time to focus on career reflection. The startup asks so much of your time that you deprioritize career reflection. Reflecting often feels like inaction, which doesn’t bode well with the startup-type.

Limited training options. Your company won’t have a mature HR department with a large training budget. There may be no training specific to your function. You will need to learn on the job. You may be unaware of how your efforts have helped you hone useful skills.

No clear benchmarks on skills or compensation. There are not enough peers for the company to provide guidance on how you compare to your peers. Your compensation includes equity with an unclear long-term value. It will be difficult for you to compare your compensation on a risk-adjusted basis.

Future employers may not understand your title. Recruiters may have a good understanding of the caliber of a Director at Google or Facebook. They won’t know what to expect from a Director at a small company.

Not every challenge above is unique to a startup, but you are more likely to encounter them in one. I put aside companies that simply don’t care or invest in employee growth. Those companies are unlikely to be hiring at the talent level that startups need to succeed in this knowledge economy.

Although you may encounter many challenges in a startup, the good news is that with the right framework these challenges can turn out to be blessings in disguise.

Develop your own growth plan

There is no shortage of career challenges in a startup. On the flip side, startups offer a unique level of freedom and flexibility. If you know where you want to take your career, you are more likely to be able to find opportunities to do so.

Before doing this I encourage you to reflect on what growth means to you. It is important to reframe career growth by factoring in the challenges discussed. This is critical if you’ve enjoyed success in a large, structured work environment so far.

Redefine your view of a role

In a startup, you will find yourself working on tasks that go beyond one function or level. You may be a manager doing analyst work. Or in Customer Success and contributing to product documentation. As a Designer, you may help tweak CSS for an engineer. You may be a product manager stepping in as a technical project manager for a customer project. Or the talented marketer that helps the support team craft better customer responses.

This work may feel counter-productive. You may feel that you are working on tasks that go beyond what you signed up for. But that’s the point. A startup’s blurry role responsibilities let you develop skills outside of your function. Jon Stein, CEO of Betterment, thinks of a startup as a test kitchen. There are always many initiatives at work and as you deliver results you’ll own more of those. This will help you grow your skills and career.

The key to making the most of this flexibility, then, is to know where you want to be. That will allow you to volunteer for the initiatives in the test kitchen that will help you get there.

Think beyond your current company.

Unless you’re a founder or in an executive role, your job at a startup is unlikely to be the last stop of your career. You should, instead, think long-term and beyond your current company. Your top goal must still be to make your current company successful. If your startup succeeds, potential employers will associate you with the company’s success.

That said, give less importance to titles and focus on skills. Your primary goal can’t be getting a promotion and a new title. Your goal has to be new skills development. Owning crucial projects and delivery flawlessly must be a priority. This is what you will take with you once you’ve made this company successful. That is what will help you be an executive at your next startup, or make you successful when you build your own startup. Remember, a recruiter won’t understand what a title in your company means. What results, and how you’ve managed and delivered them, is what they can compare with other candidates.

Define the skills you want to develop

Have you made peace with defining your career growth based on skills, and not titles? Great. Now you may find it difficult to define what specific skills you should focus on. Here are a few suggestions I’ve found helpful over the years.

Find a mentor, think beyond your function. I mentioned above that it’s harder to find a mentor in a startup. However, finding a mentor is still one of the most impactful things that you can do. I encourage you to think beyond your specific function and company. The best career advice and insights I’ve received over the past few years have come from people outside of my department or at a different company.

Today vs. t+1 year resume reflection. A great mentor of mine, Christy Augustine, suggested this exercise to me. Write your resume as you want it to read a year from today. What would you have delivered by then? What position could you go after with that resume? Compare that to your current resume. Identify what skills and experiences to focus on from a career perspective. This approach helped me plan my transition to product management in 2014. Although this exercise is focused on work only, your resume, it is important to put this into the perspective of your overall life goals.

