All posts by bhaskard

Preparing for a Career Change

Bhaskar Dutt, TMMBA Student (Class of 2012)

Many of us here in the TMMBA come from technical backgrounds and are interested in taking on roles that have more of a business component. Career changes can be challenging and stressful, but also very rewarding. Having just completed a career change, I felt it might be a good idea to talk a bit about the process and how I was able to leverage my TMMBA experience to stand out as a candidate.

My background is very technical – I have a Bachelor’s in Math and Computer Science and a Master’s in Computer Science, and I have been working as a developer for Microsoft for the last ten years. Over the last few years, I had increasingly begun to become interested in broadening my horizons and exploring roles that give me a better understanding of the business as a whole, and not just the technical part of it. Within Microsoft, the Program Manager role seemed perfect for me – it retains a strong technical aspect, but also has elements of marketing, product design, project management, and interfacing with partners and clients.

So once I had an inkling that Program Management was potentially where I wanted to be, I began to act on it. I will break my process down into a few steps that I think make sense regardless of the kind of transition you are interested in making.

Do your research:  

Before you decide on the career change, it is essential to know exactly what the new role is like, warts and all. The grass may seem greener at first glance, but you need to verify that that is indeed the case. Every job has its perks and its pain points, and you need to gain a good understanding of them both. I talked to friends who were already program managers and read various articles and blog entries about what the discipline is all about.

Understand why and be able to articulate it:

Why exactly do you want to change careers? Why do you think you will be successful at it? Are you running away from something or towards something else? Hint: the latter is much preferable to potential employers, so if the former is true, it is probably best to keep that to yourself. What is it about your background or skills that give you a competitive advantage in this new role? Be very clear in your own head about the answers to these questions and be able to articulate them at various levels of detail. This is important for a couple of reasons – firstly, you want to ensure that this career change is indeed the right move for you and secondly, because these are questions that will come up over and over again as you interview with potential employers.

For me, it boiled down to two main reasons. I realized that I had various strengths (communication, collaboration, project management, team alignment, etc), that while somewhat useful in my current role were part of a program manager’s core competencies. The second reason is that my long-term goals had to do with understanding the business holistically and at a strategic level, and within Microsoft, the ideal role to gain this kind of perspective was program management. Some interviewers asked me this in a cursory sort of way while others drilled down into my reasons for ten minutes or more.

Find a great mentor:

Find one or more individuals who are already successful in the kinds of roles you hope to have in five to ten years. Very often people will be more than happy to mentor or at least advise you. I was lucky enough to have a great former manager who went out of her way to help and advise me (thanks, Debbie!), but even if you don’t know anyone suitable, it is eminently possible to find a great mentor through networking. The TMMBA and your own professional network will be good starting points. A great mentor will not only be able to guide you and answer your questions about the career you are targeting, they may also be able to provide you with valuable leads and contacts.

Engage early with the TMMBA career development staff:

We are very lucky to have Susie Buysse to advise us on career development, job searching and interviewing. Use the wonderful resources we have available through the TMMBA to fashion a compelling resume and LinkedIn profile. For me, the LinkedIn profile was less important since I was looking for jobs within my current company, but Susie’s advice on fine-tuning my resume was invaluable. One quick tip: for those looking to change careers, a skills-based resume may be more appropriate than a chronological job-based one. Talk to Susie about creating one!

Build up relevant history:

Depending on the amount of time you have before you start your job search, you should do what you can to build up some work history that would be relevant in your new role. Pick up tasks that give you a taste of what working in your target role would be like. I’ve been interested in program management for a few years now, so where possible I have tried to volunteer for tasks that involve design, coordination, communication, or project management.

You may well find that you are not as interested in such tasks as you thought you were, in which case finding out early is a good thing. In the event that you do in fact enjoy those tasks, you will have built up a set of relevant experiences that you can point to during your interviews. And you don’t need to restrict yourself to on-the-job experiences – for program management jobs, a good understanding of the customer is essential, so I was able to use a lot of what I had learned in our Marketing class to show interviewers that I did indeed have the ability to think about segmentation, differential advantage, and positioning.

