Friendly, Busy, Learning

I get a lot of “do you like HBS?” and “are you happy you went to HBS?” I don’t know.I do know that these are the three big ideas bouncing around in my mind as I end my first term.

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Friendliness is underrated.

Everyone at HBS is friendly. This is one of the reasons I wanted to come to HBS – alums seemed to have completely effortless conversations.

Before HBS, I had some “effortless” conversations. “Effortless” because I put the work in beforehand. It might have been months of talking on Twitter. Or brainstorming topics beforehand. The effort was all up front.

Being friendly on the spot is harder. Somehow I’d end up in conversations and tell someone my entire life story, but walk away knowing nothing about them. People would ask me about my weekend plans, and I would draw a blank while trying to remember theirs. I’d say something in class and people would come by during break to chat with me about it. Everyone was so friendly, it felt almost scripted.

I was still getting peoples names wrong. Did they sit at home with flashcards to memorize all of this? Was there a guide of “how to be nice in an HBS classroom?”

No. It’s just genuine. Everyone just shows up at HBS and wants to get to know you. People listen when you talk. They want you to feel comfortable. In my previous experience it was okay to admire someone’s work. At HBS, you can just admire someone as a person. The priority is getting to know people, rather than getting to know their work. You don’t need the work as a jumping off point.

I doubt I’ll ever be as warm as the people I’ve met this semester, but I am going to make more of an effort.

I worry that it is so busy here.

HBS is busy. I have no other word for it. Busy. Busy. Busy. Most of the people I know look exhausted all the time.

Many people have pointed this out to the administration. The (unsatisfactory) response: “It’s supposed to be like a bootcamp – we want you to go through the same experience together. If you don’t have time to reflect, go to fewer parties.”

I don’t go to parties. It still feels busy.

At the beginning, I was barely making it through. The goal of every day was “make it until tomorrow.” I spent my weekends recovering so I’d have the energy to make it through another week.

As I got better at the material, I could reclaim my time. I didn’t go through the formal MBA recruiting process, and I didn’t go to parties. But having my time back didn’t make me happier – it made me feel like I was doing something wrong. Everyone else was busy. I’d been busy. What happened? Was I doing it wrong?

I wasn’t afraid of missing out, but my free time made me anxious. I don’t like being busy. I’ve been busy before, and it doesn’t result in me doing my best work. Yet, after a few months of HBS, my self expectation was right back at “busy.”

If we send 900 people to school, and they all get accustomed to “busy” – I’m afraid they’re going to keep expecting busy. I don’t even like busy, and I saw it in myself. I saw this trend in the alumni profiles we were able to read as well – they stayed “busy.”

I have a sinking suspicious that part of the reason corporate America is so “busy” and that white collar workers work so many hours is because of places like HBS. We shouldn’t be teaching our leaders that “busy” is the default – and we shouldn’t be expecting “busy” of everyone else.

Learning new things is hard.

I had the advantage of starting HBS a week early to go through an intense bootcamp in Accounting and Finance. In retrospect, I would call this bootcamp “how to make T-charts, and what the three financial statements are.”

I remember the first week that it felt impossible. I thought I might never understand how to make a Statement of Cash Flows. I was the one person HBS admitted that was too stupid to be able to learn it.

I always consciously know that learning things is hard. But knowing it, and going through it again are different things. If you haven’t cried from exhaustion while learning something new recently, you might want to try it.

Now, making Discounted Cash Flows is fun, second-nature, and like an amusing puzzle. It gives me the same sense of accomplishment that I get from figuring out a flow diagram to connect everything a user in an app. I didn’t realize it was the same thing I’d been doing at the beginning until I sat down to write this.

I’m less afraid of next term, because the thing that scares me at the beginning might be the one I like the most by the end.

Business School can make you a better PM

When I started at HBS, I was nervous that it would be a detriment to my career. Tech isn’t known for being the most welcoming place for MBAs. Plus, how on earth was Finance and Operations relevant to PM? I took the leap anyway, and this post is a simple sketch of how I’ve learned about PM over time: including at business school. As always in my blog, PM = Product Management.

When I started working in PM, I wasn’t starting from 0. I was starting from a strong liberal arts background (high school) and an engineering degree (college). I had a lot of ideas flying around, but none of them were particularly relevant to PM. I’m calling this general knowledge (grey dots) as what I started with.

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After I started at Microsoft, I started learning things about PM (red dots). I also starting having my own insights (red triangles), based on that new information and my previous knowledge.

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Over time, I learned more and more about PM, and formed more of my own opinions. But the map started to get full – I’d learned many of the “PM basics,”  so I learned more slowly.

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I did things outside of PM to try to increase what I knew: taking design classes at University of Washington, going to Creative Mornings, running PM breakfasts. These things were still adjacent and fit nicely with my PM knowledge (more red dots, some pink dots).

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They’d spark new insights of their own (pink triangle) and about PM (red triangle). This happened fairly often – but not as much as it did at the beginning.

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Business school is like an entirely different world.

First, we learned some Accounting and Finance, which made a bunch of blue dots:

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Then throw in Operations which made orange dots, and Marketing that made green ones:

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If I’d been adding dots at a rate of one/day, business school was like suddenly adding five per day (or more). It was exhausting and painful, and at the beginning it was just dots. Nothing seemed to connect or make sense.

