How can you successfully shift roles from a technical to managerial role? How about shifting industries from management consulting to product management? In this episode of Career Relaunch, Jeff Shih, a former Deloitte consultant turned product manager at Unity Technologies shares his thoughts on how to successfully navigate an industry and role shift. In today’s Mental Fuel® segment, I also share some thoughts on how I decide when to turn down career opportunities.

Key Career Insights

  1. You have to be patient when you’re trying to shift careers so you can wait for the right opportunity to come up.
  2. Doing something new allows you to keep your career fresh, drive career satisfaction, and career satisfaction.
  3. Don’t just take the first opportunity that comes along, especially when it means sacrificing something else important to you.

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Listener Challenge

During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, my challenge to you, especially if you’re wrestling with whether to say yes or no to a specific career opportunity, is to try and decide on the single most important aspect of your career you really want to honor during this specific chapterin your career. For example, culture, work relationships, leveraging your strengths, impact, growth, or whatever else is important to you. Then take a hard look at whether or not this particular opportunity you’re considering serves that specific interest. If it does, maybe it’s worth considering. But if it doesn’t, as tough as I know it can be, you may want to consider letting it go.


About Jeff Shih, product manager at Unity Technologies

Jeff Shih Product ManagerJeff Shih started his career as an engineer at AMD back when dual-core processors and 64-bit was the hot thing. He then started a scrap metal trading company specializing in export to Asia and eventually went back into the tech world as a data engineer at an Austin startup called Bazaarvoice while pursuing his MBA at the University of Texas at Austin (McCombs). He went into management consulting, first at Infosys, then at Deloitte. Had an opportunity to move into product management at Microsoft, then at Unity Technologies, and never looked back. Connect with Jeff on LinkedIn, InstagramTwitter, and Medium.

Jeff mentioned machine learning and AI on the show. Check out this demo of what he was talking about below:

 

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Episode Interview Transcript

Teaser (first ~15s): Be patient. You have to wait for the opportunities to come up. I probably should’ve been a little more patient. Wait for the right opportunity. Don’t just take the job that sounds great at the time, and you’re just willing to sacrifice all the other things that you value.

Joseph: Good morning, Jeff. Welcome to Career Relaunch.

Jeff: Hi. Good morning, Joseph. Thank you so much for the time today.

Joseph: Thanks for coming on the show. I want to talk with a few different topics with you today, Jeff, including the time you spent running your own business, your time in consulting, and also you’re transition into the tech world. I was wondering if you could start off by just telling me what you’re focused on right now in your career and your life.

Jeff: In my career right now, I’m at a company called Unity Technologies. We’re one of the largest game engine and game tooling platforms out there. If you play video games like Pokemon Go, likely, you play games made with Unity.

I moved into product management a few years ago. Right now, I focus a lot on our machine learning efforts at Unity. I’ve been in the company a couple of years. Prior to that, I was at Microsoft in their intelligent cloud business.

In terms of personal life, my wife and I had just our first kid.

Joseph: Congratulations.

Jeff: Oh, thank you so much. That’s obviously been a really interesting journey so far, all good stuff. That’s kind of where I’m at now.

Joseph: I do want to talk in more detail about what you’re doing there at Unity. I also want to talk through your transitions across different industries, but before we go back in time and talk through your professional history, in a nutshell, how would you describe the first few months of fatherhood and parenthood so far?

Jeff: One of the guys in my office, he had a really good quote. He had a couple of kids. He told me—it’s a Mike Tyson quote—he said, ‘All plans are great until you get punched to the face.’ That sort of stuck with me a little bit. I think, as much as you plan and do all the reading and research about kids, every child is different. Every baby is different.

It’s been a great learning experience both for understanding our child but also discovering yourself as a father and of course my wife as a mother and how we react to our child in certain situations. All good things, all part of the learning experience of life, it’s been great so far.

Joseph: Fantastic. You’re absolutely right about parenting opening up whole new dimension to your life. I think you are also absolutely right about the fact that planning really does you absolutely no good when it comes to parenting.

Jeff: Exactly.

Joseph: Let’s go back in time a little bit, because I know you haven’t always been a product manager at Unity. I was wondering if you could take us back to the time when you were running your own scrap metal trading company, and then we can move forward from there. How in the world did you get involved with exporting scrap metal to Asia?

