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Somewhere on the spectrum between Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality is Mixed Reality, the sector that Jake Hughson works in as a Product Manager, doing whatever it is that Product Managers in that space do. If you’re curious as to what exactly this is, join us as we follow this Co.Lab Alum around for a work week. We capture the overall experience of a Product Manager in his role and why he thinks it’s so important to learn by doing.
Monday morning. I grab my coffee and jump right into my meetings for the day. Mixed reality and virtual reality, in general, are such new technologies, there’s always so much brainstorming that needs to be done and sometimes it feels like I work at a start-up.
I’ve been working on a lot of customer demos lately and today I have to do a couple of in-person demonstrations for some clients to show the various products and features we’re offering.
Sometimes the customers want to see what mixed reality can do in general and from that, they decide how it’ll be useful to them either in government use cases, public sector cases or any other sector.
I’ll run the demos, get feedback, see how all of that will influence the Product Roadmap and features set, and hopefully set up some follow-up conversations to see how we can partner with them.
I’ve been carrying out some competitor analyses and studying some of the headset solutions for Mixed Reality so that I can better understand what's out there and just so I can speak more intelligently on the Mixed Reality/Virtual Reality market. I really enjoy this part of the job because I’m learning so much and it’s all very fascinating. It’s because of moments like this that I chose to work as a Product Manager.
I have a degree in Computer Information Systems. It’s not a Computer Science degree but we were taught a few coding languages and a lot of fundamentals. The gap that existed between the Computer Science degree and the Information Systems degree was filled with business programs. We were primed for roles in technical consulting and other related areas.
After working for some time, I knew that with my skill set, I could lead some technical engineers, run programs and manage programs for customers. I decided I wanted to get more focused on a specific product set at Microsoft i.e. closer to our products, so I took the leap.
When I decided I wanted to work in Mixed Reality, I went through the docs, downloaded Unity and Visual Studio, copied some of the open-facing applications out there and even bought my own HoloLens to practice. I followed instructions, reading text lines and code lines, learning and failing. I honestly cannot over-emphasize the importance of learning by doing and generally just acquiring hands-on experience.
It was a relatively unfamiliar space but I’m used to identifying what needs to be done. It’s like when I realised in college, that I needed to gain more confidence speaking to people if I didn’t want my career to be limited. So I took up sales internships and enrolled in sales programs and even ran my own sales branch office. Frankly, I believe it was this unique combination of extensive sales experience and my technical skill that helped me stand out at Microsoft because I cold-applied in my senior year without any referrals or references and I got the job!
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There’s a deadline currently looming on the horizon for a project we’re working on and this race against time reminds me of working on my Co.Lab project.
Initially, we were going to work on a bill that had been passed in the US to make hospital bills more transparent, especially for those without insurance. The idea was to basically be the API hub if not across the US then maybe just a state or an area. But we didn't do a very good job of validating how simple it was going to be to pull the data. The bill had only just been passed at the time of Co.Lab so not many hospitals were actually making the pricing publicly available. Of course, we could have made dummy data just to showcase it but as a group, we decided that if we were going to use data, it had to be real data.
So, with only about 4 weeks left in the program, we pivoted to something completely different and developed a product to help early-in-career individuals in tech quickly turn the story behind their product into something that resonated with consumers. Storri helped them map out the framework to quickly get their thoughts down after which they could identify the important parts of a story and finally help them practice and rehearse the story that they came up with.
We had to work so quickly. As the Product Manager, I had to set up user interviews, keep the team on track regarding milestones, set deadlines, work with the designer to get mock-ups and just turn the problem into a solution and do so in a way that we could hopefully be able to get more feedback quickly.
Projects are not always that hectic but as a Product Manager you need to be prepared for the possibility there’ll be days like that. Thank goodness that project is done and dusted now though.
Today, my schedule is booked. It's mainly meetings with our federal field teams and sellers to provide roadmap updates and to better understand demand signals coming from our customers. Coincidentally, I started at Microsoft technically, as part of the field/sales team. I was a technical account manager and my role was sort of a mix between consulting and sales, kind of like what my university prepped us for. Then we had a reorg about a year in and I went from being an account manager managing a team of engineers to a customer-facing program manager.
So instead of working with engineers providing break-fix support, my job now involved coming up with more proactive solutions. Where, for example, a customer was having a lot of SQL issues and things kept breaking, instead of fixing it each time, I’d proffer a long-term solution such as running a workshop or getting engineers to proactively assess so that we could address the problem centrally.
This role was less technical and instead of just figuring out what products or solutions a customer could buy, it was more concerned with creating programs for customers to help them be a lot more forward-thinking. I did that for a year then about five months ago, switched to product management.
Interestingly, switching roles within the same company is not entirely the low-hanging fruit it sounds like. Obviously, because you're already there, you understand the company, and you can more easily network, you’re at an advantage over external applicants yet that doesn’t mean that there’s no competition.
I’m big on learning by doing so when I decided that I wanted to switch to Product Management, I started applying and trying to interview to get a feel of things. I put my resume out there and realized that I needed to acquire more Product Management skills and experience which is what drove me to Co.Lab.
One thing I learned in the process of application is that while you might not necessarily know what area of technology you want to work as a Product Manager in, you must show conviction. Especially as a non-technical person applying for a role in tech, you need to upskill and speak about the role that you’re pursuing with conviction.
It makes all the difference during interviews when you’re telling the hiring managers about something you built physically and how you were able to work with others and not just something off of a video you watched. When I started to talk about how I shipped a product and my experience working with devs and designers, I noticed that the hiring managers were more interested in talking to me than they had been initially.
Friday !!! Today, I’m working remotely. I’ll have some weekend check-ins with engineers and other teams to monitor our progress in certain areas, sort of like an end-of-the-week review. There's a lot of logistics and legal stuff involved in mixed reality so I’ll also check in with our legal teams and some of our lawyers to see our pacing.
Then I like to take a few hours on Fridays to do some learning. Whether it’s a little reading or familiarizing myself with some of our existing tools and technologies or something new our engineers are working on.
But what I’m looking forward to doing most today is working on Upwards, the podcast that I co-host sponsored by Microsoft Aspire. My co-host and I started this podcast on a whim because we were trying to become better communicators. In the spirit of learning by doing, we had the genius idea to start this podcast that gave early-in-career individuals a place to share thought leadership. Microsoft Aspire caught wind of it at about the same time that they were starting off their own podcast and decided to merge forces with us.
The podcast is targeted at early-in-career individuals which are typically those working their first 3-5 years in a role but personally, I think it’s actually your first maybe, 10 years. This is because, in those 10 years, many people will change companies, change roles or careers entirely so each time you start something new, you’re early-in-career at that. But that’s by the way.
We just try to provide actionable insights on various topics for ‘early in careers’ to learn from and take action on. I think a lot of people learn from the experiences of others. Even if you don’t learn any actionable points, just hearing the stories of others might encourage you to take the plunge or something.
Anyway, I’m going to do that, respond to the rest of my emails and pack up early for the weekend. Bottoms uppp!