How do your current skills compare? Look at what skills companies look for in the roles you want to pursue. How do you rank in each of these? Use a mentor or peer to help you have a frank discussion on this. Consider general skills besides specific skills. It is also helpful to look at lists of skills and understand what they mean. You may have skills that you don’t know are important or what to name.

Engage with your peers. Many of your peers have figured out ways to develop certain skills. Look at their LinkedIn profiles or resumes. What areas are they highly-skilled in that you want to develop? Reach out and ask them how they become well-versed in that area. These can be folks in the same role at a similar company, don’t limit this to your current startup.

Identify resources and feasibility to develop your desired skills. Can you develop these skills at your current company? Can you develop through books, seminars, courses, or volunteer positions?

Talk to your manager about your career plans. Most of your conversations are likely far more tactical, focused on the day to day work, than you may like. That’s why you’ve read this far. Ensure that your manager is clear on what opportunities you seek. Ask her to find you work that develops your preferred skills. Otherwise, be clear about priorities and make time to develop skills outside of work.

Consider creating a side project. This can be within the company or outside. This may also be something fun, helpful if you’re looking for a distraction from your day job. My friend Ailian Gan writes about side projects as a way to create something that you want to see exist. Great ideas and outcomes often come from where you less expect it.

Use industry benchmarks to demand fair treatment

Data and benchmarks are great. I love mining through data. When I worked at Accenture, I was clear on the compensation ranges for various positions. The company provided salary ranges. This was a great benchmark for me, in addition to performance reviews.

At startups, your compensation isn’t as straightforward. You must establish your benchmark using industry data. You should also look at how much your compensation changes over time. A prudent startup is hesitant to overspend on employees. Thus, a good pay raise is usually a strong sign that your contribution.

Make sure to consider equity (stock and options). Get an estimate of what it’s currently worth based on your company’s last round of funding. Your company should be transparent with you about this information. (If that’s not the case, discount it as worthless). Then consider likely exit scenarios for your company to see its potential. Consider both upside and downside. Find a risk-adjusted average.

Compare your compensation to what other companies would pay for you. You can use PayScale or Glassdoor’s Know Your Worth to access plenty of useful industry data. Remember, however, to focus on skills and not on titles. Titles often don’t capture your scope of work or contribution level at a startup. When establishing a benchmark, check out various titles corresponding to your skill level.

Recognize when it’s time to switch companies

I have focused this discussion on skills development as a clear way to grow your career. But the reality is that often your career growth is capped by opportunities to contribute. I have a simple career growth model.

Career growth = (New skills + new experience) * (opportunities to contribute)

Skills growth and learning from experience increase your capacity to contribute to a company. However, you can be the world’s most gifted manager, but if your company doesn’t need another manager, who cares? You must recognize when your skills are undervalued. Look at your total comp as a benchmark. If you find that your startup is undervaluing your skill-set, I encourage you to have a frank discussion with your manager. Give them a chance to rectify the situation. A great manager can surprise you with solutions you couldn’t imagine before. If, however, your manager is unable to find ways to help you grow your career, it may be time to move on.

Closing thoughts

Startups are fun. Making the transition in 2013 from a company with 250,000+ employees (Accenture) to one with 120 employees at the time (BloomReach) has allowed me to grow in unparalleled ways. However, this growth over the past 3 years came with many bumps on the road. I was fortunate to get sound advice at critical times to continue growing and learning. I hope that by sharing these learnings I can help a few folks, and learn from the experiences of many others.

References

(1) Jon Stein, CEO of Betterment, wrote for Fast Company about startups.

(2) Avery Augustine gives compares career growth at startups vs large companies.

Thanks to Ailian Gan, Stella Treas, and Christy Augustine for their help and insights. 

Being ‘too busy’ is not productive. Prioritize and focus on what matters.

