Ever look at someone’s LinkedIn and notice they somehow started out as VP of sales somewhere and then just happened to become CEO? You ask yourself…wait, how did this individual become a VP out of college!?! If you don’t ask yourself that…well then I must be the only one. Why are these people afraid to tell the world they had a standard entry level job out of college? Well hey, I am not afraid to say I started out at one of those jobs, but I also did some random stuff along the way and in between. Here’s a little about my background…
tl;dr — Liked computers, built them for people, studied engineering in college, started a consulting business while studying, got a job in technical marketing, went back to engineering and then decided to go into product. Started two other companies on the side after college…one crashed and burned, the other covered the development costs. Read on to learn more…
To set the tone correctly for this series of blog posts, I should provide a little background about my college career, my failed side projects, and more. I’ll save you the anticipation and tell you I was not a VP of anything upon graduating. To save you the reading (though I happen to find this post interesting, you can check out my LinkedIn here).
The Early Years
My love for products started when my dad gave me my first computer. It was his old work computer that ran Windows 3.11 and I instantly became the coolest kid on the block. I was on that thing so much that the mouse broke and my dad tried to get me away by not buying me another mouse. The trick was on him because you can do everything via the keyboard in Windows 3.11, thanks Bill Gates. And, thank you dad, because now I am a keyboard shortcut master. Fun fact…Many of the keyboard shortcuts in Windows 3.11 still exist today.
So I did what every computer nerd did and started building computers. I loved it because I could select the components and build something for my customers (e.g. my neighbors) that was specific to them. I understood what they wanted to do with their computer and the features (components) that were needed to enable that. For my neighbors who didn’t trust an 11 year old building them a computer (I am talking about you, Nick), I wrote computer manuals so they understood how to use it and to prove I knew a thing or two. Weirdly enough, no one ever paid me for those hours worth of work…
During that time, Newegg was life. I would search through processors, GPUs, memory, etc. I literally knew every Intel CPU model, the clock speed, the cache, the price, everything. Oh — I knew the price of so many things. My best friend’s dad used to play this game with me that I’ve since named ‘how much does it cost?’. Soon after that, I discovered Engadget… man what a discovery. I would read about all the new tech products coming out and be like ‘What were they thinking?! Why did you only put 2 USB ports in that laptop?!’. Now, as a product manager, I know the phrase “cost benefit.” 🙂 When I wasn’t on my computer, I would look at items as I walked around stores and ask, “How do they build that? Why did they build it that way? Who is buying those? How do they even make money?” I don’t know what you call that, but I call that a little PM in the making!
My First Product Experience
While I was in high school, my dad and brother started a business renovating houses. Now you will probably say house flippers and while you’re technically right, we actually did a good job, not filling the house with crappy cabinets and fake wooden floors. Oftentimes, we would rip houses down to the studs, use copper pipe (not that plastic crap), all new appliances, hot water tank, woodwork, floors, the whole nine yards. This is where I really learned about cost benefit analysis and tradeoffs. What was the market looking for? What do people in this neighborhood expect from a house like this? If we spend more on X, where can we save elsewhere to still keep our margin? I loved ripping something down, making your own blueprint, and building something new. The most satisfying part was open house day when everyone was just amazed with the houses. I feel that way when I release features today, but when you give someone a great home, that is even more fulfilling.
Great. I went to college and studied electrical engineering. I was ignorant and thought software was lame (probably because I wasn’t that good at programming). Electronics were cool because they turned LEDs on and off. But really, I always wanted to design motherboards for computers (weird, I know) so electrical engineering seemed like a good path. Was I the best student? No. Was I the worst student? No. I came out with a decent GPA and some good internships under my belt. I was the leader of all my group projects, I was president of our university’s IEEE organization, and other cool things. So, I felt comfortable leading people, leading projects, and getting things out the door. I enjoyed it more than sitting in electronics lab till midnight, that’s for sure.
Oh, my senior year of college, I started a technology consulting firm. Fancy! I did an internship at an electronics consulting company (my brother in law’s) and I thought I wanted to be a consultant. So, I gathered a bunch of my friends and my business plan was providing engineering consulting services to early stage companies. College students (aka my amazing friends) would be the consultants, so costs were much lower than traditional ones and the students gained valuable experience (and got paid). Overall, it went well. We did a few jobs, made some money. But, we all graduated and got real jobs that paid more than $20/hour so that business died fast. However, I learned a ton of stuff like creating a legit business, accounting (ugh), legal contracts, negotiations, building scopes of work, managing timelines, and more. I would never trade that experience even if I lost money.
I got a job out of college doing product marketing for a semiconductor company. It was a mix between product management and product marketing. Overall, it was great because I was using my engineering degree, but was able to leverage my business skills and take a vertical business mass market. During that time, my best friend (That Nick guy who wouldn’t let me build him a computer) came up with a great (or it was at the time) idea that leveraged Bluetooth beacons to enable location-based marketing for restaurants and bars. Failed. Miserably. I’m sure I will write a separate post about that at some point, but it was an interesting working relationship and we tried to build everything under the moon before we even talked to our target market about the idea. Upsides: (1) learned what not to do (2) I learned Swift to build iOS apps (Not well).
I decided to move out to California after some time, as the love of my life (now fiance) left me (well, got a new job) in San Francisco and I wanted to be with her. I knew I wanted to get into product management, but felt that I should go back into engineering and build a product from the ground up as an engineer. During that time, another friend and I wanted to build something so we came up with a to-do list application that used countdown timers to track due dates. That one went pretty well, but fizzled out when my co-founder decided to focus on his day job. So, I also got some great product experience from that. I successfully completed user interviews, ran betas, was on some podcasts, built a cross-platform product, and more.
Ultimately, I decided to go into product management and that is what this entire blog series is about…So be on the lookout for more posts!
I am writing a series of blog posts about my transition from engineering to product management. Click here to get the master list.