When I first started my career as a Product Manager almost five years ago, it seemed like a common belief that a PM job cannot be done remotely. Where I was, remote work was generally frowned upon, but the PMs didn’t even get the bit of leeway that developers did: the argument was that you could (albeit perhaps shouldn’t) push code and review PRs remotely, but it is not possible to meet, discuss, design, present, or lead from a screen.
Fast forward five years, I am now a remote PM. I have a home office, no commute, a good track record of projects in my current and previous fully remote roles, and a team I work with based exclusively outside my time zone.
As I reflect on this contrast that gradually deployed itself over the past few years, I cannot help but be fascinated, amused, and above all, curious: How did this happen? If something that I was made to believe to be impossible just a few years ago happened, then was I wrong, or did something change, or both?
Stage 1: My First Job, My First Office (2017/12 – 2019/10)
After graduating from university, I joined Microsoft Vancouver as a PM. Specifically, I was hired into a program that aimed at eventually transferring the new hires to Microsoft’s US headquarter. Therefore, these Vancouver-based new hires were hired remotely into US-based teams. Many fellow new hires considered it merely a phase to brace through and a stepping stone to a (in-person) career in the US.
But not me. For a variety of personal reasons, even though I didn’t mind the idea of working from the US for a period of time, I never yearned for a star-spangled career. Yet, my team — mostly based in the US — consistently expressed the desire to see me eventually transfer to the US. I felt fortunate to be included and welcome by a team I enjoyed working with, but I remember not being able to shake a question mark in mind: why do they need me there?
And I had very good reasons to wonder: although my manager and the whole Product org was based in the US, the engineering team I worked with were Vancouverites, meaning that 70% of my interactions were in fact in-person already (the other 30% consisting largely of me telling my manager and other PMs what I’ve been doing with the engineering team in-person). So I already had a hybrid communication situation going on, and quite smoothly. Would being in the same building with other PMs really make everything quantifiably better?
I spent almost two years at Microsoft Vancouver, and that question never stopped boggling my mind. I thought to myself: maybe I just don’t know how great it is to be in-person with your team yet?
Stage 2: I Moved, But For What? (2019/10 – 2020/06)
Two years flied by, and I finally moved to the US and became an unambiguously in-person Product Manager… or so I thought I would. While I did start working in the same building with other PMs, an interesting thing happened: even though I picked up some other projects, the flagship project of mine was still the one owned by the Vancouver engineering team.
If you haven’t started chuckling a bit by now, allow me to say it out loud: I moved to the US, only to become more “remote” than I ever was. Because now about half of my communication was with the Vancouver team, while the other half with US-based people. The remote portion of my day-to-day went from 30% to 50%.
It’s a funny story to tell but not so funny when you were actually living it. As mentioned, I was never eager about moving to the US. A part of me was assuring myself once I go I would start to see benefits of being in-person with my team that I would never un-see. I went with some hope, but I didn’t witness that benefit everyone kept telling me about.
Then, just a few months after I moved, the COVID pandemic forced everyone — all 120,000 of Microsofties in the Puget Sound area — to work from home. The unthinkable happened. Almost the entire ocean of Microsoft as I saw it grumbled, but I was a small island who secretly remained calm. After all, I had not spent a single work day not collaborating remotely with someone.
A few months passed, and by every measure, I was doing fine. I was just as productive, collaborative, and visible as before. It was at this stage where I made up my mind about remote work. After having been told that in-person is the way, after moving across the border to pursue in vain that picture painted for me, after realizing the changeless essence of my role wherever I was, I decided remote work is as justifiable and viable as anything else for me. I finally overcame what I’d been taught.
Stage 3: A License to Try Remote Work (2020/06 – 2021/08)
When I came across an opportunity to transfer back to Microsoft Canada, I took it. This time, convinced of my ability to do my job remotely, I asked to join my team from Toronto. Toronto was my choice for personal reasons, but with my new team based in Vancouver, I couldn’t have summoned the courage to make such request if I wasn’t absolutely certain that I could deliver impeccable results a few time zones away.
Lucky for me, this time I had a great new manager who agreed with me, and supported my desire to work from another city. If I were to try to summarize his point of view it would be this: if I was delivering the right results, it didn’t matter where I was; if I wasn’t delivering the right results, it also didn’t matter where I was. Fortunately I consistently confined myself to within the former category, and everything was just fine.
Then by spring of 2021, there started to be early signs of big techs considering various return-to-office plans. When I approached my manager to discuss options in case Microsoft started to call employees back into the office, he offered me support and advice: he would support me continuing working remotely, but he also pointed out — not as a caution, nor a warning, just a genuine observation of fact — that if I did that I would bear an extra tax in every effort to get credibility and visibility, compared to those who are in-person. My career management would become an uphill battle.
I appreciate his candor until this day. It made very clear to me, that if I were to flourish as a remote PM, not only did I need to be able to do the job remotely, but also I needed to be in an environment where remoteness is accepted, welcome, and normal. It’s one thing to grow your wings, and another to have wind under your wings instead of in your face.
Stage 4: The Leap of Faith (2021/08 – Present)
This realization changed how I thought about any future career opportunities. By this time I was determined to continue working remotely, so when I thought about the upcoming steps in my career, I started filtering out those paths that didn’t unambiguously support remote work.
I soon came across an opportunity at Elastic, a company already fully remote, and none of my colleagues would be in-office. It took me much courage and deliberation to take that opportunity, because other than the subtle discouragement of remote work, everything was great for me at Microsoft.
It was a leap of faith, but in a way I ended up getting almost exactly what I wanted out of my 10 months at Elastic. It was the first time I had full support (in resource and in spirit) for remote work. While there were things I wish were different during my Elastic time, none was due to remoteness. I clearly discerned that fully remote organizations existed and could work very well, and it was the way to go for me at least for the foreseeable future. Remote work is possible, is doable and preferred by me, and there’s plenty of organizations out there designed to support its people working that way.
With that fully evolved preference for, ability to, and faith in remote work, I finally joined StackAdapt (still as a remote PM), and I see myself happily staying that way for a while.
Now I am ready to come back to the question I posed when I began writing: five years ago I was convinced remote PM is impossible, yet I am one now; what happened?
I distill the following factors from the above account of my journey:
First, at the beginning of my career, I was given very biased information. Microsoft was (this may have started to change) an organization with a learned bias against remote work, but it was hard for me to see through it as a fresh grad.
Second, the industry has evolved profoundly in the face of COVID. The support for remote work mushroomed in the past few years. For example, my current company StackAdapt was not initially remote-only, but rather adapted (N.B. very apt of our name) to be this way since COVID.
Finally, I evolved too. In the time leading up to my transition to full remoteness, I not only developed the skills to do it, but also solidified my belief in that possibility; and once I was armed with this new paradigm — gained not from others’ teaching but from my own practice — I was able to see and seek completely differently.