Productivity has been a topic of huge interest to me over the past few years. In fact, when having a discussion with a friend, I told her that my goal is to help people be more productive. Not happy, productive. If people are productive, my thinking went, they would be doing the things they love and thus be happy.

I may have gotten my thinking reversed, but one thing is still clear. To be successful at work, and in life, you must spend your time on the right things. You must be confident in how your spend your time to eliminate two common fears. (1) Fear of wasting your time or (2) fear of not having enough time to do things. Managing your time is critical because you can’t get any more of it, you’ll always have 24 hours in a day. Being productive, then, is about focusing that time on the most important things and deprioritizing the rest.

Be clear on what is important to you

First, you must be clear on what matters to you. What is it that will truly bring the change that you need in your life? What are the actions that will help you accomplish those goals? You must clarify what you want to accomplish. Sit down and make a plan. If you have difficulties, find resources to help you. But don’t skip this step.

If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.

– Jim Rohn

The book Designing Your Life has been a great asset for me. It helped me crisply define a work view and a life view. Combined, my work view and my life view help me define a true North which I can follow as I navigate through life. An interesting insight I had was that although my work view and life view are compatible, I have ignored aspects of my life view due to focusing only on my work view. Taking the time to reflect on this helped me identify the right priorities to focus on, both inside and outside of work.

As you grow older and hopefully wiser, you will pursue different passions and your interests may change. Just make sure that you are true to yourself and what really matters to you.

Make time for what matters

You may have already defined what is important to you. It feels like January 1 when you have your list of resolutions that you know, for sure, you’ll stick to this year. Except that February 1 comes around and you don’t even remember what your resolutions were. Life happens. You still only have 24 hours in a day and this just didn’t fit in. It isn’t enough to know what matters to you. You must make time for what matters most to you.

I like the framework of Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand. I first heard about it in this YouTube video. Take the 2 minutes to watch if you haven’t already.

Identify your rocks. Know what you must do to get to where you want to be. Don’t let anything else fill your jar and prevent you from accomplishing your most crucial goals. Block your calendar ahead of time, remove distractions, and allow for ample time to work on your rocks. Once you’ve spent enough time on your rocks, you can take care of the pebbles and sand. But not before.

Identify the key next step and just get started

Once you know what’s important and have blocked time for it, do the work. If you feel stuck on an important task, clarify what the next action needs to be. David Allen’s Getting Things Done defines a project as anything that takes more than one action to accomplish. This is important, you can’t do a project. You can only take an action. If you feel stuck, break down your project into discrete actions that you can take. Then bring out your favorite tomato-shaped timer and get that next action done.

Beware of the ‘urgent’ trap

We often confuse urgency and importance. Habit 3 of The 7 Habits book focuses exclusively on this point. Let’s define these two things.

Important things help you move closer towards accomplishing a goal.
Urgent things are time-sensitive, if not done quickly you may never reap benefits from it.

A common pitfall is spending time on urgent things that are easy to do but don’t significantly help you to accomplish a goal. Just because something is urgent, time-sensitive, doesn’t mean that you must do it. That is the equivalent of filling up your jar with Pebbles and Sand before trying to put in the Rocks.

A common example is allowing email and text notifications interrupt your focus. Presumably, before getting the latest email or text, you were working on something important. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have been working on it. Yet, you allow your brain to shift its focus momentarily to check the email’s subject line or text. Your brain switches its focus to the notification, scans it, and decides that it is not important. You then switch your focus back to the task at hand. This constant distraction interrupts your thought process and makes you much less effective. Even worse, it makes you much less creative and engaged during meetings. The same happens when your colleague stops by your desk with a quick question. You can take this as an urgent request and let is stop you from completing other important work. Or, kindly ask them to send you an email (sand) which you can respond to in a bit after completing your current task (pebble or rock).

As you go through your day, don’t confuse urgent with important. Be proactive and work on the truly important today so that it doesn’t get crushed among many urgent things tomorrow.