Jeff: I was an engineering student at University of Texas. While I was in school, I was actually working at AMD as a software engineer, as a contractor for almost two years. I was in a lab all the time, either at school or at work, just writing code.

I had this opportunity where there was a family friend who needed an inspector in the U.S., only last semester in college, to look at some scrap metal. I fell in love with it. I was in Austin, just last semester of college, going to the scrapyard, looking at material. I decided after college I wanted to get in that business.

It was just a transition. It’s kind of the first time I think almost in my life, where I’d started to do something completely different. That set the stage for later parts in my career.

Joseph: You mentioned coding. I was curious if you could just give a glimpse into what it’s like to be someone who does code all day, because if anybody’s been in any coffee shop anywhere in any major city in the world, you always see these people who’re just sitting at their laptops writing code. What’s that like to do that all day?

Jeff: It’s a very enjoyable thing to do. I would describe coding in a couple of ways. There’s coding that are your single-person projects. It’s like painting. If you’re a painter or if you’re some sort of artist and you’re making this really, really creative thing, it’s really the sort of the same thing when you’re doing a single-person, very artistic, very creative projects.

For me, I think even from my days in high school and before, coding was always this very therapeutic thing. You break the problem up very logically. You try all these different things. You kind of get amazed when things work, and then you start to think about how make this run faster.

There’s the other aspect of coding which is when you code in a team aspect or with other people. That’s when it becomes very, very different. When you’re coding by yourself and it becomes artistic, it’s one thing. When you’re coding with the team and you can’t really go off on your own, in a lot of ways, you have to work with the team to write much bigger pieces of software. It becomes less coding and more about the interpersonal aspect.

Coding is, I think in some ways, the a secondary part. The first part is the coordination, making sure you’re on the same page with others. That’s where it differs quite a bit.

Joseph: You spent some time at AMD, you were trading scrap metal for a while, and then you made a shift into the consulting world. What made you realize that you wanted to get into consulting?

Jeff: I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie, ‘Up in the Air,’ with George Clooney.

Joseph: Oh, yeah. I have. It’s a great movie.

Jeff: I think when I saw that—and of course I did my research. I had friends who are in management consulting. We’re living this very interesting lifestyle where I go to clients, advice, travel quite a bit, live out of a suitcase.

Obviously the work was one aspect. It’s really interesting to be in a situation where you’re coming in, helping companies either transform or manage certain crises. For me, those two aspects, the lifestyle and the type of work, were really appealing.

Joseph: You like the travel?

Jeff: Yeah, the travel, the living out of the suitcase, the constant pressure, to me at that time was very, very appealing. In a lot of ways, it still is kind of appealing.

When I went to business school, that was my focus. I want to go back to business school. I was working as an engineer at this company called Bazaarvoice in Austin at the time, and I basically made the commitment to go into management consulting. That’s kind of how I transitioned.

What I realized as an engineer was that I was really lacking a lot in the business aspect. I was always a pretty good coder. I had my own scrap metal business, but I was winging it like 90% of the time.

I looked at management consulting as like finishing school when you finish business school. You get the concept, the schooling, the network in business school, and then management consulting really pushes you to become what I call just a better professional in whatever you’re doing. That was what led me to go into management consulting in both the kind of work and the lifestyle.

Joseph: I crossed paths with a lot of engineers at business schools who want to get into management consulting. I know it’s a fairly competitive industry, and you landed at some very reputable companies like Infosys and then, after that, Deloitte. What do you think is the secret to getting into a place like that when you come from a more technical background?

Jeff: There’s two ways to get into consulting. There’s the traditional path where you go in the front door with everybody that’s trying to get in. That’s how I’ve gotten into Infosys. I’ll be the first to say, I interviewed at Deloitte and all these other firms during on-campus interviews at business school, and I only got accepted into a couple of them, and Infosys was one of them. Deloitte rejected me on the first set of interviews.

That’s always the harder way, right? Because you’re competing with a lot of people. You’re competing with all your classmates. When you go to business schools, especially in the top 20, 25 program, all the people are really smart. It’s not like in technical where it’s very clear if somebody really understands the technical side. In consulting, they look for analytical ability, presence, all these different things that are a little bit—you practice those things to get better, versus technical, which you just have to know.

