As product leaders, we understand the value of experimentation. As we build products we develop hypotheses, execute experiments, then evaluate the results to determine what to do. But few product leaders apply this same rigor to their most important product: themselves.
In this ProductTank San Francisco talk I describe how “Hacking Your Career” means embracing the idea that each of us is a product. We need to experiment with how to package and position ourselves, to form career hypotheses, and then build feedback systems to evaluate our career progress.
1) You are the Product
It’s helpful to think of yourself as a product and to take a disciplined approach to package yourself. Take a moment to position yourself as a product leader, using the simple model below. (I answered the questions myself, to provide an example.)
Describe Your Product
Gibson Biddle is a seasoned product leader
Describe the Benefits you Provide Your Employers
I help startups with a proof of concept to scale, through strong leadership, management, and strategic thinking skills.
Describe Your Personality
I provide product leadership in a thoughtful, quirky way.
Now apply this model to yourself, working to package and position who you are, your benefits to a future employer, along with a sense of your personality– how you relate to others.
2) Form Career Hypotheses
I could not position myself so clearly 20 years ago. At the beginning of my career, I formed a number of hypotheses about what I might like to do, and over the years, experimented with many ideas to discover what types of roles suited me.
I find it easiest to express these career hypotheses as “forks in the road” – choices I had to navigate over time. Below, I list my long-term career hypotheses. (I put my eventual choices in bold type.) I made my decisions by talking with peers and mentors and by engaging in side projects to test-drive ideas. Occasionally, I launched in head-first into a new role to simply learn by doing.
My Forks in the Road
Marketing vs Product vs CEO
Just-formed startup vs Scaling startup vs Large company
Consumer vs Enterprise products
Entertainment vs Education products
Just as you do with your own product, take a moment to form career hypotheses for yourself, then find ways to explore what’s best for you.
3) Feedback Systems: Your Personal Board of Directors
The most important hack in my career has been my long-term commitment to maintaining a “Personal Board of Directors” – a combination of peers and mentors who provide me with ongoing insight and feedback.
Here’s an example of one of my interactions with a board member. In 2010 I debated two job offers: one was a CPO position and the other was a startup CEO role. As I debated my future, I met Irv Grousbeck, a professor of entrepreneurship at Stanford who pioneered the cable TV industry. In our meeting, he commented: “Gib, can I tell you something you may not like? I think you’re too nice to be a startup CEO.” And so it hit me that my skills and goals were much better aligned with product leadership. I decided to join my next startup, Chegg, as its Chief Product Officer.
Over the years, my board has evolved, requiring multiple refreshes as I take on new challenges. Today, nearly half of my board consists of peers and mentors who are much more knowledgeable than I about speaking, writing, and teaching. My current board has helped me to “up my game” as a speaker and to anticipate challenges to help me navigate my current transition into a career focused on speaking and workshops.
Conclusion: Hacking Your Career
Bringing these three elements together – carefully positioning yourself, forming career hypotheses, then evaluating the merit of each hypothesis through conversations with your board of directors, are crucial components for a successful career.
My single biggest piece of advice to begin this process: draw up a list of potential peers and mentors then reach out to them to form your board of directors. My board helped accelerate my career and I am confident it will do the same for you.