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17 Jun

Working Backwards

Arnav is telling his friend Rashi about his plans to switch from his current business analyst role to a product manager role at a high-growth startup.

Arnav: 6 months to go before my next appraisal. So, I'm thinking I'll probably make a switch after that, as I'll get an increment over my appraised salary in my next job.

Rashi: Okay, but I thought you were quite unhappy with your current job and wanted to make a move asap?

Arnav: Yeah, I am but I can't simply quit. I need the money coming in till I learn some product management on the side and get ready.

Rashi: When you say "ready," what do you exactly mean? Ready in what way?

Arnav: Currently I'm taking a couple of online courses around strategy and management and also doing some reading on the side, books and blogs I come across. Trying to upskill for the role.

Rashi: How many hours are you able to dedicate for this per week? And before that, do you know what type of startups you wish to work at as a product manager?

Arnav: Okay, so... hours per week... not a lot, like, about 4-5? My job keeps me in the office till 10 on most days of the week so I don't get much time. What was your second question again?

Rashi: I asked you about what market do you think you'd be a good product manager for.

Arnav: Oh yes, right. Well, I haven't thought about it much. I just know that product management is a great job where you're the mini-CEO, in-charge of making product decisions and can create a lot of impact. I like those kinds of roles where I can use my creativity.

Rashi: But product managers in different industries look vastly different and have different job profiles. Have you identified any markets you're particularly curious about?

Arnav: I'm personally interested to work in the EdTech space, but I'm thinking that based on my current profile and background, getting into a fintech would be easier.

Rashi: Okay, then it sounds like you need to find that out first. Have you tried talking to any product manager from the fintech space to understand what their day-to-day job looks like? Just to get an idea of what are the pre-requisites for the role and what you'll need to do to get in.

Arnav: No, I think I'll start doing that once I get my appraisal. I think it will tie in well with my job search.

Rashi: But you're only spending a tiny fraction of your time right now in learning about product management, and that too, your learning doesn't feel very directed. And by the time you'll get your appraisal, 6 months will have passed. And getting to your next role might take you another 3-4 months. So, by the time you actually start working as a product manager, a whole year will have passed. Do you wish to wait that long? A lot of things can change in 6 months, let alone a year. Plus, your appraisal might make you more complacent about leaving your current job.

Arnav: Hmm, I think you have a point. Maybe I should start my job search right now. Talk to some product managers, see some PM jobs being posted by fintech startups and the skills their JD mentions. That will help me get unstuck from this perpetual reading and learning cycle and actually move towards executing. Even if I don't get any interview calls, at least I will know what my resume is missing right now and what I need to study and upskill in.

Rashi: How do you feel about that plan?

Arnav: Pretty good. I think leaving my job feels really risky given how uncertain I am, and it was making me avoid thinking about switching. Investigating more without committing to leave at a future date helps. I'll also be taking some really concrete steps towards my goal.


Arnav wanted to get into product management even without having much clue about what that role entails in a given industry. He also lacked clarity about where his talent-market fit was. Simultaneously, the need to keep working in order to keep the lights on was a major source of conflict between taking concrete action. He was uncertain about leaving his job to focus on his PM upskilling and job search full-time.

With all this uncertainty, he naturally defaulted to the comfortable route:

Undirected and haphazard learning that probably wouldn't have gone anywhere, even after 6 months.

But when Rashi helped him work backwards from his end goal, he realised that his original plan was actually a pretty bad plan, because it wasn't going directly for the goal. Despite a lot of uncertainty, Arnav realised that by working backwards, his learning would be concrete and would save a lot of time he would otherwise spend on undirected learning. Besides, he now has an opportunity to land on a good job much sooner as he is starting a lot sooner instead of waiting for an appraisal.

In absence of this clarity, he would have continued to default to the status quo, even if the status quo was a bad decision for him.

We are all Arnav at some point in our life. A career switch is a pretty well-defined problem as long as you have clarity around what you wish to switch to. But the trick with well-defined problems like these is to be clear about what the goal is and work backwards from it. Failing to do so would mean getting sucked in by the gravity and the comfort of the status quo.

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