Finding a job that works for you — what I’ve learned about finding my flow as a program manager at Formlabs

“Being a PM wasn’t on my career radar until I recognized I was living it, and I’m convinced I couldn’t have planned it any better.”

In this post, Danielle, Fuse Program Manager at Formlabs, talks about establishing flow in an energizing role, gives tips about finding and starting a new job, and highlights some unexpected perks of living up to certain PM stereotypes.

“What do I need to do to become a PM?” I hear this question often. A few minutes into my answer, I am often asked: “How do you (as a PM) fit into the team? What kinds of projects are you responsible for? What’s your day-to-day like?” Truth be told, being a PM wasn’t on my career radar until I recognized I was living it, and I’m convinced I couldn’t have planned it any better.

So how did I get to where I am today, a Program Manager at Formlabs, and how do I assess that it’s right for me? In brief, my gravitation toward math and science led me to MIT. It was there that my curiosity boomed and my hustle grew stronger. I find motivation in possibility, which has shaped my tendency to make decisions that allow me to keep many doors open. This theme continues to resurface, and one example was my choice to major in chemical-biological engineering, a notoriously demanding pathway, so as to delay my differentiation into an engineering industry job, medical school, or law school.

Reflecting back, what I discovered is that I thrive as connector — of ideas, of disciplines, and of people. Amassing large swaths of information, consolidating into inviting bites, and collaborating to define a common vision are activities that give me energy and make me feel more alive.

As soon as I leaned into my own definition of success and took to filling gaps, I found myself swimming in a PM swimlane.

Zooming back out, when asked about being a PM, I first align on terminology. The reason being that PM abbreviates three different flavors: product, program, and project manager. The first PM hat I wore was project manager, for several years prior to Formlabs at a medical device startup. I am now a program manager for Fuse, a Nylon 12 powder-based selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printing product suite that my team is working hard to design and get out the door.

Let’s frame our PMs around the goal of developing and shipping a product, such as the Fuse 1 printer. Behind every product is people, and PMs relate to both. A simplified people track includes customers, company leaders, and internal teams to execute; the product track includes a matrixed array of possibilities that results from a multitude of feature options, budgets, timelines, and resources.

Here’s a brief disambiguation of PM, PM, and PM:

  • Product managers focus on the what and why of building a product — they regularly translate customer needs into coherent user stories and product roadmaps, and discuss and negotiate with core individuals to ensure that the right product is built. Their days may consist of customer interviews, logging new feature requests, and translating a must-have product specification into sub-elements that relate to engineering, manufacturing, and business cost targets.
  • Program managers thrive in the space of how things are built. We think about product planning and the organization as a whole, identify and engage with relevant inter- and intra-team and product interfaces, and synchronize plans and implementations to meet product goals. Our days may start with a status update meeting among product subsystem leads, transition into planning for an upcoming prototype build across four teams, and end with updating leadership about program risks and proposed mitigation plans.
  • Project managers hone in on actions to meet our goals and who is best to own and execute these deliverables. They segment broad milestones into digestible tasks, ensure task clarity and ownership, and help steer the ship unhindered. You may hear them called Scrum Masters, as they build concise tagged backlogs of tasks with a thorough understanding of how all of the pieces must fit together in the best-case scenario where everything goes according to plan. Teams count on them to reconfigure the stack and think on their feet when the inevitable roadblocks hit.

Each PM serves a critical role to hardware technology teams and, depending on product and company scale, these shoes may be filled by one or tens of individuals. One thing is certain, PMs can help elevate product and team potential through organized integration, connected communication, and lean processes.

Selecting a career path, PM or otherwise, depends on three intersecting lines: YOU, A JOB, and A COMPANY.

YOU. Start by knowing yourself. Who have you built as a result of your collection of experiences? Who do you want to continue growing into? What kind of success do you find motivating? What gives you energy?

JOB. With certainty and self assurance about who you are and what fuels your life spark, set a vision for the role you want to take on. Lean into your innate and learned skills and away from completing a picture that someone else has painted for you. Take pen to paper and draft your own job description. Sketch out an example one-week calendar for yourself. Do you have a daily routine or is every day a new story? How do you accomplish your work? What types of deliverables will you produce? If you have a growth step at the front of your mind, my advice is to not mind the gap, but fill it. Be the change you want to see. Take initiative and perform projects in the arena of the job you want to grow into. I assure you, you’ll get where you want to be faster this way than waiting for an opportunity to be dropped at your feet.

COMPANY. What’s behind a name? How do you pick which one to join? Consider these three filter slices: culture, challenge, and content. In this order, you will find yourself with more options on the table.

  • Culture: Shine light on the heartbeat that drives the ship forward. Do your research, meet employees, and get a pulse for the rhythm of the ever-evolving organism. What ties connect individuals and teams?
  • Challenge: Raise “limit” bars higher. Consider what risks you are willing to take on. Challenges push us to understand the lines around the known and shape new ones around the unknown. If you join this team, will you welcome the awaiting challenges as an opportunity for paced change and progress?
  • Content: Apply the final filter. What industry, cause, and region fit into your mental map? This is the icing on the cake with the culture and challenge boxes already checked.

Fast forward to landing the job that you worked to envision. How do you start and what makes you stay? My advice is to focus on relationships early on. These are your cornerstones to reaching common ground and understanding how to navigate. Look beyond your immediate functional ring to those at the foundation and at the steering wheel. Next, no matter what level you reside in, know your value under the individual contributor lens. This becomes the track to develop and push forward. Along the growth thread, I recommend digging into the unknown, even if this means working outside of your normal hours. You may not be able to free up space on your existing plate to take on these new projects, or you may need to self-teach a new skill before tackling the project. Lastly, the way that I assess my fit is through two simple questions. Can I still be an agent for change? And am I enthusiastic to attract new talent to join this roller coaster ride? If yes and yes, this is where I belong.

The important lines have intersected: Me, Program Manager, and Formlabs.

Think you might also intersect with Formlabs? We’re continuing to grow, so join us in one of our five offices across three continents!