If all else fails, talk to a friend

If you’ve done all of the above and still feel tired and disoriented, get help. Go see a friend, a family member, a coach, a therapist, a priest, anyone. Don’t try to get answers from them, but rather go to them to gain a new perspective. We all go through moments of confusion and stress, times in which we struggle with clarifying what we should be doing. Use other people’s experiences to form a perspective that works for you. You may need to do this again many times over the next decade as you keep learning, growing, and gaining more insight and responsibility. Accept it as a part of life and enjoy the journey.

Don’t defend your product prioritization. Instead, show how you got there.

A critical part of a product manager’s job is prioritizing what to build. You must decide what to build now in order to make your product successful in the long term. More importantly, you decide what not to build.

This will always draw plenty of opinions. Your colleagues have an example of clients that loved a particular feature idea. Your clients ask for certain features to accomplish their current goals. The customer success teams need you to simplify the product’s integration and usability. Engineering needs time for innovation, cool features, and infrastructure improvements. The sales team request the features that your competition is touting. The marketing team needs you to deliver the future.

As a product manager, it is your job to assimilate many inputs to help create a full picture of the pressures that your product faces. You must use this knowledge to make a recommendation of what must be built over the next 3, 6, or 12 months. How do you do this?

Start with company priorities

If your company’s executive team is worth their pay, they’ve established a clear set of goals for everyone to rally after. You must start your prioritization with these goals in mind. How does your product fit into these company initiatives? What is the key metrics that your company is seeking to improve? Are there any specific markets that must be pursued? Are there certain users that you must prioritize? Make sure that these are the key factors in your prioritization.

If this is not immediately clear to you, clarify it with your company’s management team. You will fail as a product manager if you optimize for your own vanity metrics rather than the company’s goals.

Build a framework to evaluate requests

Evaluating features or initiatives must be a mix of data and judgment. As a product manager, you are trying to factor in a large number of factors: impact on new customer acquisition, customer retention, cost to build, cost to support, differentiation from the competition, etc. For some of these factors, you will have clear information or forecasts. For others, though, you will need to make a judgment call.

You can simplify your prioritization by defining a framework to score each theme and feature. The goal of this framework is to help make it easier to surface the initiatives that will have the biggest impact in the areas that matter the most.

I use a simple spreadsheet. The first column lists all initiatives being considered. The next set of columns contain the various factors identified as important. Each initiative will have a score for each factor based on the overall impact to that factor. There should be a clear definition of what it would take for the initiative to get a 1, 5 or a 10. In the next column, add a blended score for the feature. If you care most about one factor than the rest, you can multiply that factor’s score by some number (2, 3, 5) for the overall blended score. Finally, a column for notes to add any special considerations that went into that initiative’s scoring.

This process is not meant to replace your human judgment or “visionary” work. Instead, it is a way to remove some of the complexity in coming up with an answer. It brings clarity by forcing you to score each factor independently for the initiative. You can then focus your discussions with others on whether the impact to a particular factor or KPI is overstated, understated, or whether the factor should be weighed more heavily than others. Those discussions are more focused than a generic conversation about all the ways in which feature A may be better than feature B. Yes, feature A may be awesome, but if it doesn’t help me improve customer engagement and that’s my core goal, it may lose to Feature B in my prioritization.

Communicate and show your work

This brings back memories from math class back in elementary school. My teacher would always ask me to “show my work.” It wasn’t enough, she said, to write down the right solution. Show the steps and the logic behind the answer. Similarly, it is important for product managers to show how they arrived at a given conclusion. This is critical since there is no one “right” answer that everyone can agree on. Your colleagues can see your work and argue on the logic of prioritization rather than the answer.

Showing your work could take the form of a beautiful spreadsheet (as I described before). Or it could be a presentation succinctly discussing the core factors at play. It could be a write-up. It could be anything. But have something that anyone in your company can take a look at and get a sense of (1) what you prioritized and (2) what else you considered that didn’t meet the cut, and (3) why. Otherwise, be ready to get stuck defending and revisiting your prioritization an insufferable number of times throughout the quarter.

