How to PM Your Career
Or anything else for that matter
I often get asked for career advice. Mainly from PMs or people interested in becoming a PM. Is it better to work at a big company? Smaller company? How do I get promoted? Should I move around or stay put?
My answer? “PM it.”
To “PM” something is to: 1) start with why, 2) brainstorm solutions, 3) filter and prioritize, 4) execute, 5) iterate.
Start with Why
I don’t really say “PM it”, of course. I start by asking them to tell me what success looks like to them. What are they trying to achieve? In other words, you need a clear problem statement or hypothesis.
I find that so many people (even PMs 😏) haven’t stopped to consider this question. Instead simply wanting to move “forward” in any visible way. And sometimes they don’t even know what forward looks like to them. Is it more money? Is it becoming a manager? Is it the “senior” title? Is it growing your skillset? Taking on different kinds of products/features? These are not why’s, to be clear. They are what’s.
Imagine if this feature came across your desk…
Opportunity: Joe wants to advance his career
Why: Because he likes to have a sense of forward progress
Hypothesis: Joe will be happier if he moves forward
What: Gets title “Senior PM”
That feature wouldn’t ever make it onto my backlog, let alone out to the real world. I’d politely (well, probably not that politely knowing me 😬) say to the person suggesting it to go do some more homework.
You need to go deeper than that. It’s OK for your definition of success to be material, just know that it is material. Oftentimes though, when I help people dig, I hear values come out that have nothing to do with money. Or this vague notion of “advancement”.
I hear that he wants to make the world a better place. I hear that she wants to start a company someday. I hear that he wants to have enough money to take care of his parents. I hear that she has had great managers and hopes to do for others what they have done for her.
Note the hypothesis above as well. Happiness is an assumed goal on my part (the advisor). Does Joe really want to be happier? Or is it more fulfillment he is after? Or perhaps more respect or status?
Putting it together we have statements like “I want to make the world a better place so that I can feel more fulfilled”. And “It would make me very happy to make enough money to be able to financially help my parents.”
Now we have a vision. And a definition of what success looks like.
Now that you know your vision you can brainstorm on how to achieve it. With others ideally. Try and find a few people that have met the goals you are trying to attain.
For example, I would tell you that if your vision is having enough money to take care of your parents, you should go work at Google, Facebook, or Apple. And definitely not a start-up. Someone else might recommend the start-up route if he/she was at start-up that went public. Multiple perspectives will help.
If you want to start your own company, you might hear suggestions to work at an early stage start-up. If you want to be a manager, find a rapidly growing team. Etc.
Filter and Prioritize
Now it’s time to take the ideas you’ve generated and sort them by whatever criteria makes sense for you.
Feasibility is always a criterion. You probably can’t immediately get a job at Google as a PM if you don’t have any PM experience. So you may need to start somewhere else or join Google in your current discipline.
Applying for a management position when you only have 2 years experience and the other applicants have 5+ probably won’t work out either.
You will almost certainly want to consider compensation impact as another criterion. The culture of the company may be one (I strongly advise that it is!). Commute. How much you like the people you work with. Expectations in terms of hours. Whether it is open floor plan or offices… Etc.
These criteria help you decide how to make your vision happen. They are your strategy for achieving your vision. You may want to find out from others the kinds of things they consider, but which criteria you choose to use is completely up to you.
The importance you place on each one will also be up to you. Sort the list with these filters on and see what bubbles to the top (exactly how to do this, if it’s not obvious, I promise to write… if people are interested). If the answer is counter-intuitive, investigate that. Is there a missing criterion? A missing option? Don’t ignore this gut-check step. In other words, don’t ignore your intuition.
You are ready to go make a move in the direction of your vision.
The thing you choose to execute may be a dramatic one — like switching companies or teams. Or it may be small — like taking a training, switching feature areas within a team, or joining a networking group. No matter the size, it’s important to assess after doing. What was the impact of this move? Did it have the impact you expected? Why or why not? Back to the brainstorming phase. Too bad we can’t A/B test… that would be so cool, right 😎?
I’d also recommend you periodically revisit your vision. Over time, as you experience what you thought you were looking for, your why might evolve. More money may never feel like enough. Management may be really hard because you care so much about your employees and don’t have the ability to enact change. The meritocracy culture you thought you wanted may not be as fulfilling anymore. Back to step 1.
Congrats! You have PM’ed your career. Simple, right?
You can apply this process to just about anything. Parenting, planning a vacation, what to do in your leisure time, what to eat for dinner, who to date…
Who knew PM’ing was such a useful skill? 😂