But as time went on, I started to see insights about each of the disciplines independently (blue, green, orange triangles):

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And then I had lots of new pieces to use in my ideas about PM, too!

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If I hadn’t gone to business school, I wouldn’t have all the green, blue, and orange dots to work with. I’d be stuck primarily with my red, grey, and pink dots – walking through the same ideas over and over again. Being at business school helped me answer two of the PM questions I was stuck on: do you need to be technical? and how to pick a PM job that’s a good fit. I’ve also gotten a much better sense for how non-technical people think about technical problems.

I’m sure that some of these insights don’t have much to do with business school in particular, just that I’m focusing on a different discipline. (I’ve written before that learning anything new can help with being a PM.)

I also don’t think this would work for every PM. Business school is incredibly distracting – and varies widely based on what you want to get out of it. There are always a million things going on. I’m able to spend the time to think because I say “no” all the time. My schedule is primarily: preparing for class, going to class, and reflecting on class.

Most students spend more time on other activities: recruiting, clubs, and 5-35 hours per week at parties. I cannot imagine 35 hours per week at parties. I’m definitely missing out on some of the networking, but I’m doing what I wanted to do: breaking my mental model. If a PM decided to go to business school for the social aspects, I don’t know if they’d have the same experience that I’m having with the academic content.

But almost three months in: I’ve learned more about being a PM in school than I would have in three more months of working. I’m not sure I’ll feel the same way at the end of the year, or in two years, but from where I sit: the first three months of business school are solidly worth it.

PM: The Person, The Situation, and The Style

As always in my blog, PM = Product Management. 

The Framework

One of the core frameworks we’ve discussed in the LEAD class at HBS is the idea of “person, situation, and style.”

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The person is clear: It’s who you are (personality) and the skills you bring.

The situation is also pretty clear: It’s what’s going on in the existing environment and context. It’s what the person has to operate in.

The style bridges the two: It’s how you can change, while still acting authentically like yourself, to function within a given environment.

It’s hard to understand in the abstract, so here’s an example of how it played out in my last four environments:

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At Olin, the environment was perfectly suited to my personality. I didn’t need to change at all. Microsoft and Kickstarter were both in the middle, but in different ways. They both posed their own challenges. At HBS it’s the total opposite: most things feel foreign, and I feel no matter how far I stretch, I don’t quite fit. It’s been helpful to examine my successes and failures using this angle.

Using this for PM Hiring

I think this framework is a solid lens to consider PM opportunities – from both angles: What PM role should you take as an individual? Which hold you stay away from? If you’re a hiring manager, who do you hire to strengthen your team?

Culture: Discipline Background

The first aspect to consider is the discipline strength of the PMs. PMs need a variety of skill sets, across disciplines. Even so, most companies have PM team that leans one way or another – towards Engineering, Design, or Business. As an individual, you probably know which discipline resonates with you.

To figure it out for a company: What’s the background of each PM you met at the company? What “org” do the PMs report through? Who do PMs spend most of their time working with?

For example, at Microsoft, the PM team is heavily Engineering leaning. PM is part of the “Engineering Triad.” PMs rarely (in my case, never) discussed revenue or business. There’s a separate design studio. Most PMs have an Engineering degree.

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Culture: Interactions

It’s also important to consider how the team interacts. This is more subjective, but includes things like:

  • Do PMs spend more time talking to or listening to the rest of the company?
  • Does vision come from senior leadership, or does each PM set vision?
  • Is the culture meeting-oriented, or informal checkins?
  • Do weekly status emails matter? Or are they a hassle?
  • Do people argue? How loud are meetings?
  • Do we care more about being fast or being right?
  • Do people share as they work, or present a final product?

It will be rare to completely overlap, or completely diverge from the interaction types. It’s very likely that a candidate will be “more” or “less” like the existing culture.

Evaluating these together

Once you’re figured out what the discipline and interaction model for both the org, and the employee, how do you evaluate it? What’s the best option?

Both Match

If both match, the upside is in short term performance. It’s going to look a lot like the diagram I drew for Olin: the new PM won’t have to change at all to fit in.
They’ll fit in with the existing organization. That ups their likelihood of executing quickly (and well).

The downside is that it doesn’t grow the organizational knowledge. Adding one more person with the same skill set helps with execution, but won’t help with innovation. It doesn’t broaden the skill set available. The addition will be likely to keep the company set in it’s current direction – but not improve it.

Neither Matches

This is the opposite case.

If neither the interaction or the discipline matches, the upside is diversity of experience. You’ll have an employee who brings a lot to the table. They’ll have a different way of thinking about Product, and a different way of thinking about the organizational dynamics.

Unfortunately for both the company and employee, that’s going to be a rough. First, the new employee won’t be doing the same work others deem “valuable.” Second, given communication differences, it might be challenging to explain why. They have to stretch along two directions to figure out how to fit in. Stretching yourself multiple directions at once can be exhausting.

I’m going to guess that many PMs that quit quickly, or are fired for “career fit” fall in this bucket. They could be great PMs – they just didn’t match with the situation at hand in either way. It was too hard to move their style across multiple dimensions.

