How I Ended Up as a Product Manager

Let’s talk a little about career path, particularly mine. I feel as though there are TONS of people that have had a similar struggle that I had between high school and my first five years after college (approx. 6-10 years). I never knew exactly what I wanted to do as a career, but I could always describe the career. I’ll break it down from the beginning.

While in middle- high school, I was social but more of a disciplined worker bee so-to-speak. I took pride in all of my work and projects. I was even very particular how I organized folders, class notes, homework, projects; literally everything was pristine. My father always harped on how important education was and that I was going to be successful with anything I put my mind to; I feel as though most immigrant parents are this way! I couldn’t be more thankful for his drive to instill so many great skills in my routine. I feel as though his determination contributed significantly in my habits today. I was not the smartest in my classes, but I can honestly say that I worked the hardest. Nothing was easy for me. I had to put in a lot of time and work to be great. My senior superlative was “most likely to succeed.” Go figure! What a nerd award, but I was so proud! It was the least superficial award I could have received and I owned it! I was president of Anchor Club, VP of Beta Club, starting setter on the Varsity Volleyball team, part of the Yearbook Club, volunteered whenever I could and had a freaking job after school everyday. I had a lot on my plate, but it taught me time-management, responsibility and how to spread myself thin while still giving 100% to each. All of this led to my acceptance into The University of Georgia. How is any of this relevant? Hang in there.

My application to UGA had “undecided” as my major of choice because, let’s be honest, most 18 year-olds have zero idea what they want to do with the rest of their life. And if they “knew” at 18, they ended up changing their major three times before graduating. I wasn’t going to “decide” until I was sure. The irony there is, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life at graduation (go ahead, it’s okay to laugh). My college years were really tough! I struggled my first two years until I was finally “okay” with living in Athens and hustling to manage 4-5 classes every fall, spring and summer semesters while working every single day. It’s like I kept telling myself that one day it would all pay off. It had to!

Two months before graduation day, I attended a career fair where hundreds of employers would set up booths to talk to soon-to-be grads about potential job opportunities. Well, surprise, I ended up landing a job. Locked and ready to go before graduation so I was “at peace.” Then graduation day arrived; literally one of the best days of my life. I was graduating with a degree in sociology and a certificate in new media. I remember the feeling being in Sanford Stadium with hundreds and hundreds of fellow Alums, listening to Alton Brown speak. I remember laughing so hard (because have you watched Alton speak!?) and reminiscing on my last four years of hustling and feeling so accomplished. I remember receiving my offer letter from my new employer. I remember that overwhelming feeling of excitement seeing that my salary offer was a whopping $32,000 (I thought that was A LOT of money back then!). I was moving to a new city and becoming an adult, officially. It was a pretty surreal feeling, until I actually moved away.

My first job was with a worldwide printing company (I won’t mention the name) where I was part of their leadership program to one day run one of their facilities. Sounds kind of cool, right? No, it really wasn’t very cool at all. A month into the new job, I knew I was leaving at some point. That point was just a few weeks later. I found myself feeling as though something just wasn’t right. Something just didn’t fit. It wasn’t a part of that vision I had always had of myself. So, I worked two jobs (one at a restaurant and one at a well-known clothing store) to make up the same amount of money that the corporate job was paying. That was a hard year. Let me repeat that- that as a very hard year. I lived in a city where I knew no one, working two meaningless jobs and had zero direction. After a year and a half, I woke up one day and left with one duffle bag. I had never completely disappeared like that and I haven’t done that again to date. I had worked my little heart and soul until I hit empty.

So, I came home and started working at a well-known law firm in Atlanta as one of their paralegals. It was an interesting job for me to really pursue or squash my idea of becoming a lawyer (one of the very few things you can do with a sociology degree). I did that for about 2 years and figured out that going to law school for 2+ more years of school to become a lawyer was not going to be right for me. The good part about this is that I was able to discover that BEFORE dropping $70,000 or more on a law degree. Pretty smart, don’t ya think!? Anyways, I left and worked at a tier one wireless company (again, leaving names out) and enjoyed sales for some time. I had several jobs, all very different from the other because I was on this journey to figure out what the hell I wanted to do with my life.

Then, I got the job that changed everything. I started working for a company where I was an escalations manager (a glorified customer service job). I loved that job! Some would get really stressed or annoyed by the people we would have to call to adjust their claims, but I absolutely loved it. I enjoyed talking to people because they loved me. I could get anyone on the phone and talk their ear off. I had personality, attention to detail, empathy, sincerity in my voice. I literally made all of my customers feel like a friend and that’s exactly what made me successful and ultimately noticed within the company. I ended up applying for a product analyst roll on the 6th floor. While reading the description, I thought to myself “wow, I can do all of this- this sounds awesome.” Surprise, I got the job and I moved up to the 6th floor. It was literally the game-changer that I was looking for, not to mention, a 33% raise in my pay. I was blown away. I lucked out because I wasn’t trained in Product (no one really is), but I had an amazing boss/mentor who said this to me when she hired me “I don’t need you to know about product management right now, I will teach you that. I need your experience with our claims processing product.” Okay, guys, this never happens. But it did! If you know anything about product management, it’s really important that you have in-depth knowledge of the product(s) that are within your organization. Well, with my other job processing claims, I knew everything there was to know. I knew the wonky work-arounds, what worked well, what didn’t work so well; things that most of the people had zero knowledge of outside of that department. So, why is this important,? Because in order to improve and/or build a better product, you have to fully understand it and all possible use cases.

This is where I found my love and adoration for product management. It was everything that I envisioned myself doing, without knowing what product management was all about. There weren’t classes at UGA for this specific role. And interestingly enough, product management is the perfect combination of sociology and new media (are you paying attention yet- my two areas of study at UGA). It was literally where documentation and technology meet in the middle. To be a successful product manager, you must have the following skills/attributes: organized, motivating, a good communicator between business teams and developers, understanding of how systems talk to each other, basic understanding of data analytics, passionate, hard-working under pressure, detailed, able to speak to c-level executives such as the CEO (Chief Executive Officer), CFO (Chief Financial Officer), CMO (Chief Marketing Officer), and not to mention a fun/out-going personality. And what do you know, I have and enjoy all of those!

Today, I work at my dream job as the lead of our Product Management team! The company, the culture, the job, it’s all just as I dreamt of and more! There is a ton of opportunity for growth and I can even bring my little fur-baby to work everyday (that alone is a winner)!

This is all to say something very simple; it’s okay to not have your life’s career plan completely decided upon in high school, college or after college. If you do, then go you! But most of us don’t. It’s okay to bounce around and find the things that you enjoy and certainly the things you don’t enjoy in jobs. It really sets you up for understanding more about yourself and what you want in a career. One day, you’ll discover the perfect fit and when you do, that moment of clarity will be glorious. Best of luck out there and thank you for sticking through yet another long post!

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