July 17, 2013

I Don't Want to be an Expert

I joined PlayHaven nearly three years ago as a small team of 10. As with any early startup, I wore many hats. Although my title was Product Manager, I was involved in nearly every aspect of the business: resolving customer support issues, writing website copy, instrumenting marketing outreach, building end-to-end wireframes, testing the product, and even burning the midnight oil making last minute commits to GitHub before relaunching the platform. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed every aspect of this (ahem QA), but it has given me broad exposure and understanding of various roles.

This varied experience comes with tradeoffs. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to become a domain expert in something when spread so thin. And now that we’ve grown to nearly 95 team members, I’ve resigned several hats to focus on more traditional product management. As we’ve hired more Product Managers, I’m now able to focus on specific verticals of the product.

More than ever before, I have the bandwidth and opportunity to become an expert, to acquire comprehensive knowledge and skill in a particular area. This may seem like the next logical step in my career, but should it?

The startup environment changes rapidly. The skills of today may not entirely translate to the future.

You might be a “master growth hacker”, but will those tactics and methodologies remain relevant as platforms and user behavior (inevitably) change?

The SEO game is in constant flux as evident by Google’s Panda update a few years ago and the growing shift toward native mobile apps. Best practices and “flavor of the month” skills today may not be applicable in the future.

Jack Altman states this eloquently in Startup knowledge decays quickly:

The startup industry in its current form is relatively young and poorly understood. Compared to other fields, there is a small amount of data about cause and effects for startups. What’s worse, the data exists in an incredibly chaotic system where isolating individual variables is often impossible.

In other words, most of today’s startups knowledge is probably wrong.

Perhaps investing in generalist, evergreen skills will have a higher return on investment. Skills such as leadership, communication, user psychology, and various soft skills.

These skills are timeless and transferrable, no matter your career goals or how the market changes. Read, write, ABL (always be learning), and work on a side project to invest in evergreen skills.

Being a curious generalist is what got me into product management to begin with. My career in the gaming industry began as an unpaid marketing intern. I was given the bandwidth to explore various aspects of the business and used this opportunity to study the gaming market and provided input on how we might improve the product. I was offered a role as a Product Manager and eagerly accepted. My career path might look much different if I had solely focused on marketing.

I’m not advocating you to disregard investment in expert skills. The world needs experts. Just be aware of where you spend your time and learning as those specific skills may not be as relevant in the future.

Experts are important. I just don’t want to be one.

P.S. Catch me on Twitter at @rrhoover or subscribe to my email list for more on product and personal growth.

More Writing by Ryan