Should I want to be the next Steve Jobs?
August 25, 2017 12:28 PM   Subscribe

I have been a 'web professional' here in the UK for around 15 years, largely on content management/platform development across web, social, mobile, film and, recently, VR/AR. My manager now wants me to move into a ‘pure product’ role. This is way less of a thing here than in the US and I have doubts on whether it's a good career choice for me, can you offer perspective?

I’m currently in my early 40s and have led teams as both an operational line manager, and a project manager. I've worked in a lot of sectors on different types of project but really I’m happiest in creative content development, and my current place of work is my favourite yet – a large cultural institute focussed on public engagement. Although I had a rocky start (see previous questions) I’ve been able to deliver a great set of projects and, whilst crazy stressful in lots of ways, it’s been very fulfilling overall.

Recently though my workplace announced yet another major restructure. Half my department was laid off and I was transitioned into a new team, with a new head of dept recruited from a commercial organisation. Following some months of uncertainty my post was eventually closed and I was looking at potential redundancy with a small payout. Although very sad about the thought of leaving the org I wasn’t too worried about prospects – I’d just closed a huge, incredibly stressful project, was recovering from a long-term health issue and quite fancied a break. I’ve been toying with thoughts of moving to a freelance career anyway so this seemed as good a time as any to give it a go. I have savings, a supportive partner and a whole slew of contacts.

Then I was offered the chance to trial a new product management function. Although ostensibly the same level and pay as my former role it is a very different set of responsibilities, with a much stronger focus on targets, growth and stakeholder management. I have now been in that role on a trial basis for three months, with some training, and I now have to make a choice. I can leave the org with no hard feelings and a small pay out (circa 3 months pay) if I genuinely don't feel the change is a fit, or I can accept the role on a permanent basis. My manager thinks I’m doing well and is encouraging me to stay. I however am horribly torn.

As I learn more about the nuts and bolts of product management and could probably 'perform' the role it feels like something I'm not likely to excel at. I want to create transformative experiences, but I am not that into ‘changing the world’ through tech in true PM style. I am at heart an editor/auteur type, not a tech evangelist. I have a graduate degree in tech and a lot of practical knowledge having spent so much time around development projects but I care less about building tools and more about using them to doing interesting and creative things. I’m good at presenting and selling myself but have next to no interest in marketing beyond giving information and letting people decide for themselves. I ‘m very motivated by audience engagement and strong UX but if I’m honest I’m not really ‘customer-driven’ in the product sense. I appreciate and utilise stats and analytics and feedback but I don't *care* about those things in the way I care, for example how this copy conveys mood, or how that sequence of images tells a story, or how this 3d sound makes someone feel. I work crazy hard on getting tone right, I am happiest working on material that provokes thinking, rather than reducing the need for it.

Given the above I’m worried that for me at least, being a PM will be endlessly frustrating, as it feels like the parts of the work I’m most interested in are handed to other people and I’m left with…issuing reports and carrying the can? I genuinely don’t get what is creative or fulfilling about this job. On top of that I am also very wary trying to build credibility for a new role that requires a radical change to how an organisation has traditionally worked. I’ve been in that position before and it was thankless and exhausting work.

I have raised these concerns with my HoD. Whilst she accepts that it's not really a natural progression from my previous path, she thinks I have a lot to offer the role and genuinely believes this to be a great opportunity for me. I do very much want to keep learning, but at this stage of my career I’m not interested in wasting time struggling at something for which I potentially have little aptitude. Especially when I could be carving out a niche that could take me out of the salary trap to be more sustainable in the long-term. Bowing out at a natural break point feels like a chance to draw a line under my ‘specialism’, and the pay off would fund a training course or a personal project that would showcase my skills better for future content roles.

On the other hand, content people seem to be everywhere, work is harder to come by and way more competitive, whereas product management seems to be all the rage, with fewer experienced candidates in the pool, and it does pay very well. Whilst pretty secure at the mo I'm certainly not in a position to wing my income indefinately, so don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth. I also really do love the org I work for, it’s pretty unique, and leaving the place (if not the job) would be a wrench. Accepting the post means I get to stay…

TDLR: I'm a mid-career professional and I love my place of work, but my job has changed to the point where I don’t know whether to lean in or GTFO. Would love to hear perspectives from product managers, content creatives, career shifters, and anyone in between!
posted by socksister to Work & Money (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It seems to me that the most prudent course of action would be to continue in your current role (your manager is saying you are doing well, so clearly you have an aptitude if not an interest) and apply for content roles elsewhere. It's easier to get a job when you still have one, and at the point where you have a sufficient offer from another firm, you'll probably have a better sense of whether or not the job has grown on you or its time to move on. Especially if that point is six months from now, having not been unemployed for three months will really have done good things for your finances.
posted by notorious medium at 12:45 PM on August 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

As someone who was an editor for a decade, managing and executing projects on the content side (I was managing editor of a magazine), then got laid off and found myself with an opportunity to become a project manager working in tech on web projects, I would say stay in the role and give it time. There may be unforeseen benefits and opportunities for creativity that aren't immediately apparent. That's been my experience.