One Matches

I’d argue the sweet spot is when one of these two attributes matches. That gives some common ground – and some room for growth.

If you have a common ground on work style, but different backgrounds, you’ll be able to learn about different disciplines. Collaboration will occur, and it may be possible for each person to get better at Product as they understand it more deeply. i.e. Someone might fit in with the organizational dynamics at Microsoft, but stretch to meet the Engineering background:

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If you have a common ground on backgrounds, but different work style, it comes with a different benefit. You’ll be able to work more effectively internally and figure out how to be more inclusive/get better ideas. Of course, you’ll still be grounded in the starting discipline.

Recommendation

So here’s my thought. If you’re an individual looking for a PM job, make sure you fit with either the discipline background, or the interaction style. You’ll be able to learn and teach about the aspect you don’t fit with.

If you’re a company, hire a range of PMs. Make sure that some differ from your “norm” in their interactions and some differ from the “norm” by discipline. This way you’ll be able to maintain a resilient team with diverse perspectives.

Feedback at HBS

A theme of the HBS has been the importance of self-awareness. The entire FIELD course works on trying to develop the sort of personal skills that aren’t applied by the case method. Part of that was two entire class days at the beginning of the term were devoted to “communication, voice & self awareness.” A big piece of that has been the importance of giving and receiving feedback.

If you aren’t familiar with HBS’s curriculum, everything else is done via the case method. A “case” is a long story with a problem that the protagonist needs to solve. We’ve done 7-12 of these per week across our subject areas: Accounting (FRC), Finance (FIN), Technology and Operations Management (TOM), Marketing (MKT) and Leadership and Organizational Behavior (LEAD).

The 94 of us arrive (on time) and sit (in our assigned seats) and the professors helps moderate a discussion for 80 minutes. One person is usually “cold-called” – asked to open the discussion by summarizing the situation and giving their best recommendation for what the protagonist should do. Then everyone else jumps in to advance the conversation. This participation makes up about half of our grade in each class.

Participating in section is much harder than anything I’ve done at work. Harder than daily work, and also harder than key presentations. Harder than speaking at a conference. Harder than teaching. I’ve hit my metaphorical “wall” more times than I would care to admit.

Class is an exercise in balancing:
- What do I bring to the class to this conversation that’s unique and interesting?
- How can I make that point in 30s or less, in a way that will help my classmates understand?
- When is the best time to raise my hand to try to fit that into the flow of our conversation?
- What cases do I want to contribute to?

We’re now mid-way through the first semester, so feedback on participation has started to roll in.

Our two days of conversation on self-awareness and how to give effective feedback covered a lot of ground: give it in person, start from shared ground, give it as close to when something happened as possible, give specific examples, explain the impact of the behavior, provide actionable ways to improve, etc.

In contrast, the mid-term feedback comes as a form letter. Our form letter groups us into one of the three buckets – strong, acceptable, needs improvement. These buckets track primarily along frequency of contribution. This seems odd, as the message at the beginning of the semester starts with “quality matters more than quantity, but quantity also matters.”

It’s easy to be critical, but based on my experience with the feedback, and what HBS taught us about feedback, I think the feedback is more harmful than it is helpful.

My first feedback was an “acceptable” which prompted 0 reflection or improvement from me – thus automatically making it not very useful. I heard similar things from friends with acceptable/strong ratings, so I’m willing to bet about most of the class won’t change anything as a result of their midterm feedback. That doesn’t seem like a good way to improve our classroom discussions.

The second was a “needs improvement,” which is the most actionable of the buckets. It was helpful in as it forced this meta-reflection about feedback.

As mentioned, the “Needs Improvement” feedback is about quantity for most people. Given that, a histogram of “number of comments” for each student would be much more objective. I know how many times I’ve talked, but I have no idea how many times other people have. That would give much better measurement for self correction. Data would feel a lot less personal, and I bet would make people more willing to take the feedback. It would give me a much more compelling reason to raise my hand than this form email that says “raise your hand.”

I think that data could help across the spectrum. An individual with fewer contributions could see how big the gap really is. An individual grouped in “strong” could distinguish between “high quality” and “tons of comments.”

This feedback also isn’t timely. There’s a big difference between week 0 and week 8. I’d be curious to see the graphs of participation over time. I’m willing to bet a lot of the “needs improvement” people have an upward trend. I’m also willing to guess a lot of them are introverts who like to understand the situation before jumping in.

Frankly, no one is unaware that they haven’t been participating. So why give negative feedback in the middle of what is a possible upward trend? That’s discouraging for no reason – the form email even acknowledges that it’s discouraging.

I think sporadic, but more direct personal feedback would have much more impact on the classroom experience. Having a professor drop by my chair before class and say “hey, I’d really like to see your hand up today” would make me raise my hand. Alternatively, a one-off “really enjoyed your comment” today would make my day. It’d be far more encouraging than an “acceptable” or “strong” form letter – and would encourage more comments of a similar type.

As of now, the only relevant action from midterm feedback is “raise your hand more” or “keep raising your hand.” We all already knew that, because they’ve been saying it since Day 1.

