What is my next career step and how do I get there, redux?
February 23, 2021 3:32 PM   Subscribe

So in 2014 I asked you for ideas about a new direction to take my career in. The good news: I got a new job, I'm still at that company, and I really like it. But I'm now thinking longer-term about the future, I'm finding the limits of how much I can scope and define my role, and I'm ideating about where I want to be five years on. Maybe you can help?

Without de-anonymizing my specific job, because it's kind of quirky and specialized, I'm in a consulting-adjacent field doing research. Generally, I like this work, but my company has an up-or-out culture and I'm at a career stage where it's worth thinking about which of those options I really want. i.e., five years from now do I really want to manage an entire product vertical? Or do I want to be a killer individual contributor doing something else?

What follows is a giant wall of text that nebulously describes my ideal job without actually describing any specific job. What job am I describing? Do you do something like this? How did you get into this field? What do I need to know now if I want to do the job in five years? I'm willing to totally think outside the box here and embrace weird ideas even if they end up being more guidelines than actual career directions, so if you're not quite sure something applies then go with it anyway.

Things this job involves a lot of:
-Problem solving. Figuring out why something isn't working and coming up with ways to fix it. The "something" could be anything from a process to a client goal to an internal project to a piece of writing to a product to a sales pitch to, you name it.
-Learning through meetings, interviews, and conversations.
-Taking a skeptical, analytical approach to information. Mythbusting. Anticipating every single possible way something could go wrong and creating a plan for it.
-Doing work that is behind-the-scenes in some way or another. Getting access to areas and information that are secret or restricted.
-Processing messy information or data and figuring out what story it's telling.
-Learning and applying complex, fiddly processes or lists of rules.
-Applying a specialized skill to ongoing, consistent work. The kind of work where each task is discrete and it's easy to assess whether it's done.
-Project management: creating a work plan, identifying roles, keeping track of lots of dates and deadlines. Ruthlessly prioritizing. Evaluating as I go and halting tasks or projects that aren't working.
-Information management, tracking, and organization.
-Having the kind of schedule where if work is slow it's assumed that I can just go off and do something else, or it's okay if I'm reading a novel or listening to a podcast while I work. If the tradeoff for this is having to respond to requests outside of business hours, that's completely fine with me. I already keep my email on my phone.

Things this job has minimal-to-none of:
-Reading tons of long, dense nonfiction books and articles.
-Big, high-stakes projects or events.
-Ambiguous projects or tasks where there's no clear endpoint or goal.
-A schedule with tons of dead time where I'm expected to figure out stretch projects on my own.
-And the big one: schmoozing. It's like pulling teeth. I don't do small talk, I don't ask people the right questions about themselves to make them feel appreciated, I don't make the right joke at the right time, I don't remember details people share with me about their lives, I don't anticipate a special little thing to do for someone that will be memorable. Oh, and I'm faceblind to boot! (But I am not shy. Get me talking about a topic I'm interested in and have opinions on and you're going to have a really fun conversation where we both learn a lot. Maybe you read that sentence and said "but RC, that is schmoozing". If so, tell me more.)

I'm not interested in roles that involve business development or roles that involve internal schmoozing, such that informal relationships built outside of direct work assignments determine success. Which isn't to say I don't have good relationships at work. I do. To make it concrete, some things my colleagues would say about me include: "she's always on the ball with the resource or fact or hot take I need, she's one of the first people I go to if I'm trying to work out a tricky problem and bounce ideas off of, she keeps track of everything and gets back to everyone lightning-fast". And some things my colleagues would never in a million years say about me include: "she's my work wife, she has the hot goss, she's at every happy hour, she has the most incredible internal network and always knows everyone's opinion about everything". (Incidentally, they also would not say "she always puts others before herself, she drops everything to help those in need; everything she does, she does for the company".)

Neutral on:
-Management. I'm a pretty good manager in both project management/delegation and coaching/mentoring capacities but it can eat up a lot of time and emotional capacity.
-Writing and communication. I can communicate things in a direct and organized way verbally; in writing I tend to be a little more wordy and formal. Not my favorite part of any job or what I'd highlight on my resume. I'm a lot better at troubleshooting bad writing or communication than I am at improving my own. Yeah, yeah, I know, "physician, heal thyself" and all that.
-Travel. Obviously not happening right now, but I have capacity to travel a fair bit once it's safe; it's just not a value-add for me.
-I'm not actually neutral on compensation, I'm in a HCOL area and I gotta pay the rent, but I'm just brainstorming here so I'll leave that issue aside for the time being.

A couple additional nice to haves:
-Not having to start again from a junior role. I'm ten years into my career and I want to feel like I'm building on my experience and expertise rather than throwing it out the window.
-Not needing significant education, like I'd prefer not to quit my job to do an intensive MBA, but at this stage in the brainstorming process I'd be more interested just to know what the education requirements are.
posted by robot cat to Work & Money (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You might be a fit for some sort of program management role, which is like a more complex project management job. I don't have any perfect links but here's one site describing the difference between this and project management.

However, it sounds to me like you want your job to be, in many ways, very well-scoped and reactive. And this is totally fine but you should realize that this will limit the growth opportunities you have. Handling ambiguity and figuring out what the goal should be is a skill that many people need to learn right around 10 years into their careers, so you're right on track for that. If you push yourself to get out of your "give me a clear problem to solve" comfort zone, I think with your skills you'll have a huge array of career opportunities open to you, and you can go to very lucrative places as a business leader. So I'd think hard about developing the ability to tackle those ambiguous projects with no clear endpoint/goal, without this skill you may hit an unhappy career plateau.
posted by ch1x0r at 6:44 PM on February 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

If law school is out of the question...

Sounds a lot like Workers’ Compensation insurance adjusters, or their team leads. Something involving risk assessment and investigation, writing evaluations and having at least some understanding of medical conditions, legal principles and accounting.
posted by Schielisque at 6:49 PM on February 23, 2021

Is there a way to reframe “creating a goal out of ambiguity” so that it leverages your strengths? Seeing the ambiguity as a problem to solve?
posted by stoneandstar at 9:10 PM on February 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

Where i get a little hung up is that you want no "big, high-stakes projects or events." I'm trying to think of situations that require intensive project management without leading up to something like that. (I may just not be the right one to answer the question then! Good luck.)
posted by slidell at 12:14 AM on February 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm trying to think of situations that require intensive project management without leading up to something like that.

Probably something where there are a lot of ongoing small projects and things that need to get done. Or even something where there is a big, important project, but there isn't one big make-or-break moment that determines its success. Thanks everyone for the answers so far!
posted by robot cat at 9:09 AM on February 24, 2021

I'm currently a business analyst. Everything you listed is stuff I do.

How I got into it: my boss created the role after he came to our organization and was gobsmacked that we didn't have one. (I was doing a lot of this work already as part of software project teams, in my previous roles as technical writer, QC tester, software trainer, and quasi project manager).
posted by medeine at 1:21 PM on February 24, 2021

>> I'm trying to think of situations that require intensive project management without leading up to something like that.

> Probably something where there are a lot of ongoing small projects and things that need to get done. Or even something where there is a big, important project, but there isn't one big make-or-break moment that determines its success.

Thanks for replying. Given that, I wonder if construction project management for large projects or logistics might be worth considering.
posted by slidell at 8:15 AM on March 1, 2021

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