2020: A Product and Personal Perspective

2020
Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema

2020 was supposed to be a big year for me. In 2019, I had left the relative comfort of a product leadership position in a stable company and jumped into an early stage startup. I was relishing the challenge of building a platform that would disrupt the industry and build a product team from the ground up. It was a risk, but I believed in the product, the founders and myself. I believed that I was taking a calculated gamble. What could go wrong? Everything, apparently.

Fast forward to April 2020, and I found myself in a very strange position; it was the first time in my entire working career that I was jobless. I had been made redundant due to Covid-19 and I was totally flummoxed. What was I going to do? A lot of things, apparently.

Many things have happened and I promised that I would write about my ordeal when things got better. So here I am writing this article in December 2020, and this is probably a “spiritual” sequel to the article which I wrote about my predicament earlier in the year. I will covering my top 3 learnings from a product and personal perspective going through 2020, reflecting on what happened in a year that has proved so unpredictable.

Product folk are just like everyone else. Dispensable.

Product folk are just like everyone else. Dispensable.
Photo Credit: vaun0815

This is probably the hardest pill to swallow but also the most important point I feel I need to make. Let me start by making it clear:

“I believe that the product management function is a critical one. Any product or organisation that decides to go without it does so at their own peril”

Having said that, I also know many product managers and product leaders who were made redundant and were looking for work during Covid-19. If our roles were so important / pivotal / mission critical / insert your own adjective here, why does this situation happen?

Firstly, I believe the responsibilities of product managers are absorbed into other teams / team members. It is not ideal for sure, but then again, Covid-19 has done an amazing job to make everything crap, let alone ideal. For my case, it was that a co-founder was handling the product role before I joined, so when you’re cost cutting, it makes sense to save the cost of paying me and getting the co-founder to take it back. I also have heard a scenario where the UX designer had to co-opt the role of product manager as well. It then begs the question of, why cut the product manager and not other roles within the tech team / organisation? This brings me to my next point below.

By virtue of the importance of the product management function, our roles are well paid. This also means that during the bad times, we’re the ones likely to be at risk of being cut. This is also tied in with how huge product teams are in certain companies, where in certain cases there is a dedicated product manager for every 5 developers. So one could argue that you can either (a) reduce the number of product managers so that one product manager handles a few development teams, or (b) keep the product managers and cut the product leaders who manage the product managers. And again, this isn’t happening in isolation. Product roles are being cut along with marketing team members, developers, etc, etc. This reinforces my point that our roles are dispensable just like everybody else. Being in product management does not give us a divine right to be exempt. I definitely wasn’t.

There is no one size fits all solution to cope with joblessness during Covid-19

Photo Credit: Nikola Đuza

I have seen a few posts in LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media where people say things along the lines of:

  • you need to do X, Y and Z in order to bounce back
  • don’t apply to every job out there — it makes you look desperate
  • don’t settle for less than you’re worth
  • enjoy the time you have without a job

None of the above suggestions are wrong. But they are also not the right suggestion for everyone.

During the months where I was searching for my next gig, I had the privilege of speaking to fellow product leaders who were also in the same boat as me, and I can tell you that everyone’s situation is slightly different. Some are hopeful because there are opportunities to be had. Some are at breaking point, having tried everything to get a new job to no avail. I’ve also read about those who are sole breadwinners and were retrenched, some had savings which were about to run out and also those who have used the time of joblessness to learn new skills and enjoy the experience, and some were even able to choose and pass on offers which they didn’t feel suited their capabilities.

Do not let anyone guilt trip you into thinking that you made a bad choice. If you had to settle for a job with a lower title, or salary because of your financial situation, that’s ok. If you had to apply to every other product job out there because you were desperate, you did what you had to do. If you felt that you needed to pass on a role because it would’ve been a bad fit, that’s that’s knowing what you can and cannot accept.

For me, I had to make the decisions that were best for my own career and also for my family. I was fortunate that before deciding to jump into an early stage startup that I had some rainy day funds set aside in case the venture went south. That along with my severance allowed me to make decisions which not everyone would have had the luxury of making; I managed to experiment with some initiatives and it took me a lot longer to find a new job because of my decisions, but I am very happy with how I’ve coped and I feel like I am a better product person because of it. However, this would never have been possible without my support network.

The Support Network

Photo Credit: Nastya Dulhiier

Of everything I’ve done and all decisions which I have made during 2020 (and more specifically coping with joblessness during Covid-19), I cannot state strongly enough the importance of my support network throughout this ordeal.

My family, especially my wife stood beside me unwavering in their faith that we could weather this together. They didn’t pressure me into decisions I was not comfortable making, and supported me even when the decisions were eyebrow raising.

Friends and peers like Ridzwan Aminuddin, yitch and amree really helped keep the spirits up. There was encouragement, but also rebuke where required. Most importantly, there was no judgement and I was never made to feel like a failure. Thank you.

If you’re struggling alone, I sincerely hope you will consider reaching out for support. No man is an island, even more so when we’re going through this unprecedented time in our history as humans.

It’s been a tough 2020, I won’t lie. But as we head into 2021, there are a few things that have not changed, and in fact, I feel stronger about…

  • My love for product management — I am extremely fortunate to be able to do product management and love what I do. Risk and reward are all part of the package.
  • Exploring remote product management — When I left my comfort zone in 2019 to join a startup, one of the things I was keen to explore was remote product management. At that time, there were not many who would vouch for it. But 2020 and Covid-19 has made us adapt, and I am thankful that I am able to continue exploring this in my current setup.
  • There are more important things in life than work— work life balance in product management, especially in startups is tough, but I must continue to strive for a way that my job doesn’t become my be all and end all. It’s going to be a long journey, but what is worth keeping is worth fighting for.
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Colin Pal

Colin Pal

Writes about Product & Agile | Product Leader | Founder Product Un(censored) | Co-founder PM Huddle |