Anyone who knows me knows that I basically grew up around computers. I began my lifetime of coding very early on, beginning with a BASIC interpreter and a library book and rapidly progressing to HyperCard, Logo, and then eventually Turbo Pascal. By high school I was one of a few obsessives who spent all their time in the computer lab where, if I wasn’t playing games or messing around with the equipment, I was writing code.
I was, in short, a computer nerd.
And, while my professional life has moved in a different direction, this still true to this day. I honestly doubt there’ll ever be a time when I’m not tinkering away on one project or another. Heck, the relaunch of this blog was as much an excuse to mess around with Jekyll as anything else…
But the idea that I would ever be anything but a “computer guy” never would’ve crossed my mind. I suspect my past self would be rather surprised by where I now find myself!
Anyway, around that time I remember taking a career aptitude test. If you’re not familiar with one of these things, think of it as a blend of an IQ test and a personality test–not the most promising of constituent parts–fortified with only the finest of snake oils. I can only imagine the number of girls who were told they would be nurses and homemakers…
In my case, to absolutely no one’s surprise, the conclusion was I would end up in IT. Yes, even the computers thought I should be working with computers.
This was both a blessing and a curse. Where other kids my age had no idea what they’d be doing with their lives, I knew, so much so that it wasn’t something I thought about, or even realized you should be thinking about. But that also meant I had a very narrow view of myself and my future, and was totally unaware of the box I was in. Moreover, as I was otherwise pretty decent at school, I didn’t really face a lot of adversity. I knew exactly who I was, where I was going, and how I was going to get there.
My path through post-secondary at the University of Alberta only cemented things.
Now, that’s not to say it wasn’t difficult! While going through the Honours Computing Science program, I constantly struggled at the theoretical aspects of the degree (though I’ll admit some of those wounds were probably self-inflicted…). But any classes that focused on the actual writing of software–compilers, computer graphics, operating systems–were completely natural to me. It was clear: I was not cut out to be an academic. But a digital tradesman hammering and nailing together software day to day? Oh yeah, that I could do!
What followed was a professional career that took me from a junior software developer to, twelve years later, a senior lead where I had the opportunity to partner with other very talented developers and an experienced product manager to pilot the development of whole new products. It was exciting, fulfilling, and a whole hell of a lot of fun!
But to that point I honestly can’t say I made many purposeful decisions about my life. I never had a vision for my future (other than that I’d be writing code). I was never one to be particularly goal-oriented. If someone asked me what I wanted for my career, I probably would’ve just shrugged and looked confused. I honestly just never thought about it. Heck, it didn’t even occur to me to change jobs; I’ve been at the same company for over seventeen years!
I’ve often joked that, in my life, I’ve fallen ass-backwards into success, and this is what I mean when I say that.
And then I fell ass-backwards into having to actually make a choice for a change.
At the company there was a push to staff up the Product Management function which, to that point, had been run by a single executive.1 And for reasons I still don’t understand, it was my name that came up as someone who could take it on.
So, late on a weeknight, I received a call and was presented with an opportunity: did I want to make a pivot and move into Product?
I was genuinely surprised, overwhelmed, and incredibly conflicted!
I was a coder. That’s who I was. That’s who I’d been for the previous twenty-five years!
I was also–and this is something people who know me will recognize–pretty darn risk averse. After all, I’d spent most of my life just playing to my strengths and making the easy choices. Big risky decisions were not something I normally faced.
Since then, I’ve learned something important: If someone opens a door for you, walk through it!
At the time, though, I was nervous and so I asked for a contingency plan: if this didn’t go well, either because I wasn’t a good fit for the job or because the role didn’t work in the organization, I wanted an assurance that I could return to my old job and pick up where I left off.
Fortunately, the leadership at the company understood my concerns and they were absolutely willing to provide me with that guarantee.
And so, safety net in place, I made the leap. It was April 15th, 2014. The next day, I was a Product Manager.
Well, at least by title.
In practice I had a lot to learn, about the job itself and, more fundamentally, about the nature of effective leadership and collaboration in this new, larger context. I only barely understood it at the time, but I was taking the first step on a journey that would challenge and stretch me in surprising ways.
For folks who don’t know much about the industry, where a software developer’s job is to actually build a product, the job of a Product Manager is to determine what needs to be built in the first place based on an understanding of the user, the customer, and the market. The Product Manager then works within the organization to make that vision a reality, not through authority or direct control, but through influence and collaboration. ↩