The current feedback system is in an uncanny valley of pretending to be personal feedback, without adding insight for students. My hypothesis: either an objective system, or an informal but personal system would have a greater impact on the classroom.

An Open Letter to Satya Nadella

Dear Satya,

Like many, I was surprised to hear that you’d remarked “It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise” at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing this week.

I was glad to see you apologize, but I think there’s something more interesting at play. Your statement signals that you trust that the system at Microsoft to provide fair, unbiased raises. Microsoft released data about workforce diversity earlier this year. As a former employee, I know you also have plenty of data to examine about if the system is giving unbiased raises.

I’d love to see Microsoft release the data for:
• Promotion velocity by gender, and by length of time at the company.
• Retention rate by gender of college hires after 1, 2, 5, 10, and 20 years.
• Salary differential (percentage) by gender by discipline by level. *
• Percentage Gold Star awards** by gender (and by discipline and level).

For each set of data I’ve mentioned, it’s equally important to do the same analysis by race, sexual orientation, trans*, and able-bodiedness.

Your statement makes me hope that this data would be positive. I hope that Microsoft could serve as an example for other companies to follow. Maybe that is the case! If so, you should be proud to share this data and help us all move forwards.

I worry that instead, your statement comes from ignorance. I worry that Microsoft isn’t analyzing or prioritizing these issues. I clearly remember my Vice President telling our group to never discuss salary with friends – “it only makes one person sad.”

Of course, it could also show systematic biases.

Even if the data isn’t great, I’d love to hear that you learned and have an action plan to resolve disparities. I might not still be at Microsoft, but many of my best friends are, and I hope the company is doing what’s best for all of them.

I think it’s unlikely this data will be shared due to legal risk. Even if you don’t share publicly, I hope you’ll acknowledge that you’re personally reviewing this data, and making sure women actually can put their faith in Microsoft.

Ellen Chisa

*If you aren’t familiar with Microsoft’s system, this is confusing. Typically, Engineering hires start at level 59. When I was there that included Program Manager, Software Development Engineering, Software Development Engineering in Test. Salaries are typically banded within a level, and every couple levels you get a new title: PMII at 61, Sr. PM at 63, Principal PM at 65, and Partner PM at 67 (and equivalent for other disciplines).

** Gold stars are “special” bonuses awarded for going above and beyond what was necessary in your role, typically by your VP. I know of four male friends who received a gold star, and no women. It might be men are more likely to share their accomplishments, but I have no way to know.

“Career Fit”

It’s been over two years since I left Microsoft. It’s been almost a year since I first wrote about it. I still reflect my time there regularly. Much of the feedback I got through Microsoft performance reviews has shown up in feedback that I’ve gotten in groups at HBS. I use many skills I developed at Microsoft every day. I’m grateful to Microsoft in many ways.

I’m also disappointed. My time at Microsoft made me believe I wasn’t cut out to be a PM.

When I accepted my job offer at Microsoft, I wanted to be very fair. It seemed unethical to let someone hire me and not tell them that I’d already committed to graduate school. If I could go back, I wouldn’t tell them, but we all make mistakes.

As mentioned in the previous piece, midway through my time at Microsoft, our group went through a re-org. My second manager was much less supportive of my graduate school plans. In his mind, one could not know they were leaving for graduate school – and still care about doing good work. I didn’t manage to assuage his worry.

I worked the way I always had. I tried to be very honest about my strengths and weaknesses. I do so because I think both are relevant. I care about fixing my weaknesses, but there’s often more value to be in understanding strengths, too. That’s especially the case at a big company – you have lots of employees to balance out different strengths and weaknesses.

At one point while struggling, I said something like “I think this is a really valuable learning. I think this isn’t as suited to my natural strengths as other projects have been, and that’s something to keep in mind.”

Perhaps the way I said things wasn’t right – but I did care, and I was trying. I wanted to get better. I wanted to find projects that matched my skills and would be best for me, and for Microsoft.

Instead, he interpreted my reflection as “I’m not going to do anything I don’t like.” It wasn’t what I meant, but once he had that impression, I couldn’t convince him otherwise.  I struggled, he didn’t invest in me, I spiraled downward. He wrote me off as an employee because he didn’t think I’d add value. We skipped most of our 1-1s.

It became pretty clear to everyone that things weren’t going well. I was sad, or bitter most of the time. He talked to other colleagues about his disappointment in my performance.

Soon, the narrative became that I wasn’t cut out for PM. No one attributed it to “bad manager relationship” or “bad particular situation.”  Instead people decided that I wasn’t meant to be a PM. I wasn’t technical enough. I wasn’t interested enough. I wasn’t willing to slog through things the way I should. It wasn’t the job for me.

People meant well when they told me I should try something else, but they were still saying I should try something else, that PM wasn’t for me. That I should go to business school and find a new path.  At the time, so many people said it that I believed it. I thought the next thing I did wouldn’t be PM.

I spent a couple months at home licking my wounds and trying to figure out what on earth I could do – everyone had said I’d be a good PM, and apparently I was terrible. I didn’t think I had the skills to get a job as a designer or an engineer. I didn’t really know how to get into another field. I never figured it out, so I kept with PM.  The feeling that I wasn’t “cut out to be a PM” lingered. It took me months to feel secure in my role at Kickstarter.

