Today is my one year anniversary of working at Kickstarter!
Over the last year, the thing I’ve heard most frequently is “Huh? That’s a big change. How is it compared to Microsoft?”
I’m going to attempt to answer that with one caveat: This post will (probably) be boring if you already have worked at a large tech company and a startup, or if you spend a lot of time reading about it.
The biggest thing is that in many ways it’s completely the same.
I wouldn’t have expected it, but to give you an idea, here’s just a few of the many similarities:
- I still wake up, get coffee, and wander into the office between 9 and 10:15am. I still wear jeans to work most days. I still get lunch at 12:30pm. I’m still the least productive between 4 and 6pm.
- I still think about specific problems. At Microsoft, I thought about how to help people access most recently used documents. Now, I think about helping people find, back, and start projects effectively. The ways I think about those things are pretty similar.
- I still spend a lot of time working with people: getting lots of inputs, synthesizing, and seeing if my synthesis resonates with other people.
- I still work in spurts: Some weeks it feels like everything is easy. Some weeks it seems like I’m never going to have an idea again.
- My best days are still the ones where we manage to make a big decision, or ship something.
- My worst days are still the times things get canceled, and when I’m in back to back meetings all day.
Of course, there are differences. The first two are common refrains you’ll hear from people who have worked at big companies and startups, the third I think is a bit more nuanced and more specific to Kickstarter.
People talk about this a lot, and it’s true: at a bigger company, you’ll be responsible for a much smaller set of things.
My entire first year at Microsoft was spent on “PowerPoint Broadcast Viewer for Symbian.” I thought about it all the time. It was a very specific, small area. I already knew what I was building, and I thought only about the execution (very little strategy).
My first year at Kickstarter I’ve been thinking about huge swaths of things – for both direction and for specific features. A sampling:
- How do people Discover projects?
- How do people feel about projects they’ve backed?
- How do they keep up with projects they’ve backed?
- Why do people decide to start projects?
- What do people worry about while starting projects?
I don’t think either of these are good or bad. I actually wouldn’t even say that it’s “more responsibility” at Kickstarter. It’s just different.
Personally, I enjoy having more things to think about, and I like feeling like I impact our direction. That makes Kickstarter a better fit for me in this way.
On the flip side, at Microsoft everything I made was exceptionally high quality (it had to be). I spent a lot more time thinking about minute details. I’m sure some people are better suited to that type of thought.
Personally, I’m glad I started out focusing on trying to do something small, perfectly. It makes my work now a lot higher quality. That said, I don’t think I’d want to go back to having smaller areas.
2. My “Job Description”
Microsoft has a lot of employees. If my memory serves me correctly, I believe they hire about 1,000 college grads every single year into the engineering roles. When you have as many people as Microsoft does – there’s some necessary standardization of the roles. That means there’s a set of skills and duties that every PM is expected to fulfill.
While I was there, I always felt a little bit like “generic PM.” It never seemed like it mattered so much that I was doing the work compared to one of my immediate coworkers – or honestly, even a PM a across the company.
It also meant that my personal preferences didn’t come into play as much. There was a set of things that “PMs do” – and as a result I did all of those things. I learned a lot through the process, but there wasn’t much freedom to say “that’s not really my thing” and focus on areas I was stronger in. I used the same tools and did the same work as other PMs (same spec template, same reviews, same way of tracking work, etc).
For example I’m really proud of the work the team did for the Recent Documents panel for the Office Hub for Windows Phone 8. Still, at the end of day, given the business goals and design constraints, I’m pretty sure any of my PM friends would have made something very similar.
At Kickstarter, there are four of us that have the PM title, and we all work differently. Some spend more time with the community team (and writing content!) and some spend more time writing code. Some do more practical projects faster, and some do larger projects, more slowly. It’s all about how each person is best about getting things done. From what I can tell, each person works in the area that they’re most interested in.
I have a lot of freedom for defining what projects I want to work on (we have priorities, but we tend to all agree on them). I also have a lot of freedom to work the way that I work best.
For me that seems to mean:
- Writing down goals for projects ahead of time (yup, there’s some Microsoft in me still).
- Spending a lot of time alone, actually thinking about the direction we’re going and features.
- When I have meetings, I do “ad-hoc” check in meetings as needed, rather than a regularly scheduled time.
- Towards the end I try to do retrospectives to see what’s gone well/badly in my projects.
Those things are up to me – that isn’t an official “PM process.” My projects go a lot differently than they might if someone else was PMing.
SInce the roles are more vague, it also means I need to be more ready to jump in at any point. If we need data, I should figure out how to do the SQL queries or look at the MixPanel information. If we need to know what people are writing in about, I should go talk to the community team. If a designer goes on vacation, and we want to try changing something in the mockup, I try to do that too. I’m not as good as a designer, but I can be better than nothing.
My “job description” is much more in hands now: how can I best use my time to make Kickstarter better?
3. More Opinions!
This is the biggest difference I’ve noticed, and I think also my last expected. It builds off of the first two things.
At Microsoft, people are very focused on their specific discipline and product area. Since there are specific roles (as described above) there are clear areas where people tend to give feedback.
As a PM at Microsoft, I was generally regarded as the “expert” for my areas. I’d have a product review and get feedback from others on the team, but the general perception was always that I knew the most about it. Developers and testers would come to a spec review to poke holes in my feature, and try to find ways to make it better. It was very unlikely someone would come to the spec review and suggest doing it a completely different way. Even though it was a big place, I really “owned” the areas that I owned.
This was similar for all the disciplines: I’d have been unlikely to tell a developer they were doing a feature wrong. They might suggest an architecture, and I could give feedback – but at the end of the day, it was their call.
At Kickstarter, that’s not really the case, for anyone. There are fewer discipline boundaries.
It’s lovely to be able to have people listen. I can weigh-in on how we communicate with the outside world, and share my thoughts on our project guidelines or newsletter. It’s nice to feel like my opinion is valued even outside of my direct “area of expertise.”
It’s also great to get lots of input from people on how we do product and design. Frequently, people from other disciplines think about a problem differently. That’s great.
The flip side is that sometimes it can be very frustrating. One that gets to me sometimes is that it’s very common for non-designers to give input on specific designs – from the high level things, right down to “what color should this button be?” Sometimes you just want to ship something, and not get everybody’s opinion.
On the whole this it’s good! We share content earlier in the process, and everyone gets to be involved and learn from other disciplines. I’ve learned a lot about writing (and about creating community guidelines!) I don’t think I would have learned those things without our culture anywhere else. Similarly, I hope other people have learned a little bit more about how products get made. But – I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes miss the Microsoft autonomy