Whatever you do, keep it transparent

Your approach to prioritizing features will invariably be a mix of researching information coupled with a final judgment call. Once a quarter, you sit down and write out 10 things that you must build next in order for your product to be successful. You will have plenty of discussions and considerations that lead you to a certain prioritization. Don’t make the mistake of keeping this information in your head. Take the time to write this information out. Keep the prioritization criteria somewhere that’s transparent to everyone in the organization. Whenever someone has a question as to why something is or isn’t being built, point them to the document and be there to answer questions.

Assuming that your colleagues are trying to accomplish the same goal you have, to make your company successful, this should smooth out conversations. Give your colleagues the proper context and, just maybe, they might agree with you and support you. If they don’t, you can have a healthy and focused debate on what matters for prioritization without getting invested in specific initiative or feature arguments.

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Don’t run away from discomfort at work. Clarify, remove obstacles and find purpose.

There will be times in your career in which your work won’t push you into that magical state of flow. The work that you are doing will not hit that balance of challenging without stressing you. You may be working on a project that doesn’t challenge you enough. You may be comfortably project managing a simple initiative. You may be executing on a plan instead of brainstorming a grand idea. Alternatively, you may be stressed because your company asks you to do work that’s not exactly fitting to your strengths. Your contribution feels forced, uncomfortable, and stifling. Your instincts will want you to run away from such a situation. To switch roles, change companies, or ask for more work. Anything to get back to that feeling of productivity and contribution that you may have felt before. Yet, first take the time to step back and reflect on what is happening.

Do you need to do this work? If the work that you’re doing doesn’t necessarily fit your skills or experience level, it may be wise to postpone or delegate the effort. Don’t assume that because you were asked to do this you must do it now. Clarify the relative priority of the project or task. Explore options to defer or delegate the work and do other work instead.

Is this work necessary for your growth? Maybe you are new to the company. Or maybe you are moving to a more senior level of contribution. These two situations can feel similar. You may feel that you are not contributing as much as you are expected to. However, you first need to learn the ropes before you can contribute at a higher level. After that initial ramp up period your contribution will be drastically improved. Discuss the situation with your manager to ensure that her perspective is the same as yours. Also, be patient.

Is this a temporary situation? Consider whether this is a temporary situation due to an uncommon business situation or transition period. There may have been a slow growth quarter in the company or a change in priorities causing you to be ‘stuck’ with this work. While you wait for work that’s a better fit for your skills, consider working on an ‘extracurricular’. You can volunteer your underutilized skills to help on other projects. Often having another project that plays to your strengths can give you the boost that will get you through not-so-good phases in other projects.

The bottom line is to not confuse a temporary situation that doesn’t allow you to be at your peak with a situation that you must escape. You may be able to defer or delegate the work, push through the situation to develop new skills, or find temporary relief in other work that plays to your strengths.

Non-technical PMs don’t need to study CS, but must be technically curious to be effective.

Originally answered in QuoraWhat core CS concepts should someone with a non technical background study if they want to break into product management?

I focused on this question as I tried to transition into Product Management. Here is my experience.

1. You will not get hired into Product Management because of your Computer Science skills. Your understanding of CS concepts will be a small part of your role as a PM. Your engineering counterpart will own technology and implementation decisions. Or any other decision that need a good understanding of CS concepts. A caveat, each company has a different recruiting process and some require you to be able to ship code. If your background is not technical, you’ll be at a huge disadvantage going for a Product role in such a company. I’d look for opportunities in companies where the Product role doesn’t include shipping code.