A couple years later it’s obvious that yes, I can be a PM. I love being a PM. I’m happy helping other people get into PM. The problem wasn’t me, and it wasn’t PM. It was with the situation. But I’m not proud to say that it wasn’t determination that kept me in PM. It was a lack of awareness of what else I could do.

I’m sharing because I have a sinking feeling that this might be happening to other women in tech.

When my male friends become unhappy in their role – they attribute it to the role “this job sucks” or “this part of the job isn’t my thing.” They view it much more as a fit thing. They never seem to internalize this sense of “you aren’t good enough for this role / you aren’t cut out for this field.” A male friend had a similar issue at Microsoft, and he was told (verbatim) to “find another job” – but not to find another career path.

My female friends seem to get much more of this “maybe you aren’t cut out for this job.” I don’t know why this is happening, and I don’t know how pervasive it is. I don’t have strong quantitative data. I do know it happened to me and at least four other women in my social circle (and this isn’t my casual party topic conversation). None of my male friends have shared a similar sentiment.

I decided to share because I recently had the opportunity to teach a talented young PM. I was surprised when she said “I’m getting negative feedback at work – can I not cut it as a PM?” Based on my class, yes, she will definitely be a good PM. It’ll take a little while. She’ll get there. But I worry what would have happened if she wasn’t in my class. What if there wasn’t someone to tell her she could be a great PM, even if the first company wasn’t the right fit?

What if I hadn’t stayed? I know now that the problem wasn’t me or PM, but I didn’t then.

Managers, you can help fix this. Start by giving constructive feedback. If it doesn’t work, it’s okay to let people go. You don’t have to want to work with everyone. Blaming a struggling employee on “career fit” is a cop out. It’s hard to know what the full scope of a career looks like when you only see the one job situation. Look everywhere else first – is it about your relationship with the employee? Is it about the way the company structures the role? Lots of things can go wrong. Pick concrete areas of struggle. “This isn’t the right role” leaves too much room for bias.

The flip side of this argument is that telling people to move on prevents them from wasting time. Frankly, if someone has multiple bad experiences in a career, they’ll figure it out and move to something else. When they make their own decision, they’ll understand the transition better. No one wants to do something they hate – but no one wants to be told to move on by someone they already resent, either. They’ll be better off moving on their own terms.

I love PM. I’m glad I’m still here. For the sake of keeping talented people in our field, let’s leave “career fit” up to individuals.

If you’re a new PM and struggling with something like this, I’m happy to talk it through with you, just send me an email (ellen dot chisa at gmail dot com).

Do I need to be technical to be a PM?

One of the top questions I get from aspiring PMs is “do I need to be technical?”

Many say yes. Ken Norton mentioned it as these second thing he looks at in how to hire a PM, with a good explanation of why. Microsoft and Google also tend to look for CS grads for PM roles. Industry leaders saying yes mean that many startups say yes, too.

Historically, I’ve erred on the side of “I’m not the best person to answer that question.” I hold an Electrical & Computer Engineering degree, so I don’t see what it’s like to be a “nontechnical” person. But honestly, you wouldn’t want to hire me as a Software Engineer. In fact, compared to many of the PMs I’ve worked with, my skill set is softer, despite the degree. I often feel like I checked the “technical” box by getting my degree, but it hasn’t been necessary to do my job.

But, I’ve changed my mind. I have an answer. You don’t need to be technical to be a PM. You just need to wish you were. If you’re asking me the question because you’re nervous about getting a job and learning everything at once, you’ll be fine. If you’re asking me because you want to avoid code at all costs, you should pick another field.

I’ve come to this conclusion during my time at HBS. I have whiplash here. Before, everyone was more technical than me. Suddenly, the people around me have a completely different skills. We examine income statements. We talk about feelings. We present strategies.

When we do need someone to talk about something technical, I’m the one to do it. Experience purchasing 3D printers? Me. Experience using milling machines? Me. Experience building circuit boards? Me. The only person who thinks it’s fun to sit and make the same circuit board for eight hours? Still me. I haven’t changed. My context changed, and I went from being a “soft skills” person to a “technical” person.

Simplified, it looks and feels like this like this:

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I started thinking of this as “technical” and “fluffy” sides of the continuum. Neither are meant to be pejorative, but I’ll admit I have an internal bias towards valuing technical things.*

So the first part is that I’ve realized is that in the great scheme of things, I’m more technical than I thought. So are many of the PMs that don’t have CS degrees and consider themselves “non-technical.”

The second part is I’ve gotten a chance to see a bunch of “non-technical” people work. We did a simulation earlier this week where we made circuit boards. The point wasn’t learning about circuits – it was simulating process in a factory operation. Most people had never made a circuit board before.

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Still, some of the people around me were curious about the technical pieces. What are these things called? What does a capacitor do? What changes if the LED is on or if it’s blinking? Why does it matter which direction we put it in in? What is this chip? Why do things go in this way? How does it work? Some of the people around me weren’t as curious.

There’s no value judgment on this. We couldn’t have run a factory without people figuring out our cost flow and break even. We couldn’t have run a factory without people coordinating our process, and delivering components. Every team needs many roles, and not everyone should be into the technical details.