If you’re an engineer and you have great grades, you’re super smart, you can adapt, you can do all these great stuff, you’re just one of the Booch at caliber talent, then usually you don’t have problem getting in.

I came in through what they call experience hire recruiting. Because I had experience in the workforce, I had a lot of some specific knowledge, especially in advanced analytics and the data science side. I was able to get in a place like Deloitte for example through not my business school criteria but a lot of just my knowledge of the space, especially in analytics side.

I think it’s a lot easier for techno folks to get into management consulting, because there’s more straightforward parts that are analytical thinking than breaking the problem up and solving them by chunks. It’s a lot more natural to folks who are technical than folks who are not as technical.

I think what always holds back folks who are technical is always the client presence, the emotional IQ, the presentation type of perspective.

Joseph: I know you were working as a consultant for a few years, and then you made another shift. I’m wondering if you can remember the moment when you started to think about making a shift into your current line of work, which is product management.

Jeff: To be honest, I wasn’t planning to leave Deloitte. I really love working there. I love the people. I had great relationship with the partners. I had great relation with the clients I was working at. The only sort of in the back of my mind was I would only really leave consulting for an opportunity to work at a well-funded startup in an area that I had a lot of expertise.

For example, I wouldn’t join some sort of company where I didn’t really understand the space. I wouldn’t understand the market or in a place where I would be sort of a junior role.

That sort of just happened about two years after I was at Deloitte. It’s company called VoloMetrix, which is based on Seattle. They had reached out to me in the past to join their company, but they were in Seattle. I wasn’t willing to move. Then they opened up a San Francisco office. The woman that I talked to at our time—her name was Natalie, our Chief Revenue Office—she made a very, very compelling presentation to me about what the company was about, what they were doing, basically using mail and meeting data into the space of HR Analytics. They kind of hit my criteria of when I was going to leave consulting. Everything worked out, and that was one of the moments that pushed me to leave consulting.

I would say it was probably the hardest decision. Anytime I’ve decided to leave the job, I think leaving Deloitte to a startup was probably the hardest decision.

Joseph: What made it hard?

Jeff: It is a difficult place in terms of the work-life balance. I mean it’s consulting, so you have a really fast pace, a lot of travel type of scenario. It’s something you know. It’s something you get really comfortable with. There’s something about delivering these crazy projects in a very high-pressure environment while working with extremely intelligent people.

Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s very comforting. It is almost like a warm blanket. That’s how I would like to describe the work. You’re in this comfortable world where you know what’s going on, you know the people, you know what you’re capable of. It’s to leave that to go to a company that, ‘Hey, you could be out of business in like a year or two.’

Anytime I’ve always made a transition, what always stuck with me and always kind of helped me with the decision was that, at any point in time, I could always go back. I think Deloitte, for me, was always a place where, if this didn’t work out, if I wasn’t seem happy or something like the company I’d go was under something like that, Deloitte was always a place where I felt like I could always go back. I had a really good relationships with the partners.

Deloitte is one of those places where they actually encourage people to leave and go in the industry and then come back, because they find that to be a very valuable experience for their future employees as well.

It wasn’t as hard, but it was hard in a sense that you’re leaving behind a lot of colleagues and very interesting work.

Joseph: What made you decide to go into product management then?

Jeff: I never really planned, so to speak, to get into product management. When I was finishing business school, actually, I had a few offers to do product management at companies, because product management, especially if you have an engineering degree and then you get MBA, that’s usually the natural path most people take out of business school.

At the back of my mind was, well, I would never really go back into pure engineering. Product management was always coming in the back of my mind because I work a lot with really great product managers in the past. I always felt like these guys, they understood the market. They understood the customers. These are the guys that kept the glue together in some of the product with engineering.

When our company got acquired by Microsoft, there was an opportunity to move in to the product side. At the time, we had a team from Microsoft, and we had a team from our end. It was a nice role to be able to bridge the gap and help rebuild our product so to speak inside of Microsoft.

When they acquired us, they took parts of our technology. There was a lot of work from the engineering side to get it compliant and up and running within Microsoft Office 365 stack. That kind of just landed to be honest. It was just something that there was sort of a need. At the time, there was an opportunity to try it out. Hey, it’s Microsoft. It’s the best place to learn about building products, or one of the best places. That’s just sort of what happened.

