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What Jeff Gothelf wants Engineering, Product, and Design pros to know about staying employable forever

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on September 24, 2020

In How to Reimagine the Second Half of Your Career, Jeff Gothelf describes his mid-career transition from aspiring professional musician to UX Design Manager. Intrigued by what other wisdom Jeff might have for folks in Engineering, Product, and Design (EPD), I reached out to interview him from his home in Barcelona (“The greatest city in the world,” according to Jeff).

We talked about

  • What’s at stake for Engineering, Product, and Design professionals who aren’t proactive about staying forever employable
  • What EPD pros can learn from the movie “Something About Mary”
  • The risks involved in taking his advice, and the career opportunities pandemic has opened up

Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Clockwise: How can professionals, and EPD specifically, reimagine the second half of their careers?

Jeff Gothelf: I believe that, in the second half of your career, regardless of your ambition level, the number of opportunities that you will have available to you are going to decrease over time. That comes from a lot of factors. One of those factors is ageism. People tend to hire younger people.

“In the second half of your career, regardless of your ambition level, the number of opportunities that you will have available to you are going to decrease.”

Jeff Gothelf

The higher you climb, the fewer jobs there are. There shouldn't be as many C-level jobs as individual contributor or even middle-management jobs. The competition gets fiercer. The compensation we expect as we get older -- with 15, 20, and 25 years of experience -- increase, and salaries don't increase accordingly.

Folks need to recognize that they have a unique story. The work they've done, the steps that they've taken to get to where they are, their challenges, victories, accomplishments, are unique to them.

It may feel like, "Well, I'm a mid-level manager. I'm a mid-level Engineer. What's unique about me? What's unique about my story? I haven't done anything remarkable."

What's unique about your story is that nobody has it. Nobody did the exact same thing that you did to get to where you are today.

As you start to imagine the next half of your career, one thing that you can do is capitalize on that unique story.

In doing so, you begin to create a platform of recognized expertise and thought leadership. That platform, if it's successful, starts to function as an opportunity magnet. It starts to attract opportunities towards you, instead of you having to continuously chase them down. This certainly can mean a job or promotion. But it could be networking, collaboration, public speaking, teaching, or writing opportunities. Anything and everything that could potentially utilize your expertise.

Clockwise: When you say capitalize on your story, I assume you mean write it down and share it. Or do you mean something different or broader?

Jeff Gothelf: Writing is absolutely fantastic, and that works for some people. But it doesn't work for everybody. Share it in whatever way makes the most sense for the people that you are trying to convince to pay attention to you.

This comes back to Product Design, Service Design 101. Figure out how to best share your experience and your expertise in a way that impacts the people you're trying to influence. Who's your target audience? What do they wanna know? And what's the best way to reach them? How do they consume information? Do they read? Do they listen to podcasts? Do they flip through PowerPoint presentations? Do they spend five hours a week on Reddit? Are they YouTube addicts?

The measure of success, ultimately, is not sharing. It’s how you impact behavior. Are you actually getting your target audience to consume more than one piece of content from you? Are they following you? Are they sharing that information with somebody else? Are they reaching out to you just to say, "That was brilliant. Thank you for sharing that." Or, "Oh, my God. I had a very similar experience at work. Let me tell you about it?”

Clockwise: When I hear your advice to become a recognized expert in your chosen domain or discipline, I question whether everyone really has what it takes to do that. Because I know from experience how difficult it is. If everyone's an expert, no one's an expert. We have so much noise in the thought leadership space. What do you have to say to that?

Jeff Gothelf: You're right. You're going to have to rise above the noise. What is the unique thing that you bring that nobody else is doing or that nobody else is doing well? Are you gonna focus on a sub-domain of expertise? Is there a personality element you might use? Is there a unique editorial style? Some people do 90-minute podcasts. Some people do 5-minute podcasts, right? [laughs] It's like that scene from Something About Mary. You know, 6-minute abs. What's your 6-minute abs? Everyone's doing 7-minute abs, how are you gonna do 6-minute abs?

“It's like that scene from Something About Mary. You know, 6-minute abs. What's your 6-minute abs? Everyone's doing 7-minute abs, how are you gonna do 6-minute abs?”

Jeff Gothelf

That is not something you're going to come up with immediately. You really have to run experiments to figure out the right combination of content, channels, format, length, marketing approach, distribution, et cetera, that gets the reaction you're looking for. That's the perseverance and the consistency that a lot of folks burn out on very, very quickly. In that sense, you have a real opportunity if you've got the drive to stick this out because it's not an overnight success. It's gonna take time.

Clockwise: It sounds like you're saying that if you can pull this off, then you're gonna be much more successful than the average person in the second half of your career, but probably most people are not gonna pull this off. If that's the advice, I completely agree. Or are you saying that this is advice for everybody?

Jeff Gothelf: If you can pull this off, you build a safety net for yourself for the second half of your career that ensures that no matter what, whether it's layoffs, mergers, pandemics, recessions, whatever it is, you always have a stream of inbound opportunities. Somebody will pay you to do something. Do I believe everybody can do this? Yes. Do I believe everybody will do this? No. I have examples of people who have everything they need to be successful in this. They've got the content, experience, and personality for it. They don't have the drive. They don't have the perseverance. They don't have the motivation to do it.

It's risky. You're essentially moonlighting outside of your day job. Bosses don't like that. Companies don't like that. And that risk is not something that a lot of folks wanna take. Even though I believe that without taking that risk, you end up at the mercy of those organizations, these mergers, these pandemics, these recessions.

