Lessons from My Winding Path to Project Management
When you query a group of second graders about what they want to be when they grow up, they’ll say an astronaut, doctor, firefighter, scientist or some other cool job. By the time they’ve started college, the list has expanded to include engineers, teachers, nurses, and other perfectly reasonable jobs.
But no one picks their college because of its top-rated project management program. We are all accidental project managers.
My journey is a bit more unusual than most. I started college wanting to be a scientist and got the education to match—a PhD in Physics from MIT. But I then decided to follow another path, which has led me to project management.
From the beginning, I knew I was following an unconventional path, so I needed to keep my eyes open to the side paths that became part of my journey. It’s a journey that I’m still on and the path to its end (i.e., a comfortable retirement) remains murky, but I believe the tools and lessons that have carried me this far will carry me forward.
I hope some of my lessons can help you in your journey, as well.
Always be open.
In 1996, I had decided to move from academia to industry, but I had no experience, the wrong degrees, no connections, and really no clue on how to make that move. I took the summer off to visit family, spend a week pretending to be an oceanography graduate student, and travel around the Alaskan panhandle by ferry and foot.
On the flight home from Juneau, I started chatting with the person next to me. He was a headhunter who specialized in hiring mathematicians and physicists for Wall Street. I had no interest in moving to New York, but he was happy to share advice working with headhunters. As soon as I got back to Seattle, I followed his advice, which directly resulted in finding a perfect job. How different my life would be if I hadn’t started chatting with him!
Most people are happy to talk about what they do and offer advice. Look for people who have your dream job and reach out to them. Offer to take them out for coffee. Make it easy for them by being flexible about time and meeting near their office. Don’t ask for a job; ask for advice. If they have a job for you, they’ll let you know.
When networking, you should have an interest in what others have to offer. It’s not about you impressing them as much as learning from them. And Karma is a big part of networking: always be on the lookout for opportunities to help others.
It’s much easier today than it was in 1996, which was two years before Google was founded and six years before LinkedIn. Build your LinkedIn profile. If you ask someone to meet for coffee, you can be sure they’ll look you up there before they say yes. Just like your resume, don’t lie or exaggerate, but put your best foot forward.
Always be learning.
In the movie Paycheck, Ben Affleck starred as an engineer who has his memory wiped after every project. I found that premise absurd. Engineers (and project managers) improve by doing the work and learning from their successes and failures. If your memory was wiped after each project, you would stagnate while others kept getting better.
My first job was at Neopath, a company that made an automated microscope that diagnosed cervical cancer. I worked on a host of projects across the company, including optics, electronics, root-cause analysis, and manufacturing. What I didn’t work on was image processing, which was our core technology. But over the course of three years I learned enough to develop image processing algorithms for an automated microscope in my next job.
This happened again when I was at Calypso Medical, a company that developed an amazing technology to target radiation therapy for cancer treatment. I developed a camera system to determine the location of a sensor array, but our core technology used AC magnetic fields to determine the location of the prostate. My next job at Digital Control was developing industrial equipment using AC magnetic fields to determine the location of a underground drill.
My role at Calypso started as very technical, but once I had built a prototype and demonstrated my concept would meet our requirements, I was tasked with selecting a vendor and managing them to deliver a solution using my concept. My role became that of a project manager.
My next role at Digital Control also started out as technical, but I found my newly developed project management skills were more important to a project’s success than my technical ones.
As I found myself doing more project management at companies with no project managers, I looked elsewhere for help. I considered getting an MBA. But I couldn’t carve out the time to make that happen, so I enrolled in a certificate program for “Management in the Technology Sector.” The program included classes in project management, team leadership, and business strategy.
If you’re not learning new skills at work, it might be time for a change. Talk to your manager about taking on new responsibilities or moving to a new group. If that’s not an option, take a class or look for opportunities outside of work that will challenge you. Find a non-profit that you care about and offer to help. Before you know it, you’ll be drowning in learning opportunities.
Always be positive.
My career has had more than its share of bumps in the road. The worst was in 2008, when I was laid-off at the beginning of the Great Recession. Over 10 months, I had one phone interview. Every day I would look for open positions and networking opportunities.
Finally I got a job running an energy efficiency project funded by the federal stimulus act. I was offered the job because of my volunteer experience founding the energy committee at the Sierra Club and my work as a project manager. Though it wasn’t my dream job, I involved myself in every aspect of the project, including marketing, training, and quality control. I met some great people and the project exceeded our targets. When the high-tech sector recovered, I moved back into product development, now with even more project management experience.
It’s great to have a vision of where you’d like your career to go and to get the experience and training you need to get there, but in the fast-moving world of technology that’s unlikely to be sufficient. So many interesting industries of today didn’t exist twenty years ago. Just in the Seattle area we have Facebook/Oculus doing virtual reality, Amazon in eCommerce, and Blue Origin in space tourism.
No one starting their career in 1997 would have thought to create the perfect path for a job working at any of these places. But if you are always learning, watching for new opportunities, and keeping a positive outlook, you might just find you’re the perfect person for the dream job you couldn’t have imagined five years earlier.
It’s fine for your journey to follow a circuitous route; sometimes that’s the only way to get to where you’re going.