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Thursday, October 12, 2017

From Minister to Project Manager (Part 1)


Sitting across from the gentleman in downtown Uberlândia, Brazil as he reviewed my résumé, I expected a standard line of questions. He’d ask about projects I’d worked on, whether or not I’d managed teams and to what extent I understand code in particular and the software development cycle in general. Instead, what came first out of his mouth instead was a statement: “So, you’re a theologian.”

That floored me. Although I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Ministry, the bulk of my professional life has been spent in software and website development. Rarely in New York City have I even been asked about the nature of my undergraduate study, something I suspect comes as much from indifference as a suspicion that it’s not okay in interviews to get too close to the topic of religion.
Having spent a few years following graduation in mission work and then serving a church in New Mexico, I became disillusioned with ministry and resigned. After moving my family to New Jersey I taught English as a second language for a year in a predominantly Brazilian and Hispanic neighborhood in Newark before taking a customer service role at AT&T (then called Cingular Wireless) servicing major business and government accounts.

Customer service in a major corporation prepared me, strangely enough, for life at a startup. A company called ZepInvest was looking for someone to do customer service and manage content curation full-time, and I applied. The experience I gained over the next few years was invaluable to my career. It was there, in close proximity with product people and developers, that I became a web producer. As is often the case, startup life requires people to wear many hats. While some fit better than others, the options were grow or get out. I grew.

When that company closed down operations in New York, I transitioned swiftly to Conde Nast, where after a year as a web producer I was promoted to project management and assigned to Wired. I worked with a fantastic team to bring that brand’s development team into order, and by the end of a year with them I was ready to hand over the job to a director of engineering on-location in San Francisco (the site lead and I had been working out of New York, so a lot of phone calls and a cross country trip or two were involved).

My next roles were at Scholastic and The Loop, both of which enriched and deepened my experience as a project manager, forcing me to think along product management lines as well as explore questions of product/market fit. In 2015 I was at PINCHme, and while that was a short-lived role, I had the pleasure of working with a solid team of developers and a level-headed product manager to organize along Agile lines and bring a complete site redesign to life within three months. Now, at Viacom as a Program Manager, I have lead multiple teams through Agile transformations and am working with others to effectively scale Agile for the enterprise.

In light of all that, it surprised me that the Brazilian man’s first comment to me was that I’m a ‘theologian.’ It turns out that in Brazil, people are pigeonholed based on whatever university degree they’ve obtained. If someone gets a degree in accounting, she will be considered an accountant no matter what, unless she goes for another degree or really makes a name for herself by some means in another field.

No, I am not a theologian. I’m at my best when I’m filling the roles of Scrum Master and Agile Coach. That, in fact, is where I believe my ministerial training and experience most comes to the forefront. More on that tomorrow.