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Growing In Your Career

Alfred Lua / Written on 15 July 2020

Hello there,

Last week was a super busy week. I worked long hours on most days to be a part-time product manager on top of being a product marketer. I took the opportunity to think about product development and wrote about the three big product concepts on my mind. Being a stand-in PM is a great way to better understand the PM role, which can help me build a better relationship with the PM and also influence the product roadmap.

Today, I want to share a piece of fun news and some things you might find helpful in your career.

Non-linear career

I have been promoted to a Level 3 Product Marketer at Buffer!

Career, like life, is rarely a straight line. This is my first level-change promotion at Buffer. Here's how my five-year journey at Buffer looks like:

  • Community Champion
  • Content Crafter Level 2
  • Product Marketer Level 2
  • Product Marketer Level 3

Instead of moving up the ladder, I have been moving sideways, trying different roles and gaining a broad understanding of marketing. While I didn't get promotions when others did, I find these experiences beneficial for my career overall. I'd recommend junior marketers to go deep on one channel (mine was content marketing) while having a basic understanding of other channels. Many call this being a T-shaped marketer.

Looking back five years, I felt that I have grown a lot professionally. Here are three lessons I have learned, which have helped me especially in the past year:

Promoted to do the work or do the work to be promoted?

Many people want to get promoted so that they can take on bigger projects and do cooler things. But the reality is you need to be working at a higher level for a while before you will get promoted to the next level. Producing high-quality work alone isn't enough because everyone should be producing high-quality work. To get promoted, you need to show you are developing new skills and growing according to the needs of the company.

The earlier you recognize this, the better it is for your career.

How do you do more things done on top of what you are already doing? Well, this is part of career growth. In many cases, it simply means working longer hours or on the weekends to get more things done. That's often inevitable in most companies. But there are also other ways.

  1. If you have juniors in your company, they might be interested in taking on some of your work so that they can get promoted. This provides you with an opportunity to mentor others (a "higher level" skill) and allows you to take on other work. This assumes you are already great at doing those work. If you aren't, you should brush up on them before thinking about passing them over.
  2. If you don't have juniors in the company, like me at Buffer, you have to find ways to be more effective. Can you do your current work faster but maintain the same quality? When I first became a Content Crafter at Buffer, I took almost a week to write each blog post. After about two years, I can write two blog posts in a week and still have time to work on SEO and collaborate with others on their projects. I got better at writing. Can you drop lower leverage projects for higher leverage ones? When I became a product marketer, I wanted to grow the number of trial starts through content marketing because that's my background. But a higher leverage way to grow our trial starts was to run bundle experiments. One of the experiments doubled our trial starts, generated more revenue, and led to higher LTV.

Leveling up without becoming a manager

It's common for people to become a manager as they move up their career ladder, especially in companies with a hierarchy. Product marketer, product marketing manager, senior product marketing manager, director of product marketing, and so on.

But that isn't how things are at Buffer.

At Buffer, we have two career tracks: one for people-managers and one for individual contributors. We took inspiration from the engineering world that started this two-track career framework. Currently, in our marketing team, we only have one people-manager—our VP of Marketing—and we don't foresee needing another people-manager for a few more years. Everyone else, the remaining eight of us, are individual contributors.

How do I level up without being a manager? Wherever I look, marketers became managers as they get promoted. I didn't understand how I could level up as an individual contributor until recently.

As mentioned above, the most basic thing I had to do is to produce high-quality work. As a product marketer, my core responsibilities are research, positioning, go-to-market, and messaging. Ideally, I should do these faster and well.

The next thing is being able to collaborate with others well and then work cross-functionally. When I was a Content Crafter, I could do everything, from coming up with an idea to publishing a blog post, myself. It felt great because I was in control of everything. But it was also a curse because I didn't learn to work with others. Being a product marketer requires me to work with product managers, designers, engineers, data scientists, and customer support. I learned how to build relationships and work effectively with others. And it made work much more fun, too.

Another thing is being able to communicate well and keep stakeholders informed. I learned this the hard way through my first bundle experiment. Because it's the first time we try to bundle standalone products, many people, including the CEO, were keen to be involved or updated. Discussions were happening in various places as I coordinated things with product managers, engineers, and marketers separately. It was also my first time leading a product-related project, so I was hesitant to make decisions before checking with the product managers. (In hindsight, it would have been better to come up with the decision then consult them.) The project became a mess, and people felt they didn't know what was going on and what to do. Thankfully, the second experiment went much more smoothly because I kept things more organized and took more ownership of the decisions. These experiments were one of the reasons I got my recent promotion.

Taking on more projects

In the past, I thought I had to get promoted before I can work on bigger, more exciting projects. Gradually I realized it's the opposite. I had to work on such projects before I get promoted. But how do I get these projects?

The answer is nobody will hand them over to you.

If you are lucky to have a supportive manager, she might push you to take on more projects. But most people will have to seek out the opportunities themselves. Here are the two tactics that have helped me:

  1. Start with projects that are slightly bigger than what you are working on now. It is unlikely anyone would go from writing a blog post to managing a company-wide project. I find this is the trick to personal development, too—work on something just at the edge of your competency so that it isn't boring or too difficult.
  2. Volunteer for projects that people might not want to do yet would let you expand your influence. There are often projects people would usually avoid, such as sunsetting features, because they would have to do some unpleasant work. It is often easier to get such projects. But at the same time, you should pick those that suit your role and let you develop your skills.

One example at Buffer is the sunset of a product called Reply. I took on the responsibility of stopping all signups before we fully sunset the product. This was a small-scale project that allowed me to work cross-functionally with engineers and product managers. I also worked with the engineers to update our website and blog posts to remove any mentions of the product, which honed my product marketing skills.

Another example is the bundle experiments mentioned above. It is a project on packaging, which perfectly suited my role as a product marketer.

As a Level 3 Product Marketer, I'd say I'm still fairly junior and have a lot more to learn. When I level up again, I'll share the new things I learn.