“It's risky. You're essentially moonlighting outside of your day job. Bosses don't like that. Companies don't like that. And that risk is not something that a lot of folks wanna take. Even though I believe that without taking that risk, you end up at the mercy of those organizations, these mergers, these pandemics, these recessions.”

Jeff Gothelf

Clockwise: It's definitely been true for me. I have my work portfolio and my personal blog, and it's my personal blog that's gotten me the last three jobs.

This is more of your view of the marketplace, but do you have any roles in the EPD world, or roles that people who are now working in EPD would be qualified for that you see demand for increasing over time?

Jeff Gothelf: If anything, the pandemic has shown us that software-based businesses and services are the ones that are gonna survive and thrive in this world. Software Engineers and Product Managers are, like, the hottest jobs in tech. They're in short supply. And there's always a lack of designers. It's tough to find good ones. I think demand is far outstripping supply.

Now, some organizations who aren't doing particularly well right now, they might shed some jobs. But those folks are gonna shift into organizations that are doing well. They're gonna get scooped up quickly. I'm seeing tremendous demand, generally speaking. If I had to rank the three, I'd say product managers at the top, designers second, and software engineers third. But it's not like there's massive distances between those. They're right behind each other.

“If anything, the pandemic has shown us that software-based businesses and services are the ones that are gonna survive and thrive in this world.”

Jeff Gothelf

Clockwise: Do you have thoughts about sub-roles, like particular kinds of Product Managers who have this kind of expertise or work on this kind of team or anything more specific?

Jeff Gothelf: Anybody who’s building any kind of a logistics service at the moment is in high demand. How do you move stuff around quickly, efficiently, with minimal contact? Telecom, connectivity, communication, platforms that connect people remotely are massive right now. Building digital experiences that emulate the real world. How do you take real-world experiences and recreate them online in a compelling way? So think museums, tours, conferences, amusement parks. Anybody who’s got any kind of experience translating these unique physical-world experiences online, whether it's product or design, it's gonna be massively in demand, as well.

Clockwise: Is your advice any different for people who don't have supportive parents and a good education, who are constrained in the risks they can take?

Jeff Gothelf: Absolutely. It's tough. There's a real opportunity to build that same safety net in safer ways. If it's risky or you don't have the time and the capacity to write a blog post or prepare a talk, maybe there's an opportunity to participate in an online conversation with some industry folks on Twitter or LinkedIn. Maybe you leave a comment on somebody's article. Anything you can do to begin to insert yourself into the conversation.

It strikes me as relatively low-risk if somebody says, "Hey, I think this about product management." And for you to chime in and be like, "Oh, yeah. I experienced the same thing. I also saw this other thing happen," in 280 characters.

Now, obviously, there are gonna be exceptions. But small interjections start to build your presence and your expertise in the community and domain such that, when you eventually have a few more seconds than you have right now, maybe you could put something together, and there's people already paying attention to you. Low-risk interjections is probably a good place to start.

Clockwise: Totally. It sounds like moving to New York was important for your career trajectory. I was just curious if pandemic had changed your ideas about moving to opportunity?

Jeff Gothelf: The pandemic has really kind of removed geography as a constraint in many cases. Today, all you need is the internet. And that's tremendous and tremendously powerful because it enables opportunities for folks who could never have moved to New York, could never have afforded to move to San Francisco or London or Copenhagen, wherever the opportunities are. It opens up a hiring team to a whole new pool of candidates who are probably amazing and whom they would never have been exposed to in the past. If you're looking for silver linings, that's definitely one of them in the pandemic.

“The pandemic has really kind of removed geography as a constraint in many cases. Today, all you need is the internet.”

Jeff Gothelf

Clockwise: Going back to our earlier conversation, I'm sitting here a regular, let's say, Product Designer, and thinking, "Okay. I'm nearing the mid-point in my career. I want to figure out what I've learned. What do I have to share? What's valuable that I've picked up along the way?" Do you have any tips or questions to ask yourself? In interviewing there's a format -- situation, behavior, outcome -- that's helpful for telling stories about yourself. Do you have any similar advice or framework or questions to ask yourself to get that kind of information out of yourself? Because it's such a big question. "What do I know?" "What do I know that other people don't know?"

Jeff Gothelf: The question that I pose to folks a lot is: "What problem do you help people solve?" You could say, "Well, I'm a designer. I manage products. I write code." Okay, cool. But what problem do you help people solve? "What I'm really good at is helping people find information." Fantastic. Or, "What I'm really good at is getting people through a complicated workflow that is high-stress and super important to them." Once you peel away the layers, what do you really help people do?

I think if you can get to that story, you start to really define an identity for yourself. Because the way we design today is different than the way we designed 10 years ago. It'll be different than the way that we design 10 years from now. Fundamentally, underneath it, "What I do is I help people navigate difficult paths or difficult journeys." That becomes something that you can continue to do forever. The tactics change, but the underlying value doesn't change. If you can answer that question, you can really start to build a foundation for that platform that I keep talking about.

Clockwise: That's super interesting. The difference between the what and the how reminds me of the difference between crystallized knowledge that older people have more of than younger people and fluid intelligence that younger people have more of. Lastly, where can people learn more about you and what you have to offer?

Jeff Gothelf: JeffGothelf.com is the best place to go. You’ll find blog posts, books, videos, what I do, how I do it, awesome photos of me doing cool stuff with cool people because that's how I live my life. [laughs] And definitely not in this chair all day long.

I would love for you to buy Forever Employable. It's on Amazon, and everywhere that you buy books these days. If you do buy it, I would be thrilled for a review on Amazon. Let me know what you thought. That's how I get better.

Clockwise: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time. It was so nice to meet you.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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