Once I started getting the role, I basically really fell in love with it. Building products is a much, much more difficult thing than coding. It’s a lot more difficult than in consulting projects because you have to think about the problem in such different aspects. That’s sort of how I got into it.

Joseph: I do want to get into some of the contrast and differences between the two roles. Before we do that, I’m thinking maybe we should just pause and just define exactly what product management is for those people who are not familiar what a product manager does. How would you describe what a product manager does?

Jeff: If I had to describe it in a more general sense, because product management varies quite a bit across many companies, I would describe it as you’re one part project management, meaning that you have to keep the communication, all of the timelines and when things are going to be delivered together. It’s one part what I call like a requirements analyst. There are guys who would go to talk to the customer.

Let’s say you’re building accounting software. You understand what it is that you need, what the features are, and how this should work. The last part is you analyze your markets, where you try to understand you’re building a product, you have to keep the project going, you have a bunch of customers asking for this stuff, and then here’s the market in what you’re trying to sell your product.

I think with the product management role, you’re like this liaison between many different groups. At the end of the day, product success, however you define it, it could be engagement. It could be revenue. You, as a product manager, are the person that makes sure, the foremost, it’s being built correctly for the customer. The second is making sure that there’s actual market for your product. The third, you’re making sure the project and all the schedule and all the stakeholders are updated and are happy, and everything is moving smoothly.

Joseph: Let’s dive in a little bit deeper into your experiences as a product manager then. A while back, Jeff, you wrote a Medium post about transition from consulting to product management. I was wondering if you could tell us what it was like to go from a place like Deloitte to a place like Microsoft. One of the things you mentioned in your article was that you’re trading in suits and ties for hoodies and white vans. What did you mean by that?

Jeff: It’s funny, because I did a lot of consulting in the baking sector. I remember when I wrote that title, I always think, ‘I will wear suits all the time.’ I was wearing suit and ties. It’s the notion of presence. It’s almost like when you go into the consulting gigs, you have to be very presentable. Versus when you build products, it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing basketball shorts and a tank top. If the product you’re building is extremely useful and a lot people love it and it’d be beneficial and they find value, it doesn’t matter if you wear suits, right?

When you build products versus when you do consulting engagements, products have to last much longer than most consulting engagements. Products have to have the legs of their own. They have to be extremely useful. The customer buying your software or buying your product, that’s the ultimate indicator of success. Whereas consulting, you can wear a really nice suit. You could speak really eloquently. You can have these really great decks. At the end of the day, they’re buying something a little bit different than the traditional product.

Joseph: The other thing I wanted to ask you about, before we talk about some of the things you’ve learned during your transitions along the way, is something else that you mentioned in your article which was that different revenue models create different incentives. Can you expand a bit more on that point?

Jeff: It’s a pretty straightforward model. Eighty to ninety percent of engagements are going to be something like you have 10 people. They each are $200 an hour, and you time however many hours you think this project will take. That could be anywhere from 50 hours to 1,000 hours, and it could be anywhere from teams of 2 to 3 to teams of like 20 or 30.

The revenue in some ways scales very linearly and it’s straightforward. You just know that ‘I bring somebodies to the problem, and the client pays me a small percentage, a couple of my cost, and that’s how I make money.’

The metric I always look at is revenue per employee. It can vary quite a bit, depending on the space you’re in. Software, for example, some of these companies like Google and Apple, have million plus dollars for revenue per employee. The scale of what you can achieve in terms of revenue, it unlocks itself when you go to products versus when you do consulting.

Consulting’s always going to be limited by the amount of people you have. The people are your assets, but in the product side, you can have a team of 10 people unlock millions of dollars of revenue on just a few set of products. That’s one of the hardest things going from a consulting to product management, at least for me, to wrap my head around, was that you have to think about scale in a much different sense than just adding more people to the problem.

Joseph: The last thing I want to talk about, before we wrap up with one of your very interesting projects at Unity, are some of the things you’ve learned along the way, Jeff. I was wondering if you could first explain what it takes to successfully make the transition into a product manager role, because this is obviously something that you’ve done successfully yourself and also because you are now involved in the hiring of other aspiring product managers who may have come from a different industry before.