But if I were a PM hiring manager, I’d look at the people who were curious about how the components worked. First, they weren’t trying to be in charge, they just wanted to get the job done. Second, they’d ask the same questions about code that they asked about circuits. “Why do we have this bug?” “Why is this the right architecture?” “How can I check in my own changes?”

I don’t think it matters how far down the “technical” line you are when you start. I think it matters how curious you are about the technical things. That curiosity will continue to drive you down the line. Someday, you’ll hit whatever place we’ve defined as “technical” – or at the least you’ll hit the place you need to do your job well.

That sort of curiosity led Emily from Kickstarter’s community team to Engineering team. The same curiosity led Kickstarter team member Ian to start writing his own code, even though he could have moved to the Product team without it. That curiosity means Joshua wants to learn how to code and do small projects, even though he could just invest in “PM” skills.

So, no. I don’t screen PMs based on if they’re “technical” or not. I screen PMs based on if they’re curious about how things work. They’ll be “technical” soon enough.**

* I think this could be generalized into “ideas focused” to “implementation focused,” outside of the technical context. For those who don’t know, Olin is my undergraduate institution.
** The converse of this is it also betrays who I don’t want to hire. I’ve talked to Management Consultants who want to get into PM, but “don’t want to have to learn the technical things.” If you aren’t curious about it, you won’t be good at PM.

Life as an Introvert at HBS

I decided that I owe the world a little more of an update on “How’s HBS?”- Particularly because after the last post I got a lot of “you’ll be okay! It gets better!” which I wasn’t expecting. The beginning of a new thing is always challenging – so no need to worry.

I don’t want to be a broken record, but four weeks in, I’m still most interested about how different HBS is for introverts. I’ve been considering that aspect across a few different angles. (I have some other insights, but I’m going to focus on the introvert part for now).

Social
This week was first time I thought “it might be nice to make some new friends.” There was so much forced people interaction at the beginning that I had no desire to get to know anyone past the required activities. I barely wanted to talk to the people I already knew. When I did try to force social interactions at the beginning, I came across as cynical.

I’m glad to be more interested in meeting people now, but I can see the downside to waiting. Now that we’re in week four, everyone else already has expectations and roles. I went to my first post-dinner section drinks during week three, and it was already surprising for me to be there. The first thing I heard was basically “Ellen! This is the first time you’re coming out!” – while I was relieved that anyone noticed/cared/wanted to talk to me, it still left me aware that I’m not participating as much as some others are.

On top of that, people are so extroverted that it can be hard to explain how I feel. The extroverts are also overwhelmed, but it isn’t the same issue. They often wish they had more time – could get to more activities – are missing something. I’m not worried about missing anything; I’m just exhausted from having to talk to people. I’m shocked at my inability to explain to people that introversion is different than fear of missing out (FOMO).

The upside of this is that while the social patterns at HBS form quickly, they’re also fluid. There’s nothing stopping introverts from engaging more as time goes on – the invitation is always there.

Classroom
I feel similar tension academically. At HBS, we have 93 students in our section. In our 80 minute classes, 30-40 students get to talk per class. That means on average people only talk about once every three classes. Professors have papers that highlight which students have talked the most and least. In the same way I can tell that it’s unusual for me to go out, I can also walk by and see that I don’t talk as much as some people.

Early on, I tried to force myself outside of my comfort zone by tracking how often I raised my hand, and getting used to the risk of having it up. I’ve settled down to the point where I only raise my hand if I (1) have something unique to say or (2) haven’t talked in a REALLY long time. I am looking to get a better system to record my own comments so I’ll have a more objective idea.

This is different from some of the more extroverted people. They’re more willing to start talking (sometimes when not called on!) or assume that they should continue in a back-and-forth debate, rather than waiting for professor guidance. I can see how extroversion could be an advantage in the classroom.

Since I consciously made the decision not to go for Baker Scholar (top 10% of the class), this isn’t too big of a deal. The vast majority (70%) of people get a “2,” which basically means “good enough.” As long as I’m learning and adding the things I think are particularly interesting to the discussion, I’m fine with getting 2s. This academic discrepancy might bother me more if that weren’t the case.

I do care about if I’m perceived to be taking my education seriously. I don’t want to be here and be wasting anyone’s time. Luckily, professors tend to stay in the front of the class after it concludes. This gives me time to ask some of my off topic questions after class, so I won’t distract anyone else. I hope that even though I don’t speak as often, people can tell I’m interested and want to learn.

There are some things that specifically help introverts in the classroom. One thing that does help is that we have the Cases to prepare ahead of time. While I can’t know exactly the direction our conversation will take, I know the general line of thought. I can reflect on my own beforehand. HBS would be far more stressful if we didn’t know what we were talking about until we arrived in class.

Another is that we have assigned discussion groups. The “assigned” part means I didn’t have to go out of my way to find people. It’s also only six people, so it’s much less scary to share ideas. I’ve found that my discussion group helps me feel far more prepared and comfortable speaking in class.

Professors also work to engage people. If I don’t speak, I know I’m more likely to be cold called. I enjoy being cold called because I prepare – and it makes it easier for me to jump in without worrying if I’m adding enough value or not. This means even if I’m not always confident about when to speak, the professors make sure I get things in sometimes.

