I am taking a week off of work to help with some issues with my aging father, and have a fairly slack day. Since it ’tis the season to send thanks, I thought I would indulge in a - for me - rare reflection of things I am thankful for professionally.
My original entrance into Product Management
I was an early 30’s applications engineer who jumped into the that role from life as an analytical chemist and process engineer at a wafer fab. I had gone deep down the rabbit hole of lithography, and was well versed on measurements and metrology that supported the process of building chips.
A local semiconductor equipment company was seeking a “Product Marketing Manager” for a newfangled super cool microscope to characterize photomasks, and someone they pursued wasn’t interested. But she pointed them at me.
At the time, I was flying around the world, installing high end optical measurement tools, and teaching engineers how to use them to make better products.
I was intrigued when the recruiter reached out to me, and I liked what I heard.
note - this is the first time I was oversold on the state of readiness of a new product when interviewing, but it wasn’t the last…
I remember that the hiring manager (who would become my boss) wanted to talk to the person who 6 years earlier was a chef at a country club. Perhaps that was the spark?
Anyhow, I got into the field like so many do, by “falling” into the role.
The re-emergence of product
I spent three years there, nursing a product to launch, and winning against some tough competitors. But the allure of easy .com riches was too great, so I hopped to a different field for a couple of years.
I neither got rich on options, nor did I fit in well. It was boring so I was looking for a new role half-assedly. Not really serious, but poking around.
Then the original recruiter that got me into product management reached out to me again. A smaller company, that does measurement and characterization tools for industrial applications was seeking a product manager.
They had moved a product from their Santa Barbara operation to Tucson Arizona, and the original product team chose not to relocate. I can hardly blame them.
I interviewed, and I know that I was one of three finalists. But I came well prepared (the recruiter was awesome, thanks Myrna!) and I knew that I had set the hook with the interview. I negotiated hard, knowing that I had a great recruiter on my side, and I knew the value. They paid me rather well for the Tucson area, and I jumped.
Relocated to Tucson, and spent 6.5 years there growing that product and the others that were handed to me.
Plenty of good memories, a few bad ones (n.b. - a lousy manager can destroy your motivation) and I was ready for a change.
Later, after having left instrumentation, and doing some conventional software product management, the lure of instrumentation was strong. I had danced with a division at a much larger company for a few years, always wanting to join, but their politics and requisition process was complicated. Finally landed there, and was reasonably happy. It was hard work, but we had great people, and a very passionate customer base.
But, the company moved engineering and marketing to the bay area from Arizona, and I was one of the few who made the move. My boss chose to stay, and started a new company with the former founder and chief engineer (I should’ve realized that was a HUGE red flag) and I was alone in marketing in the new location. I was promoted, but never able to hire a replacement.
Seems that commitments to backfill were about as useful as toilet paper to mop up a wet floor.
I was literally killing myself with stress, and pressure, that caused me to self destruct. The day I was terminated, I wasn’t angry. I was relieved.
Don’t get me wrong, I was terrified, and upset, but walking out of the building to drive home was invigorating. I wasn’t mad at the company, or the role. I realized that I hated management (or, being in management), that big companies are ruthless, and that I am far happier in the shit doing individual contributor stuff.
This taught me that I am at the apex of my career when I am a simple “product manager”.
I took 6 months off. It was recommended to me that a real break was needed to recover and recharge. So I did.
I started this blog, and took a few consulting roles. A few hundred dollars at a time. I also realized that the free-agent life wasn’t for me. I am a doer, not a seller.
What I am most thankful for
That after a colorful early career in food service (thanks Bush I recession when I graduated university) I got a toehold in tech at the bottom, leveraging a chem tech position into an analytical chemist role, then a process engineering role, and leapfrogged into an applications engineer role supporting instrumentation.
That gave me the customer contact and empathy to make the leap into product management without too much drama.
Then two and a half decades (and counting) in product management, adapting to new technology, new products, new companies as I grow my experience, and confidence.
Now, I have probably 8 or 9 more years until I can retire, hoping that I can remain on this path.
So far, so good!
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