Welcome to Office Hours! This week, Merit co-Founder and co-CEO Randy Brown hosts a conversation with Adrian Lumley, Director of Product at Electronic Arts (EA). Adrian covers how curiosity took him from law, to startups, to tech, to consulting, and back to tech, and how the lessons he learned at each phase of his career taught him how to approach successful Product Management. He also reflects on his experience as a person of color across various industries, and how the professional world must still work to make diverse career paths more available to underrepresented individuals charting their way.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Randy Brown: Tell me about where you started and what you thought your career was going to be. When you were first growing up and going to college, what were you thinking about? You made a transition into tech, so what’s the hero origin story?
Adrian Lumley: My Peter Parker arc is that I actually wanted to be a lawyer when I was in high school. My parents used to make the joke that I loved to debate and argue.
And funnily enough, I tried debate. I was actually really bad at it because I was impatient; but I got to college and thought, "no, I can do this." So I was pre-law and a philosophy major. I went through an honors program for pre-law students to accelerate their growth called the “Ron Brown program at St. John's.” During that program, I got a chance to intern at a few different law offices, including corporate and the District Attorney’s office. I quickly realized that I didn’t like it very much. I appreciated the reading and the critical thinking, but I didn't appreciate the speed (or lack thereof). Law was very slow. I felt like if I wanted to make an impact, I had to move quickly — and I just couldn’t.
After trying out law, I interned at a startup called Track.com. I was a data entry analyst. Long story short, I just keyed in stuff into a table, and their back-end ran off of it, which I found really interesting. It was basically the crunch phase before crunch phase. And it was fun. I met some really smart people. They were dressed super casually, but doing quite well for themselves. I wondered, "Can I do this? Could this be a career?" Then I got lucky coming out of college and immediately started working at AXA Equitable doing strategic analysis: i.e., putting together decks and spreadsheets on why we should do this business venture or not.
By that time, law was completely off the table due to my lack of interest coupled with the cost of law school. Corporate America was going well, and I was able to get a paycheck, but I kept thinking, "there's gotta be something else." Thankfully, my manager at the time suggested that I try consulting, because of the diversity of opportunities that can follow.
It was good guidance. I worked at a few consulting firms and was surprised to notice that the itch for tech remained. I reached out to Track to try and pick up where I left off, but by that point they were no longer [laughs].
There were a number of other startups in my realm, though, so I started talking to tech companies who were looking for people with consulting backgrounds to help them solve a myriad of issues. I ended up working for a company called SinglePlatform. By the way, my title was “Solution Architect.” I still don't know what that fully means, but I got to solve complex problems within a startup environment.
RB: How did that startup, where you were doing data entry, even end up on your radar? Did you know what startups were, given that you had been looking at law school?
AL: At the time, I was actually looking for money, so I thought, "I'm a broke college student; I need to get paid." I went to our career website to see if anyone was hiring. They were not. So like anyone else in New York City at that time, I went to Craigslist.
I saw an hourly rate for data entry, clicked the link, sent an email, and got a conversation going with one of their co-founders. He basically said, "You'd come in, work 20 hours a week, and just fill in data. We'll give you rows and rows of it.” After a few interviews and they basically said, “great, when can you start?" That was my first foray into tech. I met a bunch of other people through that job who were in the space and kind of kept in touch over the years.
RB: That's wild. So it sounds like it was pure happenstance. You had no idea going in that this could be something cool.
AL: Yeah – that this is something cool and I can make money off of it, and there are lots of smart people trying to solve various types of problems. To get more investment, one of the main problems they were trying to figure out was what a company’s value proposition was, its background, who the company leaders were, and how to get in touch with them. Even though it didn’t quite work out for Track, it was cool to see what they were doing. And it allowed me to understand how many ways there were to try to get a startup to be successful.
RB: The other part I wanted to dive in about is that it seems like you're able to keep in contact with a lot of folks through your position at Track. Or at least, you had some sort of notion that network building was important. How did you approach that in your early career, and even as far back as your time in college?
AL: I'm fortunate in that, even early on in my career, I was never really shy about asking for help. I know it’s a point of difficulty or pride for a lot of people, or people think that they can figure it out on their own. I was not that person. I was actually like “I don’t know how to do this. Who can I talk to who might have suggestions?” My manager was a person I constantly asked, “is there a better way to do this?” I’d show her exactly how we were going about things and then we worked together to improve it.