Try to identify  the various skills and competencies that are important in your target role and aim to be able to point to at least one thing in your work history that shows you exercising each of these. Is cross-group collaboration essential in your target role? Point to that time you coordinated a bug investigation and QFE deployment across three teams. Is clear written communication a priority? Show them a document you wrote to align your team around a new organizational directive. You get the idea.

Do your research, part 2:

This is probably something you should do for any interview, but researching the specific position you are applying for is a very good idea. Learn about the industry, the product, and the specific constraints and concerns involved. This will give you a chance to show the employer that you are serious about the position and systematic in your preparation. Plus, it will likely give you a major leg up on the sorts of questions you are likely to be asked. A hiring manager in Hotmail may ask you about scaling services, for example. One in Xbox may focus on how to design features for hardcore gamers.

Be convincing about why you would be an asset:

When you do finally land an interview, be prepared to make a strong argument for why you are an exceptional candidate for the role. Acknowledge the fact that you may be new to the discipline, but then show them why your background from outside the discipline is actually a good thing. Turn that liability into an asset! (Note that this may not be in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles – ha ha.) As a developer, for example, I was able to point to my technical grounding as a strength many existing program managers could not match.

Creativity in a professional context is often the result of being able to see things from two different perspectives (for example, from the point of view of a marketer and that of a developer), a consideration wise hiring managers will keep in mind as they review your background. Point to past successes you have had that exemplify the kind of qualities they are looking for. A history of success is a very compelling argument.

Tell your interviewer about your experience in the TMMBA. One of the most valuable things about the program in my opinion, is that it gives you the ability to apply several different frameworks to a problem. You can evaluate a product in terms of Porter’s Five Forces, or in terms of the 5 Cs, or in terms of how it affects the present value of future earnings for the company. Aside from that, the very fact that you are pursuing an MBA at the most prestigious business school in the Pacific Northwest implies a certain level of competence and ambition, along with a desire to better oneself. That you are likely pursuing this degree while you work full-time is additional evidence that you have a rock solid work ethic and serious time-management skills to boot.

 

If you do all of the above, and cast your net fairly widely for the appropriate transition role, I am convinced that you stand a great chance of getting hired. I was able to get several different offers for some very interesting program management jobs and I have just accepted an exciting position in Bing.

So what are you waiting for?

Meaty Meetings – No Filler!

Bhaskar Dutt, TMMBA Student

Class 11 had a great session a few days ago with the always-entertaining Greg Bigley, in which we discussed how our study teams were working out. While on the subject of team meetings, I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that the team I am part of, Team Blue Chips, had some of the most efficient and productive team meetings in the cohort (yay, team!). I thought others might want to hear about our meeting practices, so if that sounds useful to you, read on!

We average a little over one meeting a week (usually on Monday nights, starting at 7 pm) and rarely have our meetings go over two hours – apparently this is on the low side compared to other teams. Last quarter we invariably met virtually, over Skype, since commute times made it hard for us to meet much in person. While there is certainly a loss of communication fidelity when the meeting is voice-only (it is amazing how much communication happens through facial expressions, gestures, and body language!), we tried to make the best of it and on the whole were satisfied with the experience. Here are some of the things we did to keep our meetings meaty and free of filler:

