BTU #303 - Marines to Product Manager at IBM (Richard I. Porter)

It’s like you’re climbing a mountain in the fog. But then when you look back, the fog has lifted and you can clearly see the path you took. 
— Richard Porter

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Why Listen

While the bulk of this interview is about Product Manager, Richard and I cover a lot of ground that will interest you regardless of your desired career path. We talk about leadership, we talk about technology, we talk about values and how to find a career path that aligned with your personal value; we talk about how technology may be an a-moral career path, and we talk using hypothesis to confirm or deny a career move… and how either of those, the confirmation or the denial, is equally valuable.

About Richard

Richard I. Porter is a Product Manager at IBM as part of their IBM Cloud: API Connect/Gateways team. He started out in the Marine Corps as a Ground Intelligence Officer, where he served for 8 years. After his time in the Marine Corps, he studied business at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

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Selected Resources: 

Transcript & Time Stamps:


Joining me today from Chapel Hill, NC is Richard Porter. Richard I. Porter is a Product Manager at IBM as part of their IBM Cloud: API Connect/Gateways team. He started out in the Marine Corps as a Ground Intelligence Officer, where he served for 8 years. After his time in the Marine Corps, he studied business at UNC Kenan-Flagler.


Can you talk about your transition out of the military?

That’s a different answer for me depending on the audience I’m speaking to. To non-military audiences, I say that I wanted to have more say over where I was working and what roles I was working in. But I’m going to be a bit more candid than that with this audience. I was doing a lot of soul searching and reflecting. I joined the Marine Corps to protect and defend the Constitution. I was becoming more concerned that what I was doing in the Marines might not be doing that. I started asking myself if that was really what I wanted to be a part of and decided that I should get out. I moved on to study business because I wanted to add a new dimension to my skill set.


Was there anything you did that helped you make that decision?

Talking with friends about the decision was one thing I did that was really helpful. I felt I could be honest and open with my close friends about my thoughts. Those friends were both on the inside and outside of the Marine Corps. 

Tactfully, I did an exercise from the book What Color Is Your Parachute. That gave me some insight into what jobs I might be well suited for. 

I also like the Start With Why methodology by Simon Sinek.  


How do you explain what you do for a living?

As a Product Manager, I’m a middle manager - I sit in the middle of what needs to be done to create a product. That includes coordinating with the engineers as well as those above me to make sure we are going to be able to bring the product to market. You also need to communicate with the legal department to make sure we are creating the product in a lawful way. It’s your job as a product manager to be able to understand all those different pieces that need to come together. 

The one entity that’s rarely at the table is the customer. So you also need to be thinking about the product from the perspective of the customer. 


How did your experience in the Marine Corps prepare you to be a Product Manager?

All military members learn how to lead through influence and integrate lots of different points of view. In particular, military members who have been involved in counterinsurgency are familiar with these themes. I thought about that a lot in business school and realized how strongly the military experience maps into being a Product Manager. 

I also want to help technology companies to understand in a deeper way how much veterans can bring to their corporation. 


What lead you to IBM?

As I was thinking about leaving the military, I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do. Now looking back, I can see how everything fit together but it wasn’t that way going forward. I’ve heard the analogy before that a career going forward is like being in a heavy fog. When you look back the fog lifts and you can clearly see all the steps you took. But it’s rarely that clear in the moment. 

There were a lot of industries I couldn’t stomach going into. I once went to a job fair and spoke to Reynolds Tobacco Company, a company that sells cigarettes. I realized that ethically, there was no amount they could give me that would get me to work for them. I then started doing a sort of ethical triage with other companies as well. Companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. were problematic because of their sugary drinks. Exxon was a problem as well because of their denial at times of climate change and global warming. 

What drew me to tech is that I believe it helps people improve the efficiency of their lives. That really appealed to me. 

When you are talking about something you believe in, you become much more powerful. That can help your job search and also guide your actions once you’re in a job. The best thing you can do in an interview is to share your ‘why’ with the interviewer. The reason that you get up out of bed each morning and how that company and that role aligns with that reason. 

I was at Amazon previous to IBM and when I interviewed with them for an internship, I wasn’t as clear on that why. I was looking to work at a company where I would learn a great deal in a short amount of time. The opportunity to learn truly was fantastic. It also allowed me to test new waters. For the first time I was able to work on the west coast for a very hard charing company. 

After the internship, I was offered a full-time position at Amazon but I ultimately decided to go to IBM instead. Although Amazon was a great learning experience, IBM better serves my ‘why’. 

As you leave the military and need to decide what to do, you don’t have to immediately get your dream job. You can take that pressure off yourself and just get that first job. You’ll learn from that what you like and don’t like. You can then adjust from there and continue to find companies and roles that are a better fit for you. 


Do you recommend people get an MBA if they eventually want to go into product management?

It’s more challenging to get into product management without an MBA. Most hiring managers are looking for you to have an expertise in something. As a veteran, you can sell your expertise in leadership. But hiring managers want to hear more than that. You need to also an offer and expertise in business, technology, or design. If you already have that skill set, you may be able to enter into product management directly. But if not, you’ll need to get an MBA to get that skillset. 

You have leadership experience above and beyond what your non-veteran counterparts have. That’s a given. But many hiring managers really don’t recognize that so you need to be prepared with other skill sets you can offer. 


You have several side projects, can you share those with us?

The goal is to demonstrate how important leadership is in technology. I wrote some articles for ProductCraft - a website that focuses on product management. I realized how valuable veterans can be in this space. I created the Art of Product War to bring veteran and leadership perspectives to product management. 

There’s such a great need for strong leadership in technology. Veterans won’t 100% make the right choice every time. But they have rigorous training in leadership that will allow them to make a positive impact in the technology space. 


Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?

The transition is going to be hard but you are capable of it. You’ve been through more than other people have. Prepare yourself and reach out to people that are in industries you’re interested in. You don’t have to know all the answers as you get out. You just need to start out in the right direction and go from there.