Ellen Chisa has a new newsletter on product management, and I particularly enjoyed this week’s piece on 34 Product Lessons. The bullet of advice that resonated with me most deeply was:
25. When you’re promoted to VP Product, the best thing you can do is make sure to call an experienced VP Product once every week to say “is this normal?” Amazing advice gifted to me by Leland Rechis. The job is so different that it just helps to have someone to talk it through with.
This connects with something I’ve been thinking about over the past few years, including this brief mention in last year’s How to be a tech influencer, “I believe that you’ll be more influential by channeling your energy into long-lived and semi-private communities (learning circles, meetups, etc) instead of publicly.” The argument isn’t that writing for the public can’t be valuable–it’s been hugely valuable for me–but rather that for most folks the expected impact of contributing in semi-private communities is higher than the expected impact of contributing in a public community like Twitter, writing on your blog, etc.
As I get deeper into my career, I’ve spent more time trying to answer the question, “Where can I personally have the most impact?” I used to anchor that question within my current job, but I’ve come to think about it more widely. There’s a lot of potential impact in engineering leadership roles, but there’s also a lot of potential impact in writing. There’s also a lot of room for potential impact in less scalable but more intimate endeavors like running a learning circle, angel investing, or just giving specific, context-rich advice.
The core insight for me has been that “less scalable” work is more impactful than “more scalable” work if it reaches folks who are themselves in high impact roles. A few examples of this:
- My writing has a fairly modest readership, but it tends to be a readership who are directly influencing technical strategy and organizations at important companies. I used to be jealous of folks with much larger readership, but I think I’d be less impactful if I wrote on topics with larger readerships (e.g. the audience of folks looking to begin their tech careers is much larger than the audience of folks running engineering organizations)
- The learning circle I co-run with Uma is small, but every member is leading an engineering organization. As the members help each other become slightly better, we _immediately _impact those organizations
- Angel investing into companies where your expertise is directly relevant allows you to provide context-rich advice and support for folks who are creating new companies (and jobs) and likely to continue in similarly high impact future roles
- Giving advice to a specific engineering leader who is struggling with a problem that you’ve directly experienced who is working at a fast growing company
The first corollary to the above insight is that the less scalable the endeavor, the more impact depends on selectivity. If you prioritize less scalable activities without being selective in how you engage, then you’re unlikely to make much of an impact. However, the secondary corollary is that if you’re selective before exploring the options out there, you’ll also get trapped on lower impact opportunities.
The solution I’ve pursued is the same as the multi-armed bandit problem: spend most of your time on the highest impact work currently available, but remember to keep an exploration budget handy to try new things, and be wary of once optimal activities becoming less valuable even if you keep doing the same thing
over long stretches of time.
(For a concrete example, I’ve been using Twitter for over a decade, but am increasingly unclear about whether it’s
an impactful avenue to invest time. That’s a long way from how I felt about it even a few years ago.)