From Cognitive Science, Through Quality Assurance, to Project Management - My Journey to the Perfect Career
I’m Zuzia and I work as a Project Manager at Netguru. However, my journey to get to this place was full of turning points and unexpected outcomes.
With passion, determination, and the right attitude, I shifted my career to seek and follow the path I really want to take. Here are a few chapters of my story on how I became a PM without a university background in this field.
The One with the Perfect Major
People are stereotypically divided into two groups: the ones that have a brain for science and the ones that prefer humanities. I’m neither of those, or rather - I’m both. This made it extra hard for me to choose a career path back in high school. I was good at math, but not enough so to go to a technical university. At the same time I had a talent for foreign languages and enjoyed literature, but not enough so to choose a career in this field. Then I have found it, I found “my place on Earth”. I stumbled upon a description of an innovative specialisation that combined psychology, philosophy, Artificial Intelligence, linguistics, anthropology and neuroscience. It sounded perfect for me, because of its interdisciplinary nature. So I left my home town and started Cognitive Studies at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.
The One with the Second Diploma
The worst question you could have asked me during my time at the university was “Okay, so what will be your job once you graduate?”. And I hated it so much because I didn’t have an answer for that. Actually, there is no clear answer, because there are so many options, but nothing concrete: you can get into HR, marketing, IT, biology, education and much more. But you will never be as qualified as people who actually graduate with relevant majors. To increase my chances on the job market, I decided to polish my English and French and started Ethnolinguistics at the same university. It really helped me improve my language skills and opened me up to the world. I have seized an opportunity and spent a year abroad in Italy. I consider it to be one of the best decisions I have ever made.
The One with the First Job
When I went back from my year abroad, I got my Master’s degree (specialising in the role of perception and memory in face recognition, BTW) and decided to look for a job. Fortunately, my friend, a fellow cognitive science graduate, was working in a software house and told me they are looking for somebody just like me for a junior Quality Assurance Specialist position. My basic knowledge of IT (from cognitive science), good English language skills (from ethnolinguistics), annoying attention to detail (a “disease” all Wiler women are fighting against), analytical thinking (natural predisposition), and a positive attitude towards new experiences (a valuable life lesson I’ve learned) made me take up the challenge. Fortunately, they didn’t require any previous IT-related job experience (I only had a short summer internship in User Experience). They saw something in me and gave me a chance. That’s how my career in IT started. But that was just a beginning.
The One Where I Learned a Lot
It was an awesome first job. I was learning so much about Scrum and its values in practice. Having an opportunity to observe Scrum Masters and Product Owners at work opened my eyes to how important and powerful Agile methodologies are. I was expanding my knowledge about software development and its usual challenges. I was very lucky that I got to work in a team with fullstack developers who supported me and treated me, a junior QA, as a valuable team member. They patiently explained all technical details to me, and I really appreciated it (guys, if you’re reading this -- thank you so much!).
I learned how important teamwork is, and that in IT soft skills are almost as important as technical ones.
The One Where I Had to Save Myself
Initially, I was really passionate about my work. I enjoyed all Scrum meetings, participating in shaping up the scope, checking tasks to make sure if they met all the acceptance criteria. I was so good at finding bugs that I could have done it with my eyes closed. But eventually reality hit me hard. The tasks to test began to seem monotonous, there were weeks when there was nothing to do, and without the proper stimuli I completely lost my drive. I was on the verge of depression, and didn’t feel like getting out of my bed in the morning because I hated my job so much. If it wasn’t for my dog, I’d probably never leave my apartment back then.
This feeling pushed me to search for something that would actually get me back my will to live. I looked back at what I liked about my job and there it was: I liked people, meetings, Agile methodologies, managing sprint scope and backlog, communication with the client. I figured there is a job that perfectly fits this description. This is when the next chapter begins.
The One When Netguru Liked Me
The Junior Project Manager job at Netguru was actually my #1 choice. The job description fit my needs perfectly and, for the first time in a long time, I felt that drive, that flame somewhere inside me. I was really stressed out about the whole recruitment process, but at the same time I was confident that with my 2-year experience as a QA in another software house and my personality I was the right fit for Netguru as well. There are many similarities between a QA and a PM, such as the ability to easily switch contexts, multitasking, attention to detail, analytical thinking, good communication skills. QAs deal more with technical aspects of projects, and PMs are more focused on processes, like the team’s well-being, feedback, cooperation with the client. This was the change I needed. Switching to project management was the right decision, and Netguru is definitely the best workplace there is. After my first day at the company I already felt like I belonged here, like it was my place. You’ll have to believe me or check it out yourself!
The One Where I’m Managing Projects
My average day is full of challenges and I love it.
Apart from regular work in Scrum, organising meetings, communication with the team and the client using very useful tools, I get to participate in workshops, introduce company-wide changes, mentor junior PMs, and recruit new employees. The unique insight I have from working as a QA for 2 years has helped me understand the specifics of a PM’s work much better. I can share my knowledge and experience with the team. What I like about Netguru is a highly developed feedback culture, and I appreciate all the tips and tricks that help me improve on a daily basis. Every challenge I successfully face is helping me grow, and each day I feel support from my co-workers. I go to work with a can-do attitude, and I leave work with the satisfaction a job well done gives you. I am always ready to fight obstacles and to advocate for the best possible solution. Like my friend Maciek (also a PM in Netguru) says: “Edge cases happen every day”. And I really enjoy this lack of boredom and stagnation.
The One Where I’m a Project Manager After Hours
The funny thing is that I am using Netguru’s best practices in my personal life. I love to-do lists and I feel a weird satisfaction from crossing items out. I keep an updated calendar and use notifications to remind me about important dates and occasions. I sync my friends’ schedule with mine to figure out the best time to meet. I am also mentioning and messaging them when there is a decision to be made, and I never rest until I get an answer. I appreciate honest feedback and openly ask for it, rather than letting bad emotions build up inside them. I appreciate when they use the “bad news is better than no news” rule actively. I also update my friends about any change immediately, rather than keeping them in the dark. One time I even joined a house party remotely via Skype! I have to admit, project management improved the way I organise my life and relationships. The change of career was beneficial not only for my professional life, but also allowed me to grow as a person. If you are interested in creating your own career path at Netguru read this article which may be very helpful.
In high school I took extra management classes, but mostly because all my friends went there. Back then I did not feel that this was my field, but - surprise surprise - this is what I do for a living now. Ironic how things can change, isn’t it?