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Director of products: How I got my job and where I'm going

Grant shares how his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and experience in startups led to his current role as director of products and support.

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Video transcript

I started in college as a biomedical engineer, sort of putting together engineering and biology and thought, this might be the best of both worlds. So for the first year I was in biomedical engineering. I actually, through the classes just, I didn't really enjoy it that much. I've found that human body and blood kinda grossed me out a little bit. It wasn't really for me. So I moved into just mechanical engineering. From there I worked a couple internships over the summer, at college and those helped me really decide what I wanted to do. The first internship I worked was actually on a construction site of a new hospital, downtown in Boston. And there I was working more as a, a mechanical engineer, sort of very junior one, but doing those type of roles, working in a construction management office, looking at structural plans, helping to decide how they're gonna, you know, do different pieces of building this building, the complicated hospital. And while parts of that were interesting, I didn't really feel like that was something I wanted to do full-time. The next internship I worked, the full summer after that, I worked at a startup company, very small company at that point in time, I think I was seventh employee there. And they were trying to, take customized, they were trying to make customizable fine jewelry, so they a lot, they have a bunch of jewelry models that were designed in 3D modeling tools, by a network of different designers and they were bringing those to the internet and letting consumers log on and customize them in the website and order a customized version of it. Which at that point in time was not something that anyone was really doing online that was a sort of earlier days of, e commerce, you could buy books and you could buy sort of, clothes, and cheaper things online, but people weren't buying jewelry online very much. So that was a really interesting company because, it sort of used a lot of my different skills that I'd gained in college. I was doing mechanical stuff with the actual design of the model in the, manufacturing of the jewelry and how those things kind of played together, and then there was the software piece. And I had always been interested in software as well and done some classes in software on the side throughout my mechanical engineering degree, so kind of all those things came together nicely, and so I worked at that company as an intern and liked it a lot, and they liked me a lot, and so I started there full time after I graduated. I worked there, full time for about three more years, I was approached by a recruiter, who the CEO of GrabCad had hired to look for software engineers. So I was really, I guess, pretty lucky in that I didn't have to do any interviews, for that job, I just met the CEO I went over to the shared office space that he had at the time, and we just sat down and just talked for a couple of hours, and, at the end of maybe talking for about two hours or so, I think it was pretty clear to both of us, but he said to me, You know, I think your background is really good, like, I really would like you to come work here. I don't know specifically what you'll be working on yet but I think we can figure it out. And, I said, yeah, I think that where you wanna go sounds really exciting and sounds like something I'd wanna do too, so. That was kind of the extent of the interview process. We had a negotiation after that about salary and then I signed the paperwork. So I joined GrabCad and didn't exactly have a specific job title to start out with, and initially I was looking at working as a software engineer there, when I actually started full time, became pretty clear that they had still had software engineers back in Estonia but they had no product managers. And what a product manager really is, is someone who figures out what the software should do and helps to write down what the behaviors are and give that to software engineers to build, so the product manager talks to the customers, talks to users of the software, and really sort of synthesizes that into a, a what we call a specification of how the software should be improved and then the software engineers actually build that. So when I started at GrabCad we had software engineers who were great at building things, but we didn't really have anyone in that product management role who was, for guiding where we should take the product. And so, I moved into that role within the first month that I was at GrabCad. To sort of fill that, that hole if you will, and that's the team that I grew, and that's sort of still the primary part of my job. We've grown to about fifty people and we were acquired by Stratasys three years ago. And then, since we were acquired, by Stratasys we became the software group of Stratasys and our software group has grown to about eighty something people. The product manager role is a really interesting, role, and I think it's relatively new. I don't think this kind of role has really formally existed for maybe more than fifteen years probably at the most. So, there's not degrees on product management, at colleges that I'm aware of. Usually most people kind of get into it from one of two sides. Either you come as a software engineer or an engineer, a hardware engineer, there's product managers for hardware also, and that's sort of the path I took, where I was an engineer and moved into product management. Or you can come from what, kind of thing was, the business side, so product management really is the person who sits in between the business and the engineering team and helps kind of synthesize what the engineering team needs to build to make the business move forward. So you could start, you know, as a marketing person, or maybe you got a business degree, and that would be another way you could move into product managing if you start from the understanding of the business. So in terms of growth opportunities in product management, you can start as a junior pm, and then as your as you go and go a few more years you become a, a senior pm, eventually. If you're in a, a company that's growing, well you can have the good opportunity to hire pm's on your team underneath you, and then that's sort of how I became a Director of product management. I think one reason that I was always interested in startups was to have that opportunity to be on a fast growing team where you do have more chance of, of moving up, like to director level. If you're at a company that's not growing a lot, then you, you know your upward opportunities are generally gonna be, limited to when somebody else is leaving right, so if somebody above you is leaving you could get promoted into their spot. But at a growing company it's sort of a, a rising tide can raise all ships situation. Being a director, for the next step up if you will, to probably be a VP, a vice president of products. and typically as a VP of products, you are overseeing not just product managers but also maybe the marketing for a software group, you know, I have the customer support team as well, we have a small customer support team here, but generally as a VP of products you would have more functions than just product management underneath you. I've never really looked too far ahead in my career. I've never thought, oh in 10 years I wanna be here. I think some people know that, really well when they come out of college, they say I wanna be this in 10 years and I'm gonna work really hard to go for it. To me, I've never looked, I've never had as much of a longterm vision. I sort of look at what am I doing right now, you know if I'm looking at a new job, is that job gonna be more exciting, is it gonna be more interesting, because if it's not then I'm not gonna do that, so I just looked at, jobs that I think would be interesting and exciting and companies that I think are gonna grow. And if I think that the company has a good leadership structure in place, then I, you know, will take a job there so I guess, I've never really had a, a long term vision about where I wanna get. Not that I don't feel like I should, but, it's just never something I spent a ton of time thinking about.