Jeff: At the end of the day, there’s a lot of things that are very low level and that need to be done that nobody really wants to touch that when you get to the product manager, you can just step in and start doing those things. It could be a simple thing as keeping the documentation in order, rewriting a few things, improving the workflows or processes. I think with moving to product management, that’s something to keep an open mind.

Another thing, I think, when you move—at least for me when I moved into product management—was just to read a lot about other really good product managers, either on their blogs or talking to them in person. I think I had probably chats with 20 or 30 different product managers, either guys who are leading their own companies, the guys who are first or second-year product managers at bigger companies.

It takes time to form your own style in product management, to form your own perspective and your own process. I think with product management transitioning, it’s just to be very open about how people are approaching that problem, and then it’s adopting it to your own to make it better.

Joseph: Given that you’ve successfully transitioned from being an engineer to a product manager—and I know that you’re a consultant in between—if there is one piece of advice that you could’ve given your younger self as you were thinking about breaking into either something new or into product management, what would it be?

Jeff: Earlier in my career, I think I was impatient. I wanted to take on more. I wanted to do all these crazy things. I wanted to be basically the CEO in like two years. I feel like probably the most when I’m actually doing something new or something I hadn’t done, even something completely different I was doing just a few months ago.

I think I would tell my younger self to just be patient. You have to wait for these opportunities to come up. I think I probably jumped the gun in a few cases where I probably should’ve been a little more patient. Wait for the right opportunity. Don’t just take the job that sounds great at the time, and you’re just willing to sacrifice all the other things that you value. I think that would probably be one thing I would tell my younger self.

Joseph: What’s something that you’ve learned about yourself, having made a couple of shifts, first from engineering into consulting and then consulting in to product management?

Jeff: I think the most I’ve ever learned in my career was doing something new. I know it sounds very cliché, and it sounds very sort of boilerplate, but it helps to think of it that way that, if I feel that things at work are getting stale or I’m getting this monotonous routine, it’s ‘hey, there’s always something new to learn out there.’ That’s what keeps me level-headed.

At the end of the day, just constantly learning new things is what offers career satisfaction which ultimately leads to personal satisfaction.

Joseph: I’d love to wrap up, Jeff, with what you’re doing now at Unity Technologies. Can you just tell me a little bit more about Unity Machine Learning Agents, which is related to the future of AI and something I know absolutely nothing about?

Jeff: Absolutely. We hear a lot of things about AI. It’s very, very exciting times. All of what we call the AI systems of the future—if you’re talking about smart robots, self-driving cars—need data that exist in a virtual world. In the case of self-driving cars, you need something like in the tens of millions of virtually driven miles.

That’s where the Unity and Unity Machine Learning Agents come in. Unity, it’s a game engine. You can create this virtual world inside Unity. If you want to train and have these virtual simulations of anything, to take that into the real world, to put it into these new, smarter, AI-based systems, you need something like Unity and Machine Learning Agents.

What we do is, basically you as a developer, you as a company who wants to create a new AI system, we provide you all the tools, both the game engine, the simulator, and of course the bridge to all the machine learning framework, like TensorFlow occurs through Unity’s Machine Learning Agent package. It’s kind of high level. Those are what the products and project I’m working on now.

Joseph: Wow, very fascinating. If people want to learn more about you, Jeff, or the AI work that you’re doing there at Unity, where can they go?

Jeff: They can definitely check out my personal site that has links to the projects I’m working on and others. It’s at www.Shihzy.com.

Joseph: Fantastic. We will make sure that we include a link to your website in the show notes, along with that great Medium article you wrote about transitioning into product management.

I just wanted to thank you for taking time out of your busy day to tell us more about your life as a consultant formerly and how you made the transition into product management, and most of all, some of the great useful tips you shared on how to make a successful transition.

Best of luck with your AI work there at Unity and also that first year of fatherhood.

Jeff: Thank you so much, Joseph. I appreciate it, and thank you for the time.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu is dedicated to helping people relaunch their careers and have more meaningful careers. As a public speaker, career consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch® podcast, he shares insights from relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals to more effectively marketing their personal brands.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu helps aspiring professionals relaunch their careers to do work that matters. As a keynote speaker, career & personal branding consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast, his passion is helping people gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to pursue truly meaningful careers. Having gone through three major career changes himself, he now shares insights from building & relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals and business owners to build & relaunch their personal brands.