Every product manager gets to a point in their career where they want to move on to something new. Perhaps the challenge at your current job has been conquered. Or things are too mundane. Or, the senior leaders have started going in a direction that you aren’t happy with. Fortunately, there are a fairly steady stream of open positions in tech for product managers, both at small and medium organizations as well as large companies. But what will you find when you walk in? There are a few likely scenarios that seem fairly consistent across the board.
You, an experienced product manager, are attracted to a new position. Money, fame, rockstar status are all within reach. You just have to right a shaky ship.
First, you can expect that they have been operating without a product manager for some period of time. How long that is will vary, but the search for a good product manager will take some time (unless you are @richmironov with a deep rolodex of awesome talent).
A lot will slip in that period of rudderless navigation. What will you be walking into? Fortunately, you can glean a lot from your interview process, and from researching the organization. However, some facts will likely be hidden from the outside. A future post will have tips on how to ferret out information to help identify the situation on the ground.
I have experienced all the above scenarios in my various career steps, so I figured that I would share my experiences to those inquisitive minds.
This organization will already know the value of good product management. When there is a vacancy, someone who is almost a product manager may step in to try to keep things working. Could be a program manager, or a project manager, but I have seen strong support people begin to pull strings as well (if you have someone like that, who dives in and starts making progress, you have a budding product manager in your midst. Encourage it, mentor them, and bring them into the fold). This person will try to keep the pieces moving in the right direction, but will (rightly) resist or avoid making any major course corrections or decisions. This will be possible because such an organization will have a real roadmap, and a general alignment of engineering effort towards delivering on the roadmap.
Provided the period of rudderless-ness is less than 6 months, you will probably find things in OK shape.
No champion steps in, and engineering, finding themselves unfettered, starts to structurally alter the plans. They were always suspicious of product management and marketing not knowing what they know. The parts of the roadmap that they didn’t agree with get prioritized low (or dropped altogether), and new “cool stuff” starts getting added at the top of the list. Often an engineering program manager or director of engineering will be leading this path. The true hazard is that it tears the roadmap to shreds, and when they finally hire a product manager (and it will take a long time, as good candidates will realize the mess and will withdraw from consideration), there will be a pretty brutal transition period when the new product manager wrests control from engineering. To be successful, this product manager needs to hit the ground running, and have enough gravitas to grab the reins.
Often, this lack of a product manager will last for more than a year. In really drastic cases, they will have gone through 2 outside recruiters, 5 or 6 really strong candidates, made offers to 2 or 3, all declined, you know that the candidates have figured this out. The organization is in serious danger of reverting to being engineering lead.
Places like this might never get a good product manager in the doors. They will likely settle for a second or third tier (or, worse, a first time in the role) product manager. Unfortunately, with out a top tier product manager, they will likely never recover. One company that I interviewed at was like this. They went through 5 product managers in under 7 years. All relocated to the area, and then terminated at fairly high cost shortly thereafter.
Most likely case
Picture if you will: A medium sized organization. Maybe they had formal product management in the past, or realized they need it. They know what to look for (they have hired someone like aforementioned Rich Mironov or one of the plethora of product management consultancies to help with the search/transition). If there already has been a product manager, you have a well oiled machine for gathering requirements from the market, and packaging it to the engineering team. The engineering team recognizes the value of product management, and doesn’t try to fill the void by re-asserting control. Usually this requires some executive intervention.
It will still take some time to recruit and hire a good product manager. Expect 3 – 6 months, and a a few rounds of interviews for the top candidates before they choose you. There will be some level of chaos, but it will not be overwhelming. Expect to spend a lot of time putting processes and discipline in place. Undoubtedly, at the beginning you will be nearly 100% tactical, but that isn’t a terrible thing. You will build lots of relationships in this time, and bank a lot of karma.
There may or may not be a good strategy planning process. If not, make sure you get a seat at the table in the planning. Your prior experience will become immensely valuable, and you will begin to build trust relationships with senior leaders.
This post rambled a bit, and I am sorry. I really wanted to write about joining a company and taking over a product that had been associated with product management (the part II of “Tale of two Products" but it went into the direction of what you will likely find at a new product management job.
Product managers are a unique breed. Yes, there are some training classes, and some certs, but reality is product managers are forged in the crucible of creating awesome, market pleasing products.
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