After I left Track, my manager and I stayed in touch via LinkedIn. I really enjoyed my time with her, learning from her, watching her work and think. It was similar for other people in my early career. In college, even during my law internships, I'd say, "I don't know that I'm gonna be a lawyer, what are some of the things you love and dislike about this path?" Funnily enough, that was part and parcel to how I decided I didn't want to move forward with law. I had corporate attorneys tell me, they were working 90-hour weeks right out of school, and that law was a lifestyle commitment. Of course, I appreciate working hard, but I also felt like there must be another way.
Essentially, I made really good relationships with leaders in different industries and just kind of checked in on them, and then they would check in on me. I feel the mentor-mentee relationship goes two ways. And I was curious about them as humans, too, which is a really important foundation for any sort of relationship.
RB: Through Merit, I've had the chance to talk to many college students about networking. One of the things that comes up a lot is this feeling that they are asking for a lot when they reach out to someone for a conversation. How did you manage this feeling, if it ever came up for you? It sounds like you made these conversations as natural as possible, even when you — from a career or seniority level — didn’t have much to offer in return. How did you go about that?
AL: I think there's a misconception that you have to have something tangible, professionally, to offer folks then and there. But you never know what connections you might have or parts of your life might be relevant to a person — especially after a few years. There have certainly been people who once helped or advised me come back and ask for a small favor or some insight. It all evens out, I think, and you just have to be open to giving.
For example, one of my early mentors followed up with me recently and asked to be connected to my VP. My answer was an immediate, “absolutely, here you go.” This is almost a decade after we first met. So, it might not happen right away that you’re able to reciprocate, but it will happen eventually. And here's the other thing: not all of your mentors are looking for reciprocation. There are a lot of genuinely good people who just want to help, or pass on some help they received in their past. So don't go in with the intention of, "I have to pay this person back." Just be available, listen, take it on, pay it forward.
RB: What was the moment for you when you decided you wanted to change your career direction? You switched to consulting, then switched again. What is it like realizing that you want to do something different?
AL: It started happening for me my third or fourth year in consulting. I had had a bit of Goldie Locks journey with consulting, which was, "this firms too big; this one's too small. This one's... none of these are actually quite right." So eventually I realized that maybe it was consulting more broadly that just wasn’t cutting it. I actually very much loved my consulting experience, but what I found was that I was solving problems, but I wasn't always around to watch the evolution of the solutions that we built. I was always kinda "We solved this particular problem, or these problems, I wonder how this aged, in a year's time, two-year's time, three, four-year's time? How did they iterate and transform it?"
Around my third consulting year, I said to myself, "I'd really like to just kind of go in-house somewhere and, not just take something zero to one, but grow with it.” From there I got that Solutions Architect role at SinglePlatform, and it was the opportunity I had been looking for.
RB: So on the other hand, how do you stick with it? For example, you went through that “too big, too small” progression. There are a lot of folks who take a first job that doesn’t feel quite right, and then just leave the role or the field entirely. How do you know whether to see something through or make a change, and how did you manage this when you were starting out?
AL: I took everything as an opportunity to learn. I think a lot of times, to your point, I wanted a really specific thing. But maybe even more importantly, I knew that I needed to actually learn how to do… anything. Consulting gives you, I think, a great toolkit. But, using technology, working with different types of people and then building experiences for other humans, outside of a platform or an internal team: that's very different.
I watched other product people, saw what are they doing, how they approached problems. I thought about how what I had learned could by applied in different situations. In my mind, there's no such thing as the perfect gig. But there are always opportunities to learn, right? So often, things that feel uncomfortable or “not right” are moments to take everything in. Then you move on when you feel like you’ve done it.
Then I always think about, what have a learned already? What bit of experience do I have, is it applicable to the space I'm in or that I'm want to go to? If it's not applicable, is there value that I can create?
So when thinking about my dream job — what actually is right, I always do some self reflection and ask, “do I have relevant experience?" Yes, I might have an interest, but do I have enough, capacity to learn and get up to speed? And then, secondly, is it going to be useful not just to me, but to the organization? I always try to view it as, "what can I immediately add value to? How much ramp do I have to have to continue to add value and grow?" The third piece is: what's the immediate need of the business, right? Sometimes the organization needs a very specific set of skills.
RB: What I'm hearing is that it’s important to consider whether your core competencies match the core competencies expected. If they don’t, even if it’s your “dream job,” it might not be what’s right for you. But if you’re thoughtful about building your skills and expertise, and can match those to new jobs or career paths, then you can thrive.
RB: What were the biggest challenges you had going from the consulting world to product management? Not just delivering the solution, but actually, delivering specific value.
