What about a squiggly product career?

‘What are you building here?’ was an interview question that dumbfounded me 5 years ago. That day, I mumbled an incoherent answer. 

In hindsight, I have a better response: a squiggly career*. With every new product job I have changed industries, working across non-profit, legal, government and now gaming. I have chosen to focus on the product craft without settling on a specific industry. 

Here’s my thoughts on what’s good/bad or easy/hard about that approach, as well as some thoughts on how to make that choice for yourself. 

Employers and recruiters may say ‘become an expert’ 

While this isn’t everyone’s view, I have repeatedly heard from companies and recruiters that they look for PMs with the right industry experience. My most recent example is a recruiter from Spotify who shared some insight into how he selects CVs.

He considers 6 seconds a generous amount of time to spend reviewing a CV. Being time-poor, beyond focussing on experience as a product manager, he requires relevant industry and domain experience. That means that it’s not just music/ subscription services you should know about, but also he’d like you to have experience in the domain you’re applying for (eg payments). 

When asked about what to do if you didn’t have the necessary industry/ domain expertise, he said be prepared to either go in at the same level as you are or potentially go down in seniority. Also, you should invest a lot of time in learning about the domain/industry before applying for the role and be ready to make a pretty strong case as to why you are pivoting. 

What I also sensed in his answer is that his expectation was that you would only be pivoting that one time. You should show your commitment to focussing on this industry and domain for the longer term. 

I can definitely see where he is coming from, and for a company like Spotify with hundreds of PMs and a high appeal, maybe having these types of requirements makes sense.

I can also see it from a PM’s perspective – becoming an expert in an industry can be highly stimulating when it’s your passion.

However, I know it’s not for me. I never had a 10-point plan for my career. When I changed jobs it was because the next opportunity was something I was excited about and where I would learn a lot, not necessarily because it was an obvious choice.

Why it’s worth it

In the short term, a squiggly career may be hard. It requires resilience, an ability to learn, and a true openness to new ideas and ways of working. However, it also gives you the exposure you need to become really well-rounded and develop a broad perspective.

Through my squiggly career, I have not only explored different domain, I’ve also worked in companies of different sizes, on both very technical things as well as transformation/change management projects, have managed a team on a shoestring, and have had a well-resourced team.

This means I am now extremely adaptable. I have learned the advantages and disadvantages of these environments and am able to adapt to a new role and bring in the things I have seen work elsewhere. 

Through these experiences I have become really good at being thrown into new things. While I get stressed and nervous like everyone else, uncertainty isn’t what scares me. I have acquired techniques to make sense of uncertainty and ambiguity, and I have the resilience to know that I have been in this situation before and will be able to deal with it, and I know how to support my team through it as well. 

Some top tips on making a squiggly product career work for you

1. Decide whether this is really what you want

It’s hard work. And from a logistical perspective, it also requires you to be in a place where there’s lots of product jobs, or you’ll have to be flexible with either working remotely or be willing to relocate. 

I was in London for my early career, and am now in Paris, and that has made this approach much easier.

Life has many different priorities, so this might just not work for you.

You may also find that you particularly love a domain. If that’s the case, that’s great, go for it!

2. Get really good at learning

A growth mindset will support you through the different stages of your squiggly product career because learning has to be at the centre of everything you do. 

The most crucial part is to learn about yourself and really understand how you learn. Then it is to be intentional about your learning. Have clarity on what you need to learn, don’t let the world happen to you. 

3. Build a strong narrative

With a squiggly career your job titles and previous experience are unlikely to tell a coherent narrative. You need to take charge of your story, and make sure you have a good idea of who you are and what you care about. 

Finding the golden thread throughout your different experiences can help create that. Add that to your intro on your CV or LinkedIn, but also have that ready when someone asks you why you want a job, or ‘what are you building here?’.

4. Keep your network going

Your professional network is a crucial aspect of your career development, regardless how squiggly your product career is.

While you may remain connected to your product network, changing industry can mean you lose touch with people you know from previous roles. This may be ok, but it’s worth being intentional about who you want to stay in touch with and make efforts to do so. Squiggles don’t mean you can’t return to a previous company or industry.

*When I was trying to describe my career, I first thought to call it a ‘portfolio career’, but then I came across the squiggly career’s podcast. It’s a brilliant podcast by Amazing if that strives to make work better for everyone – particularly in the context of careers that don’t follow a linear path. 

So I thought to name the blogpost squiggly careers to reference Helen and Sarah’s excellent work – but also because I realised that it reflects my career better than ‘portfolio career’.

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