Another thing that helps: Sitting in the same seats in the classroom every day has helped me. It makes it easier to remember and understand my class mates contributions. I’m far less overwhelmed than if all 93 of us played musical chairs each day.

Professional Clubs
Now that we’re a month in, the professional clubs have also started to kickoff. I think this is one area where there could definitely be improvement.

My gut feeling is that most of the people in leadership roles at HBS are extroverts. As I wrote before, everyone is so quick to jump in, that I don’t usually feel a need to organize. I think we need better ways for introverts to connect with organizations. I took one look at the club fair and turned right back around and went to sit in Spangler and read a case. I cannot imagine a situation in which I could walk around to hundreds of people, have a quick chat, and decide what to do.

The sheer number was too confusing. Some of my friends developed intricate strategies for what to get involved with. My solution has been to be clear about my interests, and then let opportunities find me.

So far, that’s working out, but I think it’s from luck. I came to HBS knowing that I love my industry. I also know enough people to already have some connections. A member of my discussion group helped me to become the Online Editor for the HarBus. I’ve gotten involved with the Campus’s Digital Initiative and audit PM101. I’ve given some other students advice on Kickstarter projects. I’m also hoping to do some things with the Tech club.

If I didn’t have clear cut interests, it wouldn’t be easy for me to find my way. I think this is the place that introverts are most disadvantaged at HBS, and I’d love to see improvement for ways to include introverts in clubs, and in club leadership roles.

Conclusions
I think my big takeaway is introverts will always be in the minority at HBS. You’re always going to have a different experience coming in as an introvert compared to an extrovert.

Based on my feelings and conversations with others, I think this is the difference:
photo (1)
For extroverts, HBS is exciting off the bat. New people! Parties! Whoo! Things are pretty good. People say to focus on the people, don’t worry so much about the work! There are still the low moments that come periodically, but on the whole when things are good, they’re great.

For introverts, there’s a longer ramp up. Frankly, the part at the beginning was sort of miserable. I never want to learn a ton of new things, do emotionally intense exercises, and meet a bunch of people all at once. People talk a lot about the parties, and not so much about how great cases are. It can be hard to find the other people who are feeling the same way. You have the same drops the extroverts have, but it’s a little bit less of a contrast. Over time, we start finding our places, and things get better – bit by bit – it just takes longer to be obvious.

To speculate a bit, I’m guessing (hoping) that the introverts get to the same level of happiness and belonging as the extroverts. They might even end up at a better place because they took the time to stop and thinking about where they were going. But I think the ramp up is always going to be harder.

Thanks, Parents.

Mea Culpa: The other week I published a piece called Lunch with Dads, about my time at Kickstarter. I was trying to get across the feeling of “otherness.” I opted for the example because it was my personal feeling, and also because non-parenthood is a much easier example to “get.” People either aren’t parents, or remember what it was like before they had kids, so they remember that tension.

In no way was it a critique of parenthood – parents have their own hurdles to overcome in the workplace. There are practical constraints (does the company have health insurance that makes it affordable to support families?) and as well as the perception ones (are parents as committed to the workplace? will they work as many hours?) I hope it didn’t give the impression I don’t like having parents in the office.

I care a lot about having parents in the office. There’s a bunch of reasons for that. Philosophically, I think it’s important to have a workplace that lets people stay if they want. At least some of your employees will have children – so it’d be unusual to have no parents. Parents are an important demographic. I also happen to like working with parents. I like hearing about kids, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about parenting from all the parents I’ve worked with.

The less obvious, and most tangible reason is that the presence of parents is one of the ways I evaluate if a company will be somewhere I want to work. I’ve mentioned this to people in personal conversations, but never written about it publicly. Parents push us towards better companies.

When I’m looking for somewhere to work, the first thing I focus on is the job content. All the things you’d expect: a product I’m interested in, room to learn new things, and coworkers I can learn from.

But past that, I have practical constraints. Unfortunately, the most direct way to ask about those doesn’t work well in interviews. It’s not practical to say “what are the typical work hours?” or “how’s work life balance?” because I look uncommitted. It’s also hard to say “do people here have a good sense of priority? soooo do people freak out a lot?” – that looks paranoid. It can be hard to ask for those, because it’s viewed as a lack of commitment.

Instead, I look at parenthood as an important signal for those sorts of factors. It’s also not hard to figure out if a company has parents. You often don’t have to ask – parents often have photos of kids on their desk, or mention their kids. To be clear, many non-parents also do the things I’m mentioning. I’ve just noticed parents consistently impact the work environment for the better.

First, parents tend to keep a good sense of perspective. They have other things going on, and they’ve had a lot of practice being patient. They can maintain composure in difficult situations. I like working with people like that.

Others can do this and I don’t have concrete data, but I get the impression that parents are consistently good at this. In my experience they are more likely to step back and not get upset or bogged down in details at work. This tends to make for more level-headed conversations. Plus, their behavior sets an example for others. It improves dialog.

Reactive behavior in the workplace makes it harder for me to do well. Having parents around reassures me that the environment will likely be calmer. Then it’s more likely to be an environment where I will add value.

