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?