  • Send out meeting request in advance, with agenda: The current Coordinator (a role rotated on a monthly basis within our team) is responsible for creating a meeting request for the team. This should contain an itemized agenda of what the team plans to cover during that meeting. This is essential for setting expectations.
  • Be on time: The team will wait up to but no more than 5 minutes for late-comers. If a team member can’t make it, they should try to inform the team via email in advance if possible. Time is extremely short for all of us, and so we have tried to build a culture of punctuality to maximize the efficient use of our time.
  • Decide on time frame for meeting: Based on the amount of material we have to cover, at the beginning of the meeting we estimate how much time it will take and try to keep to that schedule thereafter.
  • Assign meeting leader: A team member is designated the meeting leader for each meeting. This role is rotated and involves going over the agenda to open the meeting, keeping the meeting on track, taking notes during the meeting, and sending out meeting minutes afterwards. This gives each of us some practice in running tight meetings, and leaves the team with a record of things discussed and decisions taken during the meeting.
  • Assign leader for each case discussed: This is not exactly meeting-related, but certainly proved to be a good practice. We assign a leader for each case (ahead of time, of course), and rotate the responsibility, like all others. The case lead is expected to prepare the case thoroughly, lead the discussion around it, and prepare any case materials for submission. As far as possible, other team members should also prepare the case and provide their perspective during the team discussion.
  • Cover meeting items thoroughly, but keep it moving: The meeting agenda items are then covered in order, with each case lead driving the discussion for their cases. The meeting leader and case leader should keep the team focused during discussions, making sure that we don’t rat-hole or digress too much, so that we can end on time.
  • End meeting with AAR: At the end of the meeting, we have a 5-minute after-action review (AAR). This consists of each of us quickly and frankly listing things that either went well or need improvement. These could be things that we recognize ourselves doing or feedback for other team members. The emphasis is on continuous improvement as a team, so we aim to leave the AAR with specific action items.
  • Send out meeting notes: After the end of the team meeting, the meeting leader sends out the meeting minutes by email. These contain a bullet-point summary of what we did during the meeting, and in particular, list the AAR discussion points along with action items, if any. These notes are also listed in our online repository, where we keep all team materials.

And that’s about it. It’s not particularly complicated, but it takes discipline to be prepared for each meeting and stick to the plan through it. The advantages are definitely worth it, though – we have more time to ourselves, and generally end up well-prepared for class as a result of these meetings. I can’t guarantee that these exact practices will work for everyone, but they have certainly made life that much easier for Team Blue Chips!

Three and a half days

Bhaskar Dutt, TMMBA Student (Class of 2012)

Class 11 is almost halfway through the first quarter! Many of us have been out of school for a decade or more (drat, now I’ve made myself feel old), so getting into the groove of attending classes took some work. It’s been an exhausting but exciting ride so far and I’m really looking forward to the rest of it!

Since this is my first TMMBA blog entry, it probably makes sense for me to talk a bit about our first taste of it – the orientation experience. We had an intensive three and a half day orientation session in December, after which we got about a month off before classes started in earnest early in January. Those three and a half days served as a great springboard into the TMMBA program. Even prior to orientation, we had been assigned study teams. Meeting our study teams and getting to know them a bit even before classes started was fantastic. We had also been assigned daunting stacks of reading material for two classes that we would be taking as part of orientation, Ethical Leadership and Building Effective Teams.

I was very impressed with the content of both those classes. I had never really thought ethics in business would be a particularly interesting or complex subject, but Scott Reynold’s class showed me how naive that view was. The animated and thoroughly entertaining discussions in this class brought home to us how multi-dimensional a question as simple as “What is the right thing to do here?” can be. By the end of our short crash course in business ethics, Scott had provided us with an appreciation for this complexity and a framework for evaluating such questions that I have little doubt I will be revisiting at some point in the course of my career.

The reading we were assigned for Building Effective Teams resonated strongly with me. My own interests lie in the direction of team-building and process engineering (I currently serve as the scrum-master for my team at work), and so as I read about practices adopted by various successful teams, I thought frequently about how I could apply them at work. Here again Greg Bigley’s thoroughly entertaining teaching style brought the material to life. Various in-class exercises helped us get a feel for the concepts we were learning about while simultaneously forcing us to get to know our new classmates better. I came away from this class with a new appreciation for how important good team dynamics and norms can be to the success of the team. I’m going to keep all the reading material we were given for this class – I am certain I will want to refer back to it soon.

Another high point of our whirlwind orientation was the business etiquette dinner. Held at the swanky Bellevue Club, this event was designed to give us the basics of etiquette in business meals while simultaneously allowing us to get to know each other a little better in a fun setting. There was a great deal I learned here, from how to hold a wine glass, napkin, and small plate in one hand to where to seat guests relative to hosts. The food was delicious, the setting was beautiful, and the company was delightful! This was the first time the TMMBA program has organized such an event and I consider it an unequivocal success.

There were also numerous informative presentations from TMMBA staff about the various services the program offers as well as the beginning of an ongoing class in professional communications that looks like it is going to be invaluable to our careers. At the end of the three and a half days I returned home, exhausted but also thrilled about my new experiences. What a great introduction to the program!

-Bhaskar.