The 3 most decisive choices in my career

I recently turned 34. Every year on my birthday I look back at the last year and reflect on where I currently stand in life. I ask myself whether I’m satisfied with where I am, how my life is going, and if there are any unfulfilled dreams. One of the ambitions that I set out last year, was to start writing more. I love to structure my thoughts and ideas in articles that I want to share and publish. That is why I started to write on Medium.

In my reflection this year I also asked myself the question: how did I get to where I am now. It’s also a question that I read in many interviews: what were the defining moments in your career. As I was answering that question to myself I came to an interesting realization. I could clearly see three decisions that I have made that have significantly altered my career path.

Map of my life’s path focusing on my education and career

A brief history

I was born in the year 1986. At primary school I was an above-average student that went on to high school in 1997. After completing high school with average grades I went on to study Industrial Design at the University of Technology. Compared to the other students that started at the same time I performed in the top tier. Approximately 120 students started in 2004. 5 received their bachelor degree after 3 years. 2 received their master degree within 5 years. I was one of the two. During my masters I also won the 2nd place in an international design award and wrote an article that for published at the top conference in the field (CHI). After graduating I continued with a 4-year PhD, which I completed in 2014. Directly after my PhD I got my first engineering job at Philips Hue. After three years in engineering I made the switch to Product Management. In 2019 I left Philips Hue to move on to the scale up at CM.com where I now lead one of the development teams.

It sounds like a smooth path. But it could have easily been different…

A choice is never final

In high school my classes consisted in the basis of exact sciences, but I added voluntary courses in economics, business management and computer science. Simply because I was interested in all.

In the fifth and sixth grade of high school I was unsure what study I would like to choose. There was not a clear follow-up study that had my preference. As any student I explored several options and visited various universities to figure out which study would fit me.

In the spring of 2004 I made the choice for mechanical engineering. I told my parents and enrolled for the study.

Until…

In the summer of 2004 one of my closest friend invited me to join him. He was visiting an introduction to another study at the same university that I would go to. Something called ‘Industrial Design’. It was relatively new and could also be interesting for me.

That day I was overwhelmed by what I saw. That was exactly the study that I had been looking for. The next day I cancelled my enrollment for mechanical engineering and enrolled to Industrial Design.

Allow yourself to come back on earlier choices

Looking back my whole career could have been completely different if I had limited myself to the choice I had made for mechanical engineering. Where many people might have said “No thanks, I already enrolled”. I kept an open attitude, I allowed myself to challenge my earlier choice.

Two of my other friends did enroll to mechanical engineering. They both stopped and completed that study at a lower level. They are both great engineers and I can safely say that I wouldn’t have completed the study either. It wouldn’t have fit with my strong suits.

One of my other career paths that could have been

Opportunities worth trying

In my master studies (2007–2009) I ran a design project with one of my professors coaching me. In this project we designed an interactive outdoor game. The philosophy behind the project was that you shouldn’t prevent children from playing interactive games, but rather support them in playing those outside in a group. I designed a gaming device, prototyped it and evaluated it with children. With that I successfully completed the project.

Some time after the project I received an e-mail from my professor. There was an international design award (named Nokia Ubimedia Mindtrek Awards). My project qualified for the criteria, and he suggested that I submit the project for the competition. There was just one thing…the deadline was the next day. I had to submit a title, description, photo and video material. I worked tirelessly that evening and the next day, and submitted everything just in time.

Several weeks later — I had already forgotten about this submission—I woke up in the morning to find a new voicemail. Someone from Finland called me to inform me that I am one of the three finalists for the award. He’s inviting me to come to Finland to demonstrate the project and take part in the award ceremony. I’m thrilled with excitement, and a few months later find myself traveling to Tampere, Finland (not easy to get there, by the way). The project is awarded the second place in the competition and I’m getting my (local) 15 minutes of fame at the university.

Half a year later the same professor gives me another call. There is a large conference organized, and he would like to submit a research paper about the project. He invites me to write it, with him as a co-author. Many, many reviews later we submit it to the conference. And we get accepted! It’s only after we got the message that we had been accepted that my professor tells me this is the highest ranked conference (CHI: abbreviation for Computer Human Interaction) in our field. In spring of 2009 I’m travelling to Boston to present this research paper to the academic community. At the same time I’m getting to know a lot of people from the university.

