A career in a product company is like running a marathon
A few weeks back, on a Saturday, I started my longest-ever run at 5.30 am. The plan was to run for four-and-a-half hours without worrying about speed or distance. The entire run was extremely rewarding, as I got a lot of time to think. As I was going through various phases of my run -, sometimes uphill, sometimes exhausted, sometimes re energised I drew parallels with my career in a product company for the past 20 years.
I meet and interact with many talented individuals who are thinking about a career in a product company or a services company. I cannot say which is better. It depends on what you want and primarily on your thought process. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages.
Here are some lessons I’ve learnt over the years:
Compete with yourself:
A career in a product company is like marathon running, which is far less glamorous than a sprint. I do not recall ever seeing a live telecast or streaming of a marathon run. Similarly, designations in a product company seem far less glamorous. You will have fewer people reporting to you in a product company. Most of the time, marathon runners are running alone without anyone cheering for them. Their competition is with themselves. Similarly, in a product company, you spend a lot of time alone acquiring in-depth knowledge about the domain or the product. It could take months or years of hard work without any immediate recognition. This is where you must think about your own personality and make the right choice. Are you someone who doesn't care about your neighbour’s/cousin’s designation? Are you someone who understands delayed gratification and has the tenacity to work hard in the initial years to become a domain/product expert? These are some of the primary questions I would recommend to someone who aspires to a career in a product company.
Plan and prepare for your run:
Marathon running requires a lot of careful planning and preparation. Progress does not happen in a week or a month. Any attempt to push yourself too hard results in an injury, which sets you several weeks backwards. Similarly, for a career in a product company, you first need to understand the entire product ecosystem and assess where you stand in each of these areas knowledge-wise. The various components of a product ecosystem revolve around understanding the client’s business problem, the technology used to build the product, the core analytics and the services offered to the clients for effective use of the product. It is important to acquire a reasonable understanding in the areas of system integration, cloud infrastructure, etc and specialise in one of them to succeed in a product company. . If you are a technology expert who does not understand the client’s business problem, your contribution will be constrained in the product development world. Another challenge is the lack of available documentation. Most of the time, the knowledge resides with domain experts. The only way to acquire it is to take up an active role/project in each of these areas. It requires careful planning over a long period of time. You cannot rush and set unrealistic goals to acquire knowledge over a weekend or a month. You must understand the importance of maintaining a steady pace throughout the run or innings in a product company. Last but not least, you must understand the cost of an injury. Anytime you quit and switch your job, you lose the competitive advantage that you created for yourself.
Carry your own water and nutrition:
The water stations and cheering crowd is a once-in-a-year phenomenon for marathon runners when running in a paid event. However, marathon runners must carry their own water and nutrition during their training. Similarly, in a product company, you must manage your own enthusiasm and morale, especially during your initial preparatory years. I have seen a lot of talented individuals quitting their innings in the product companies and regretting it after several years. As revenue per employee is far higher in a product company than in the services world, there are limited opportunities for people management roles. Acquiring knowledge and making a meaningful impact on the function/clients also takes a few years. The pace of promotions is slower in the product companies. Your success depends on how you manage your own preparation, especially during the years where you are not very happy about your merit, bonus or promotion. There are years where your company might not do well due to external conditions like a recession to make things worse. These things can constrain your growth for a certain period. To manage your response, you must first find out your passion. In my journey, I had to manage these stretches of slow growth a few times. When I found my passion for running, it taught me perseverance and built my endurance in all walks of life. If you have the tenacity to manage these phases of your career in a product company, then the long-term rewards could be satisfying in terms of the impact you make on your clients, your company and your colleagues.
I ran 35 km in four-and-a-half hours. For marathoners, this is an average performance. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this running experience and have no regrets about my performance in this run. It is the same with regards to my 20-year career in the product company. I thoroughly enjoyed my working experience in these 20 years. I look forward to the next 20 years.