2. Yet, understanding CS concepts will make you a more effective Product Manager. It will also help you build better relationships with engineering. Some situations when it helps to understand the product include:

  • During feature design. You will often work with a designer and an engineer to define a user interaction. It helps if you understand the tradeoffs between user experience and the cost to build.
  • Debugging issues. You will often be asked why a product isn’t working as expected for a customer. It is helpful to know what is wrong without distracting engineering from development. Understanding the components of the system can help you do this. You can often reframe the “issue” reported as a feature request or user error. This can reduce the pressure to ship a ‘fix’ immediately.
  • External discussions. A PM is often asked to talk to potential customers of their product. This is particularly the case in enterprise products. These conversations will often include technical questions. Answering the questions without bringing in an engineer can help the PMs credibility. It can also speed up the sales or integration process.

Now, what you’ll realize with each of those scenarios is that the knowledge that you need is varied. As such, I’d recommend that you approach the problem with general curiosity. Start learning about a technology used in the type of product that you’re interested in managing. If you don’t have a particular desire, pick a few of the most common technologies to start learning. Here are a few examples of things that helped me.

  • HTML, CSS, and JavaScript/jQuery. Understanding the power and limitation of HTML, CSS, and JS/jQuery will be helpful for any web product. Codecademy teaches you through building a simple site using these technologies. This will help you in conversations about client-side vs server-side, performance implications, etc.
  • Product’s infrastructure components. It is critical to understand the technology components that power your product. At BloomReach, we use many technologies to build our product. Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud infrastructure. SolrCloud for our search engine. Cassandra for our database. We’ve built our codebase in Java and Python. Our dashboards may use the Play framework, AngularJS, or ReactJS. Each technology has limitations that you should understand as a product manager. They will guide what efforts you may need to focus on to improve the system. Understand them at a high level. What can you use this technology for? What are its limitations? How does using it help/hinder the product development? What are the implications in product performance? How does it impact the user’s interaction with our product? We developed foreign language capabilities last year. At the time, we had to evaluate whether to use pre-packaged components or build brand new ones. As a PM, I collaborated with engineering to make a decision based on the pros and cons of each approach. The cost to build and impact to potential roadmap features was a key consideration.
  • Do simple programming exercises. If you’ve never programmed, take a simple course in Python and Java or C programming. Writing a few lines of code and having it execute well will start giving you a sense of how a computer works.
  • Learn the vocabulary of your area of interest. Each product area has a lingo. Learn what things mean. Machine learning may sound intimidating until you’ve read a bit about it. What is a “cloud” product? Is it better than an on-premise product? Why or why not?
  • Potential exercise, build an app with a friend. I find that in Silicon Valley building your own app on the side gets you good street cred for a PM role. I have my hesitations about how effective that is in helping you develop the skills necessary to be an effective PM in a larger organization. But, it’s a great way to gain experience prioritizing what to build when. You’ll learn to evaluate benefits relative to development cost. You’ll also learn to define the spec for a developer to build.

In general, I’d suggest that you are technically curious. Your PM job will be about a lot more than technical expertise, but being technically curious will make you more effective. It will also help you build credibility, both with your engineering counterparts and your customers. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and read up on things in your spare time.

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Why would a professional join a startup?

I originally answered this question in Quora. Expanding upon it here.

I wrote about the case to quit consulting to join a startup, and my reasons haven’t changed. Key reasons to join a startup include:

  1. You want to build a startup. If you are thinking of building your own company in the future, there’s no better way to learn about the particular challenges that a startup faces than working on one.
  2. Growth opportunities. A startup will stretch you to think and execute quickly. You’ll solve difficult problems on a daily basis. You will often find yourself with responsibilities that a large company wouldn’t trust you with at your age and experience level. It will be hard work to make it successful, but if you succeed as a company, the rewards are large both in terms of skills development and experience.
  3. Career flexibility. You are more likely to have opportunities to do work across functions and thus discover new passions. Startups’ flexibility usually means that you can take your career in new directions. Thanks to this flexibility I was able to transition from a Consulting career into Product Management.

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.