AL: It was a big difference. I would think for me one of the big transformations was that I was not just trying to to hit the deliverable and the date, I was now trying to achieve a certain outcome. To your point there are a lot of KPIs to keep tracking and move the needle on.
So I think that transformation was a little bit challenging for me, because I came in with the approach, “okay, I did the thing, it’s better than it was.” But the real question is, “it’s great for now, but what are you going to do next quarter to improve on it?” It's a constant evolution. I kind of had to go back to the drawing board. That framework I started out with needs to become a little bit more of a flywheel. What are the things affecting the flywheel day one, day 90, and in six months’ time? In becoming a proper PM, you're no longer just solving immediate problems for consultants. You have to bridge your roadmap to the long-term vision.
So that's the big shift: it's, no longer just tryin' to move the needle for this moment in time, it's doing it over time, for a year, two years. My old manager had this really good saying, "What have you done for me lately?" Right? That's the kinda thing you have to ask yourself as a PM, is "What have you done for me lately?" Your customers are asking you that, and your organization is asking you that. I’m just constantly working to answer that question.
RB: Switching gears: as a person of color, how did you make your way into these different spaces and different jobs? At Merit, we one of our goals is to make it easier for folks to build a network and a support system in industries where they might not see themselves represented. What was your journey like, with this in mind?
AL: I definitely knew to expect this as I was building my career. Very candidly, I’ve always been one of the few people of color in many of the spaces I’ve worked in. Since I sort of expected this, I think I’ve been more disappointed that there wasn’t more being done to open up pathways for people of more diverse backgrounds.
I do appreciate that, the circumstances around George Floyd really put a massive magnifying glass on the DEI issues. Organizations attempted lots of transformation around this time, but I was disappointed that it took something so massively disruptive to drive that type of change. I’ll also say that change doesn’t really happen unless it's at the leadership level. I’m continually disappointed that middle management doesn’t really harness the power to find more avenues to bring in diverse talent.
But I will say there's been progress. Platforms like Merit, the groups like Black Product Management, Black Product Managers, and a few others have helped make space where there typically is none. We're starting to show up. I'm very happy that at least, towards the mid-phase of my career, I'm seeing more opportunity. Particularly when I speak to people early in their careers, I can share three or four things that didn’t exist for me but will be helpful for them.
I also want to mention that retention matters. It's one thing to say you’re building a pipeline and talking to HBCUs, or that there is a new DEI lens as part of recruitment. But it’s another thing to ask how to keep diverse talent. Companies need to consider how they make their staff feel safe, and like their voices are heard.
RB: I’m curious what you’ve been seeing in terms of funding for founders from underrepresented groups, particularly Black founders. Is there anything you want to see change in that ecosystem as it continues to develop and expand?
Adrian: I've seen an improvement in deal flow, with more Black founders are becoming visible. I think certain organizations are investing more and more in Black founders because they realize there is a gap. We know that there has historically been a disproportionate amount of money going to white founders as compared to Black founders. People are starting to recognize this.
And I think the VC firms are trying to correct for that imbalance, which is good. There's still more that can be done. But I will say, I am happy that there is progress and I am glad that there are more opportunities both for folks who want to angel invest and Black investors like myself, who want to participate.
RB: Lastly, do you have any advice for someone starting a career in tech?
AL: Definitely, and I think they are all connected.
First thing is to be open-minded. I think, you're early in your career, you're in tech, you're breaking in. Tech is one of those unique things, where's there's more than one way to solve a problem and you'll quickly find that out. And you can come into the industry from many different starting points. You just have to prove why your skills match the role you’re interested in, and then you get on track.
The second thing I would say is to always be learning. It's kind of related to the open mind, but it's slightly different. Tech is constantly evolving and I think it's really important for you to keep an eye on what's happening in the industry. There are things you're gonna learn, there are new things coming out all the time. You need to consider how they relate to your own career experiences and maybe how you can take advantage new technologies.
The last thing is to be curious, ask lots of questions. I think a lot of people are intimidated or are shy about asking questions or don't feel comfortable. There's no such thing as a dumb question, so ask away. When you connect with people, know you’re a beginner, and be confident.
And I think that's the culture in tech: we might not always have the answers, but we'll find a way together. And I think most crucially, you don't have to know everything, but if you collaborate, be curious, have an open mind, ask questions, and work with folks, then you'll find your way forward.
If you have more questions for Adrian, you can schedule a mentorship session with him on Merit! Check out his profile below.