On joining the product team

Almost two years ago I published a blog post and video on Being a Program Manager at Microsoft, in which I shared some of my personal experience and advice based on my decade plus at Microsoft. I’ve received an incredible amount of feedback[1] on that 2020 post… and now it’s time for a follow-up.

My last few posts have focused on topics related to problem domains and solution domains, including how these concepts relate to Power BI and my work on the Power BI CAT team. What about for people who are currently Power BI or data professionals who might be thinking about changing careers to join the product team? These are pretty abstract concepts – what do they mean to you?

This conversation calls for an analogy, and since I don’t know anything about driving race cars or automotive mechanics, I’m going to use an analogy about race car driving and mechanics[2].

As a Power BI or data professional, you’re like a race car driver.

Your job is to win races. You need to respond to the rapidly-changing demands of the moment to deliver victory for your team[3]. You’re in the spotlight,

As a race car driver, there are two main factors that contribute to your wins and losses:

  1. Your skills as a driver
  2. The performance of the car you’re driving

To win a race, you need to know how to get the most from your car, and make it perform for the conditions on the track, and within the rules of the race.

As a program manager on the product team, you’re like a mechanical engineer responsible for designing, refining and tuning the race car engine.

Your job is to deliver an engine that performs the way your drivers need it to perform, as part of the larger system of the race car as a whole. The race car needs to have the capabilities and characteristics that enable drivers to win races, and the engine is a key part of that… as is the steering, suspension, and whatever other subsystems make up a race car.

Your job is not to drive the race car, and you can excel at your job without ever having won (or driven in) a race.

Re-read that last sentence and pause to let it sink in. If you’re thinking about joining the product team that makes your favorite software tool or platform, you’re also thinking about giving up the day to day job of using that software.

Even more than this, the skills that you’ve built as a race car driver – or as a data professional – are no longer directly relevant. Please don’t get me wrong – if you’ve spent years implementing data and BI solutions this will serve you very well as a program manager on a product team building data and BI tools. But that experience will be valuable in the way that having been a race car driver could be valuable in informing the design and optimization of race car engines.

Having an intimate understanding of – and deep personal experience with – the problem domain can help inform your work in building and improving the solution domain… but your job is no longer what it used to be. You need to learn and master new skills to be successful in the new role, and that means no longer being the expert on the problem domain like you used to be.[4]

This can be a difficult realization and wake-up call for people making a career change, because it means giving up – or at least moving away from – the work they know and love. It can also mean discovering new work and new challenges that they may love even more… but change is hard at the best of times, and it doesn’t always come at the best of times.

I hope this blog post and analogy[5] doesn’t scare anyone off. Working on a product team can be incredibly fun and rewarding – it’s just different from working with the product that the team builds and ships. It’s another situation where the problem domain and solution domain differ in ways that aren’t always obvious until you’ve had a chance to work in both worlds.

Joining the product team after working as a data professional changes your relationship with the product. What used to be your solution domain, where you were the expert responsible for understanding the product and delivering solutions based on its capabilities, now becomes your problem domain. You’re responsible for increasing its capabilities to make it more useful for others to build their solutions, but you’re no longer building those solutions yourself.

 


[1] I continue to believe that this video may have been the best thing I did in 2020. I’ve had dozens of conversations with people around the world who want to be program managers or product manager – at Microsoft or other tech companies, and some of them have already achieved their goal. This feels like I’m actually making a difference in the world when the world is doing its best to make me feel powerless, and that’s like a gift that keeps on giving. I may not be the only one who feels this way. While this post was in draft form waiting to be published, my friend Davide created a website to showcase this video – he even transcribed it! You can check it out here: http://aka.ms/being-a-ms-pm.

[2] Because of course I am. This is an analogy that presented itself to me in one of those conversations mentioned just one footnote earlier, and which works as well as any I’ve found so far.

[3] There are teams in racing, right?

[4] This is where it’s useful to have a person or team responsible for bridging these two worlds.

[5] Another possibly less scary analogy could have involved someone who loves eating becoming a chef in a professional kitchen. Since I know enough about these worlds to be dangerous, I didn’t trust myself to use this analogy without ratholing on lots of details no one but me would care about. Maybe I’ll try that one again when I have more time to think about it…

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