The Product Management Industrial Complex
By Peter Clark
I started shipping software (as a founder) in 2010, and it took me until late 2013 to become aware that "Product Manager" was an actual job — I discovered this job after my startup was acquired by AdRoll and I suddenly had that job title. I actually spent the first 6 months militantly describing myself as "Product Designer" because I simply couldn't comprehend what a Product Manager did. (Eventually my colleagues mocked me so much for referring to myself as a designer that I decided to change it.)
Back then Product Management wasn't a particularly glamorous job because working in software wasn't a particularly glamorous career. Sure people were aware of companies like Facebook shipping great products and reaping the rewards, but it wasn't the defacto career path for university graduates.
Over time, this changed — not only were more people starting startups, but more people were studying computer science, and generally people were more aware that the technology industry was a pretty wonderful sector to work in.
In 2007, a lot of the people I went to university with (technical and not) went into a few well established career tracks — banking, consulting or law. Over time technology not only became one of the tracks but increasingly feels like it became the norm.
The challenge with the technology track is that most people are not technical — so what career are they going to have in technology?
Product Management is perfectly nebulous. It doesn't require that you be technical, or have any specific tangible skills — as such the role has become a defacto path for graduates. It's easy to wax lyrical in an interview about how you'd use data and talk to customers and make sure you're communicating proactively.
It's easy to explain how having an MBA allows you to "MECE" your way to PMF. (as a side note, I was introduced to MECE by some ex-McKinsey graduates at Juul, and with all due respect, I would love to see a Product Manager actually "MECE" something in a vaguely useful way.)
The problem with this shift is that, well, you just do not actually need that many Product Managers. A talented senior Product Manager can easily collaborate and lead two engineering teams — the ratio of engineers:PMs could easily be 10:1.
Similarly PMs rapidly realised that there simply wasn't much career advancement. Perhaps like myself (and many others) you're satisfied simply shipping great code and enjoying great compensation, but for many people they have a desire to expand job titles and become managers. (Ugh!)
Suddenly there's an Associate Product Manager career path — if you're a Principle Product Manager you can now mentor and manage an APM! — and Group Product Managers to ensure that the singular Director of Product role isn't seen as a career cap.
Suddenly Product Managers are spending a huge amount of time talking about things like product management frameworks and tools.
Suddenly there are Product Management conferences, blogs and podcasts!
I think it's wonderful to see the field mature and become more accessible. But I think with this maturity has come a distraction from what Product Managers are supposed to do. In a world where designers are more technical than ever before, where engineers are closer to product capabilities (and customers!) than ever before — what is the actual role of a Product Manager?
Suddenly it feels like Product Managers are far more focussed on keeping the ships sailing on time rather than ensuring the ships are sailing in the right direction.
Keeping the ships sailing on time is an incredibly valuable duty of Product Managers — but the primary purpose of Product Managers is to drive business outcomes (revenue, metrics) by deploying software.
It increasingly feels like we are starting to see a reckoning within the technology sector against Product Managers — companies are looking around and realising that wait-a-minute, why do we have so many Product Managers? and they're in how many meetings a week?!
My advice to companies is to be increasingly reluctant about having Product Manager sprawl. And my advice to Product Managers is to become an exceptionally well rounded Product Manager — capable of leading sales calls, designing in Figma, understanding and writing SQL, documenting product specifications in a beautifully discrete manner, and ensuring you're a force multiplier.