“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.