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Careers are loops, not ladders: Grow Your Career in Tech

When I started my career, I remember being told that I needed to climb the proverbial career ladder to succeed.

A diagram showing a straight line career path and a growth loop career path
Differing expectations of our career path

So I worked really hard to pursue my path as a transportation consultant, always striving to earn more income, promotions, and prestige.

But even after several promotions, I felt something was missing and I was deeply unhappy. The creative side of me was begging to be fulfilled, yet my job involved long hours of writing reports and doing technical analysis.

Breaking Free: A Pivot into Marketing

I thought, surely there is something better out there for me. So I went back to school to pursue an MBA.

I had a lightbulb moment when I learned about marketing. It was exactly what I wanted to do and what would scratch that creative itch. When I decided to quit my safe job and pivot into marketing where I had zero experience, people thought I was crazy.

Doing a 180-degree career pivot was no cakewalk. I was met with countless failures and rejections. But I didn’t give up. After several months of grueling interviews and developing a unique method for job searching, I landed my first role in marketing.

That role led to 3 more leadership roles in product marketing before I realized I loved helping others land their dream jobs and grow their careers even more.

So, I began to pursue new territory as a coach and solopreneur. Having helped over 150 people on their job search and career journey so far, I couldn’t be happier to be building again!

Through my career loops, I’ve learned to define success in my own terms, and we’re going to explore how you can too.

The Myth of the Linear Career Path

The truth is, if you’re feeling unhappy or stuck in your career, the myth of the "linear" career path may be to blame.

Nobody’s career is a straight line, and believing so can make us continue to go down the wrong path, overly focus on money and prestige, and feel the crushing weight of inadequacy if we are stuck on the same rung of the ladder for too long.

In my case, I was only able to take the leap of faith to pivot first into product marketing, and then again into career coaching once I abandoned linear thinking.

By letting go of the idea that I needed to climb the ladder in one industry or job function my entire life, I could entertain new possibilities and get unstuck.

And I believe you can too.

The Four Stages of the Career Growth Loop to Grow Your Career

Just like the product growth loop, the career growth loop is a continuous process of regeneration and reinvention, with the learnings from previous iterations serving as inputs for the next iteration - driving compounding growth. Let’s dive in to explore each stage, and what to focus on or avoid at each.

A growth loop showing the 4 stages of career growth
The Career Growth Loop

Stage 1 - Sprout

You are at the beginning of your career as a young seedling. You may have just gotten your first job or you’re on the path to getting one.

This is the time to roll up your sleeves, work hard, learn as much as possible, and stay curious.

Most of the work at this stage may be tactical and repetitive, but it’s through repetition we learn and train our muscles to have a strong foundational skillset.

What to Focus On

  • Focus on finding a great manager. The most important mentor you will have early on in your career will be your manager. During the interview process, focus on finding managers with a lot of relevant experience, and who clearly demonstrate they are focused on mentorship. Not sure how to do that? Start with this list of reverse interview questions.

What to Avoid

  • Avoid optimizing for salary alone. At this stage, learning from the best and joining the right company is the best thing you can do. When you earn more knowledge and have more experience under your belt, your earning potential will grow rapidly in later stages.

I was once offered a role that paid $30K more than other offers, but upon having further conversations with leadership, I realized they weren’t aligned on company priorities, which was a red flag. I turned down the offer, and 2 months later there was a shake-up at the company and the hiring manager was let go. The company I ended up choosing instead provided me with tons of learning opportunities by having a strong and diverse leadership that truly cared.

Stage 2 - Growth

The growth stage is one of the most exciting. You now have a few years of experience and feel more confident in your skills.

Your execution capabilities have grown, so it is imperative to establish repeatable systems that work for you. These systems will serve as vital frameworks as you progress into the next phase and assume a strategic leadership role.

What to Focus On

  • Focus on becoming a T-shaped marketer. While gaining a general understanding of every aspect of your role is really important, you also want to develop at least one area of deep expertise that you enjoy while growing your reputation as a subject matter expert. Becoming the go-to person for a specific skill set will make you invaluable and grow your confidence, paving the way for the next stage of your career.

For instance, in my first PMM role, I spent over 50% of my time enabling sales on enterprise deals. I created over 18 use-case-specific decks that significantly transformed our messaging and helped me build a reputation as a star storyteller. I won a sales award that year, which was instrumental in helping me get promoted.

What to Avoid

  • Avoid thinking there is only one way to grow. Instead of chasing after more and more titles in the same role, growth could also be horizontal - you could move into adjacent roles, move into different types of industries, and sizes of companies. It’s OK to grow in whichever way you want to. Learning can happen anywhere.

Stage 3 - Maturity

Once you have reached the maturity level, you will notice that doing your job comes with ease, and people come to you regularly for advice, as you are the authority on the subject matter.

You should have managed large projects, or perhaps you are leading an entire function.

At this stage, the focus shifts towards building leadership skills and overall business acumen as an established leader. Drawing upon your extensive knowledge, it is time to formulate strong points of view (POV) that reflects your understanding of the role through your experience.

What to Focus On

  • Focus on developing your personal brand - which is an external reflection of your internal values. When you have a strong personal brand you will have clarity about yourself and attract the right opportunities to you.

When COVID hit, I saw a lot of friends lose their jobs, so I decided to help them out by offering ad-hoc job search advice. To my delight, not only was I successful in getting them jobs, but I also enjoyed it so much that I decided to pursue it as a side hustle. I started posting on LinkedIn sharing exactly how I helped them, and that led me to build my thriving coaching business today.

What to Avoid

  • Avoid thinking you know it all. Even when you have achieved expertise in something, it’s important to listen to outside perspectives and learn new ways of doing things. Some of the best things I learned are from the employees I hired with far less experience (or so I thought)!

Stage 4 - Harvest

With a solidified personal brand and a strong skill set, this stage allows you to reap the rewards of your hard work through additional career options. You can leverage your expertise, unique values, and skill set in various ways. This may involve delivering paid talks, offering consultancy services, launching your own startup, or pursuing other ventures.

What to Focus On

  • Focus on opportunities that align with your values and lifestyle - Instead of pursuing every opportunity under the sun, think about what opportunities can further enhance your brand, could be complementary to one another, and can be more easily managed and scaled over time.

For instance, many PMMs at this stage may become consultants, advisors, or contractors, making great income while maintaining a healthy work/life balance.

What to Avoid

  • Watch out for harvesting too soon, or harvesting for too long without planting new seeds for growth. I see many early career professionals capitalizing on additional income streams. While commendable, it's hard to harvest without any crops. True expertise matters and can only be earned through experience and hard work.

As you harvest, you will naturally realize new paths you want to pursue, or new skills to gain. This signals it is time to restart the loop and become a beginner again.

In summary,

Careers are loops, not ladders.

Career paths are often winding and cyclical with periods of massive growth, re-evaluation, rest (time off), and reinvention.

You can stay in a loop for 10 years, restart a loop halfway through if you think it’s the wrong one, or do something else.

And no matter where you are in your career, you are in the right place: every stage of your career serves a purpose even if it does not feel like it at the time.

One action step you can do today:

  • Read through this and figure out where you are in your career loop. Find the relevant suggestions I have for that stage, and choose one thing to improve on within the next week.

Want more dedicated guidance to land, develop, and grow in your dream product marketing role? Then check out my 1-1 programs to help you:

  • Overcome rejections and land your dream role with confidence

  • Master your onboarding in the first 30-60-90 Days without burn-out or stress

  • Gain career clarity and build out your career loops to become a strong, confident leader

Interested in any programs above? Contact me whenever you are ready.

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