The Dude is sitting here, pondering life with a spiked cuppa jo’ this Sunday morning, wondering about compensation and product management.
As he sips again at the dark liquid of life, he recalls a conversation he had with a rising product manager a couple of years ago. This person contacted the Dude to inquire about a job change. They weren’t dissatisfied with their current gig, but they had an offer with a 12% pay raise, and wanted to know what they should do.
Hmmm, this got the Dude thinking on how long it had been since he changed jobs for more money, and that leads to the term “Topping Out”.
HR (Human Resources) departments at medium to large companies have worked to standardize categorization of roles and capabilities into a series of codes. The one that I am familiar with are the Radford codes. Radford specialized in technology workers, but I would bet my bottom dollar that there is a similar structure for other industries.
These codes are generated via a series of surveys of employers, and the results are distilled into a set of codes that relate to the job title, the skill level, and the pay range.
This is how when they move you from say Phoenix, a relatively low cost area to San Jose, a high cost area, they know that they should give you 17% more pay for that transition (which, I can assure you is not enough…)
More important is the level within the job code (sometimes is is like “Marketing Manager I, through Marketing Manager IV” or it is novice, intermediate, expert. That is often a specific HR departments contribution to the implementation, something to “make it theirs”.
Each one of these job code and job level will have a minimum, median, maximum pay scale. If you are below the median, adjusted for your locale, and your industry, you can expect regular pay raises.
However, once you hit one mil over that median, you are pretty much assured to not get annual pay raises. The median is the salary they will pay someone else to join to take your place when you quit. (I am sure hrnasty would argue this, but at the last three companies I was at, when I was managing employees, this was the explicit policy from HR to managers.)
Im many ways it is a good thing to have some normalcy in HR, and classifying your staff.
Where does this leave Product Management?
I am getting there. First, there isn’t really a “Product Management” role (nb: It has been a few years since I had access to a current Radford survey, I had a really cool HR person once), likely due to the nebulous definition of the role. So it gets grafted into something that sounds similar. The closest I saw was “Product Marketing”, but the description for that was much more of a marketing communication role.
Of course, for the absent minded HR person, it is all too easy to just call them “Project Manager” and be done with it. Groan. Unfortunately, while some of the “herding cats” part of product management sound like project management, it is a lot more than project management. And project management pay scales are way too low for a quality product manager.
If you are lucky you are likely a “Marketing Manager”, or something above “Product Marketing”, and you have pay scales that make sense.
Assuming you are mid career, you are probably at level 2 or 3, and you are getting consistent pay increases. You stop worrying about it. Until you get that promotion to level 4 (or whatever the top level is). Suddenly the pay increases slow, or even stop. And you wonder what the hell happened. You are still getting good reviews, and you know you are doing a great job. but you have hit a wall.
Escape From The Edge
I have been above the midpoint, in the highest code for product management since 2007 or so.
Yes, that means that (apart from this relocation), I have not had a pay or salary increase since 2007, even though I have changed jobs 3 times since then.
So when someone wanted to know whether they should take a new job because it was a 15% pay increase, I really had no good advice, having given up on ever expecting to see a pay increase.
The global financial crisis certainly had some bearing on this practice by companies, the fear of being unemployed would keep employees content to not have a pay increase. However, the codification, and formulaic approach to pay and HR practices have been underway since the 1990′s.
If you find yourself topped out, and if your manager is an ally (not always the case) you might find a path to a different code. Or thy might be willing to go up to bat to increase you beyond the midpoint, but regardless, you will eventually need to move to a different role.
This is when many good product managers make the jump to consultant.
I could probably go on for many thousands of words on how rigid HR policies damage the progress of a product manager’s career, how it measures the wrong things, and praises the (easier to measure) worthless attributes. Product management as a role is still a slippery entity to categorize rigidly. Different companies have different needs, and a great product manager is a master of adaptation, bringing success at all stages.
It is this uncertainty in definition and practice that leads to the ambiguity of the management of product management.