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.
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.
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...
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