Both of these events have had a tremendous impact on the next steps in my career. Suddenly I wasn’t ‘a promising student’, but I had external proof and validation of the quality of the work that I had done. The international design award of course is great on your resume. It’s still something that I’m proud of and that I mention at job interviews. Traveling and presenting at the conference had suddenly also sparked my interest in academia, but it also qualified me as a suitable candidate for a PhD. It was on that trip that I got to know of the other professors well. Eventually that set me on the track for my PhD.

Allow yourself to sidestep from your chosen path

The design award and the research paper were opportunities I could never have predicted. I could have easily let those opportunities slip. After all, I had completed the project successfully, and was working on the next steps in my studies. Both of these opportunities would not directly contribute to my goal of getting my masters degree. Yet, it was worth investing time and effort in both.

Don’t rush choices when under pressure

When finalizing my dissertation I interviewed for several jobs. I ended up interviewing for three different fields. (I applied for more, but had an interview at three places). The first one was a consultancy agency. The second one was a local mid-size (high-tech) company. The last one was a traineeship via a placement agency at Philips. Long story short: I was offered a contract at the first two companies.

The contract at the consultancy was great for a starter. A nice salary, bonus and a company car. Only downside is that it was a 90-minute commute. One way.

The contract at the second company was closer to home. It was a more down-to-earth place that fit better with my personality. Only downside was that the salary was less than what I earned during my PhD.

I still hadn’t interviewed at the third company. On paper that looked like the perfect match for me. A position in a product-based company, with an acceptable commute.

The consultancy asked me whether I could already make a choice. I explained the situation to them. They understood, but asked me to pick a date when they could get an answer. I didn’t know when the interview would be and when I would get an answer from the third company. So I took a gamble and gave them a date two weeks out.

The second company was less nice. I told them the salary was problematic for me as I would have to cut back, and pay my own travel expenses. They wouldn’t give in. After several phone calls they told me that I wasn’t open to the opportunity and withdrew their offer.

That week I interviewed at Philips on Friday. Monday I get the call that they want to offer me the position. The salary is good, so I immediately accept.

I told the consultancy company that I accepted the other offer. They were disappointed, but understood may choice. And they admitted they already felt it coming.

Let your choices be yours

This was a tough period. Interviewing for jobs is always stressful. Doing it while also finalizing a dissertation and preparing for a PhD defense doesn’t make it easier. Even amidst the pressure of two companies I’m happy that I could stay true to myself. It would have been easy and completely acceptable to take the first offer from the consultancy agency. The way the second company dealt with me could also easily have persuaded me. They changed the reasoning around, making me feel crazy to not jump at their offer. At first I even I felt offended that they withdrew their offer (I got over that, by the way).

In the end I was able to resist that external pressure and make the best choice for me. To this date I still feel that this was the best choice I could make.

What choice do you have?

In my entire educational and professional career I’ve made various choices that have tremendously changed the course of things. What has this shown me?

  • Learn to trust your gut-feeling. All the choices I had made were not based on rationalized decisions. For example: choosing what to study or what job to take is a gamble: you will never get the full experience, until you do. If there is something inside you that ‘just doesn’t feel right’ you should seriously ask yourself whether it is the right option for you.
  • Trust the people close to you. My friends, my professors have played a pivotal role in many of the choices I had to make. One of my best friends recommended Industrial Design as a study for me. My professor recommended the design competition. One of my other friends convinced me to go for the third interview. Most of these people can look at you more objectively and give really valuable advice.
  • Every choice comes at a cost…but that’s okay! I’ve mainly shown what the positive side of my choices were. But they all had a cost to it as well. My parents were surprised by my sudden switch for my studies. Other students talk about you behind your back when you run for a design competition. The recruiters of the companies I didn’t go to were disappointed. I now realize that you can’t please everyone. But it’s most important that you are the one that has to live with this choice. Others don’t.

You have to live with your choices. Other’s don’t.

Remco Magielse is a product manager at CM.com. CM.com is a high tech company focusing on Conversational Commerce in The Netherlands. He has worked as a system engineer and product manager at Philips Hue. Remco has gained his Ph.D. on the dissertation titled ‘How to design for adaptive lighting environments: Embracing complexity in design’. He writes articles about product and software development, product management and user experience, and the hard- and soft-skill required for product management. He is passionate about innovation and has contributed to approximately 50 patents.

Product Manager by profession with a passion for Innovation. Designer by education. Board Game enthusiast by choice. Fantasy & Sci-fi fan. Father of 2.

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