Next, parents tend need flexibility. Babies have lots of pediatrician appointments, and reasonable bedtimes. As much as I love to work, I also love sleeping and seeing Tom and a whole host of other things. Parents have more challenging schedules than mine. If a job’s time commitment works out for parents, it definitely works for me. It isn’t that parents work less – it’s that they get work done in a way that works with their life. I don’t have to worry about it being an issue for me if I know there are parents there.

Finally, I’ve found parents to be empathetic when things don’t go according to plan. I’ve had situations where I needed to be out of work for family related reasons. With parents, it’s understood that we all have those situations occasionally. It doesn’t happen often, but I know in an environment with parents it’s less stressful if it does.

Parents in the work place is also good future assurance. I’m not planning on having kids now, but it’s also nice to know that the work environment I’m in is already set up for parents.

So, I think parents are an important indicator for company culture. Yes, having parents at your company is important philosophically. Yes, it can be fun. Yes, it’d be good just in case I had kids.

But it’s more than that. Having a culture with parents means the parents are pushing important things. Parents push companies to trust employees to use their time well. Parents push companies to remember that employees have a life outside of work. Parents push companies to create better situations for employees.

That’s why I use parents as a signal for where I want to be. Thank you, parents. I know you’re making my job better. I want to keep working where you work, and I think other non-parents should too.

HBS: Weeks 0 and 1

Despite years of having talked to people at HBS, I woke up on Day One and realized I had no idea what was about to happen. Rather than a factual “play by play” of HBS, I want to set the context with how it feels, and why it’s different from other places. This is a personal overview of how it’s been so far. In the coming weeks, I’m going to share some of the “practical” things that I think will be widely applicable to industry.

At HBS, you have to be yourself.

I’ve heard a lot these first few weeks of how business school is a transformational experience. I’ve also heard a lot of friends say that it helped them find what they want to do. Two weeks in, I have two theories on why this is the case.

First, there’s never a vacuum.

I’m an introverted person. People often don’t believe this, because I organize events. I need a ton of time to be alone. Large groups of people, and noisy rooms tend to make me anxious. It’s not so much that I like organizing events as that I like to fill vacuums. If there’s no one is organizing an event that I think is important, I’m happy to. If someone needs to step up to get a group together, sure. Over time I’d gotten accustomed to myself being someone who organizes things, because it’s a common need in groups.

I think many people at HBS have had similar situations. When you’re in a room and you can see what needs to happen, you jump in and fill the gap.

That doesn’t happen at HBS! At HBS someone is good at everything. There isn’t a vacuum to fill. For any task, there’s a bunch of people around me who truly enjoy doing it. It’s done before I even see a gap. You’re only doing the things that you’re suited for – because someone else can do everything else.

Second, you’re very tired – physically, intellectually, emotionally.

Physically, these first couple weeks didn’t allow for that much sleep.

Intellectually, the case method is stressful. There are very few situations where you have to talk to 95 smart people, about topics you’ve never studied. I’ve learned the basis for four different fields in the past two weeks , none of which I’d touched before. Every day you have needs hours of the type of energy and focus you’d usually reserve for only the VERY important meeting.

As my FIELD professor pointed out, your day goes like this as you go between class and downtime:

photo (15)
Emotionally, you’re always meeting new people. This isn’t tiring for everyone, but it is for me.

My throughput on everything other than what I love has dropped. When I’m this tired, I only do the things I want to do. There’s no energy left for anything else. My email response has gone from same-day to a week or so. I haven’t given advice for getting into PM. The house is a mess.

I’ve learned that all I do is go to HBS, and write. (Sorry people who sent me email! I’m trying!)

When there aren’t any gaps, and you’re too tired for obligations, the things you’re intrinsically motivated to do show themselves.

Formal education pushes you harder.

There’s been a lot of talk about how you can just “teach yourself” the things that you’d learn in business school.

Yes, I could have taught myself accounting.
Yes, I could have memorized some financial ratios.

No, it wouldn’t have been the same.

The benefit of formal education is a lot like other types of service industries. Education works the the same way a trainer pushes you harder at the gym, or a therapist pushes you to think more deeply about things.

Good formal education forces you to learn more quickly, and more deeply. I’ll give it to HBS on this one. They’ve fine-tuned the curriculum to be just about on the edge of what people can do.

For me, learning a new concept is a lot like exercising. Learning the new concept at first is hard, and it feels like my brain breaks. The new things don’t fit in with the old. Then slowly, it rebuilds itself around the new concept, and integrates it into the web of my existing knowledge.

The more new concepts there are, the harder that process is. It’s harder to reconcile them all at once. I tend to only do one thing at a time to let myself absorb.

Not so at HBS. I’ve hit the wall twice in the last two weeks. Once on the Wednesday evening of Analytics, when I just couldn’t get cash flows. Once this Thursday, when I was too tired to come up with a Marketing plan.

I hadn’t hit that wall since undergrad, and it was refreshing to know I was working as hard as I could. I would not have learned this much material, in a short time, on my own.

After two weeks, I hope I’m through the hardest piece. I’m excited to settle into a routine this week. Excited to get more comfortable speaking in class. Excited to get to know everyone else.