For me, the opportunity to separate my own identity as a creator from the work I do to some degree has been freeing. I feel a lot more objective about the work when I'm helping foster the work along and brainstorming about it than when it's my perfect special snowflake content thing I've written, edited, and designed. Project and product management takes "kill your darlings" to a new level, and that's not a bad thing. The metric instead becomes simply "Does it work?" And that's a really good perspective to be exposed to, even if ultimately you decide this isn't for you long-term.

Also, don't assume that your role won't take you back in the other direction. The company knows you have content expertise, they like you, you like them, and if at some point it makes financial sense to expand your content and editorial practice again, you're well positioned to shift back into that work and lend your expertise, becoming a subject-matter expert as well as a product manager. That's the direction my job has taken recently, and after 2 1/2 years of project management, I'm heading up my company's content and editorial strategy practice. Being more "just" a product manager can have a serious upside. Don't give that up easily.
posted by limeonaire at 1:26 PM on August 25, 2017

If you had moved to a new town instead of moving into a new job, there would be a chorus of voices telling you to give it 18 months to get good before throwing in the towel. That's standard advice here.

How about telling your boss that you'll stay, but only after the vacation that you need to recover from the big project? (But it your heart, it's not permanent. But worth doing for a few months while keeping one eye open for a more appealing opportunity.)

Building new skills can help you qualify for management jobs. Stretching can lead to growth if you can handle it. And boring-ish jobs sometimes pay more. Ideally you can go back to the work you like in the not so distant future, but with extra arrows in your quiver.
posted by puddledork at 2:56 PM on August 25, 2017

I understand about the stretching and growing thing. I think the problem is that this feels like a backward step - I left a senior management role elsewhere to focus on becoming a creative content lead and took a sizeable pay cut in doing so. The new product role however feels like an amalgamation of things I've already done in other workplaces, but without any of the authority afforded by those roles. So along with not doing the content role that I joined the org for in the first place, I'm being paid less for the privilege.

Really I'm looking to understand more about whether it's genuinely worth exploring this role further, because I'm not really seeing the benefits other than not being unemployed (which is of course a big deal - but not if investing that time now could pay off longer time) and getting to stay with the org - which I may grow to resent due to aforementioned. That's why I'm asking for perspective from those who've been though similar, it does help with thinking this through.
posted by socksister at 4:04 PM on August 25, 2017

It doesn't sound like your heart is into this role, which itself is not necessarily an issue (lots of people have jobs they don't love, it's just a job to them) however the problem with that in this situation is:

1) the way you write about what you used to do makes it sound like it is important to you to feel a connection to the work that you do. This doesn't sound like it provides that.
2) I already feel a bit of resentment in your writing about this role and that's worse than indifference. You'll suffer and your company will suffer. Your manager thinks it could be a great opportunity for you, and I agree, but it really hinges on you seizing the opportunity. If your heart isn't in it, you won't be seizing anything.
posted by like_neon at 3:10 AM on August 26, 2017

I’m coming from a similar perspective. I’m about the same age, have a tech-related content background, and am looking to move into a product role. I’m similarly doubtful about the future of content-related careers.

Content was great for its expressive benefits, but at this point in my life, remuneration and ability to make an impact are more important, and getting product experience seems like a better route to those things.

FWIW, a colleague was forced out of content into product at my company, did well in the role, and is in an executive position now that she probably would have had more difficulty reaching if she stayed in content, judging by the career paths of those who were not forced out.

I largely agree with most of the advice that’s been given here encouraging you to take the role and at least try it out for a little longer while you line up what’s next. It does sound to me like you’re looking for a reason not to.

If there’s one more thing I can add to the conversation, it’s to take issue with your remark that you have little aptitude for the role. Not only does your boss disagree, but consider the idea that aptitude is illusory, that mastery is a product of focused practice.

You can probably become a great PM if you work at it — the question is, is the end goal worth that effort?

Feel free to MeFi Mail me, I’m really interested in hearing how this turns out!
posted by Borborygmus at 6:25 PM on August 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

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