To Keep Growing, I had to Switch Careers.
But Not Companies.
David Pokleka,ex Backend Engineer, current Product Manager

When people ask me about what I do, I like to say my job is to make sure anytime someone puts down one of our games, they think “that was really fun, I’ll definitely be playing that again!” As a product manager, I’m right where I want to be – at the heart of the different moving parts needed to make a great game. But it took me a while to figure out this was the role for me.

I’ve always wanted to make video games. To make that happen, it seemed logical to me to study software engineering and take it from there. It worked, and eventually, I became one of the backend engineers at Outfit7. I was working for a gaming company, but it wasn’t like what I imagined. I wasn’t in a role where I could influence what the games are like or help develop new ideas. After a few years, I became more and more certain that I wanted to be connected to games in a different way.

The first time I really showed I could contribute in a different role was by testing our games. Everyone at Outfit7 is encouraged to test our games, but I really took it to the next level, tested extensively, and came back with thorough and insightful feedback. Soon, people started to notice the passion and commitment I put into my feedback. Just as importantly, I proved to myself I could provide value outside my core expertise. 

I didn’t know exactly which way I wanted to go with my career. And it’s not like your manager is going to walk up to you and say “you know what, I think you’d make a great product manager, why don’t you try that out?” You have to figure out what you want for yourself and then take the first step. If you’re part of a culture that wants to help you grow, the support of the people around you will then make all the next steps easier.

One day, I was talking to a teammate who started out in QA and then moved into product management. It was a bit of a hectic period in their department at the time and they really needed more product managers. I was definitely interested, but I had zero prior experience as a product manager.

At the same time, I wasn’t sure how my team was going to take it, or if Outfit7 would even be willing to give me a shot. But when I went to talk to our general manager about it, the deal was pretty much sealed though. He said “the most important thing is to make sure you’re doing something you enjoy. Because if you aren’t getting fulfillment from your job, that’s bad for you and the company in the long run.” I talked to my other colleagues and managers and everyone understood and supported my decision. More importantly, they also understood I wasn’t going to immediately be the best product manager ever!

That’s how I left my engineering days behind and finally found the way I always wanted to work on games. I found myself right at the center of it all, connecting all the different people from different departments and making sure our vision turns into an amazing game. It didn’t come without a price – I basically demoted myself, took a pay cut, and started building my career again. Sometimes you have to take a step back to move forward though and today, I feel like I’ve already progressed further and gained more confidence than I ever had as a backend engineer.

I would love to say I was a natural-born product manager, but the truth is my first project was terrible. We managed to get everything done on time and it all ended up OK, but it was far from an easy or enjoyable experience for me personally. It was a perfect storm: there were a few new people on our team and the project we were working on was already underway when I joined. It was far from a dream start. I felt like I was trying to run but someone had poured lead into my shoes. My manager at the time, Jaka Robnik, was the person that got me through it. He always had my back, helped me out, and made sure I could manage everything. That was my trial by fire and I still haven’t worked on a project as difficult as that one since then.

Over time, I figured out how to be successful in my new role and how to incorporate my previous experience the right way. My background as a software engineer helped me have a deeper understanding of certain parts of my new job. And it definitely helps to understand how decisions regarding games impact the technical side of things. I see potential problems and solutions that other product managers don’t.

On the other hand, I did have to unlearn a few things. For example, I used to write specs in a very thorough, “technical” way. Over time I realized it’s often better to just focus on what our project’s goals are and how each part contributes to the whole. Now I try to communicate that as clearly as possible and leave room for people to do it their own way.

It took me a while to get over my impostor syndrome and start feeling like I’m good at what I do and my contributions are valuable. I think everyone who makes a large career change goes through that. Being in a high-culture environment and having good managers helps. But in the end, it’s up to you to recognize when your work starts showing results and celebrate your own successes, despite the occasional failure in between.

Over time, the projects I work on got bigger, I was given more trust and more responsibilities. I’ve been a product manager for about two and a half years now, after working as a software engineer for 14 years. It was a large change for my career, but one that enabled me to keep growing and, ironically, developing.

For me, the heart of it all is my love for making and playing games. I love that I can be an essential part of creating something I think is really cool. I can point to a game and say “look, I helped make that”. That’s what keeps me motivated and on-track. I don’t know if I’ll still be in the same role or department in a few years, but I do know that if I find a way I can bring even more passion to my work, I’ll get the support I need to make the necessary changes without having to find a new company.