Management/ Product Management

Topping Out – Product Management Compensation

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”.

The Background

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.

Product Management

Faith Based Product Development

Something I have experienced far too often is something I call faith based product development.

It is not religion, per se, but it has a lot of similarities. Mostly, it is a combination of unrealistic expectations from senior management (like: It will be done in July, and we will be shipping in volume by September) mismatched with the reality on the ground (hence: ohmyfuckinggod, we can’t solve this killerproblem, and unless we do, we won’t sell any of them). This impedance mismatch would be funny if it wasn’t so painful.

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Product Management

Teaching Sales to Fish

get-off-my-lawnOne thing that has never ceased to amaze me is that no matter how much effort you put into making information available, sales will continue to ask you the same questions over and over (and over it seems).

We have data sheets, spec sheets, detailed product description text, and even “gasp” manuals that have things like weights, dimensions, and performance limits. Is it too much to expect them to go look it up?

Apparently it is. It seems that about half my inbound emails are questions that are answered with a quick referral to the documentation (that ALL sales gets during training, and have access to on the servers). As I pull my hair out, trying REALLY hard to not lash out, I try to think back to when I was a clueless noob. And you know what?  I never was. I knew where to look (even before Google existed), and I never asked petty questions to the people. It was always far better to learn to fish, than to have a fish handed to me.

But today? With enormous volumes of data at your fingertips, the new generation can’t be bothered to seek the knoweldge, but they expect someone to be on hand to dish it out (me that is).

GET OFF MY LAWN, dammit.

Marketing/ Product Management

Dammit Jim, I’m not a Surgeon, I’m a Product Manager

Being a product manager is not for the faint of heart. We never get credit when things go well, but we sure catch hell for every slight that goes on. Today is one such day.

A sales engineer (and I use the term “engineer” loosely) sends a message. We are competing for some government bid, and because we don’t have a specific specification listed on our printed collateral, we are at a disadvantage. And he has the gall to throw the competitor’s brochure in my face (as if I had never seen it).

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Product Management

Unrealistic Expectations from Sales

I am in deep product launch mode. Planning for a roll out in the next 6 weeks. The culmination of almost 4 years of engineering and design effort, we are finally within sight of the goal posts. A good feeling, even if I am staring at a chaotic period coming (note: I will probably not be drafting any blog updates until this is in the bag).

Yesterday, we had a meeting with the sales leadership to outline what they expect to see in our training and education efforts. Not surprising, they have unrealistic expectations of what we will and won’t be at launch. It isn’t as though we have not attempted to manage expectations and curb unrealistic exuberance during this lengthy development program. But alas, it has fallen on deaf ears.

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Product Management

Friends Don’t Let Friends Become Product Managers

This is a post I have been dying to write for a long time. I am not sure I will ever post it, but here goes.

A common question asked of product managers, whether it is peers who approach you in the hallway, or if you are talking to people at a university is “how do I become a product manager”. In fact there was a question on Quora recently about if a fresh college graduate could get a product managment job.

If you read the community buzz, you can excuse people for thinking that product management is a glorious position, and that you will be showered with accolades wherever you go. They will read about the cult of product at Apple in the Steve Jobs era, and want to dive into that sphere. Blogs from the opinion leaders like Saeed Kahn, Scott Selhorst, and others are cheery, happy places.

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Product Management

The Day of Reckoning – Product Management Joy

There is that day in every project that inevitably arrives. The day that engineering tells you that they can’t do something that was committed to. This is pretty universal in hardware product development efforts, and is to be expected. But that doesn’t make it pleasant.

For my current project, the first day of reckoning was last night. Engineering admitted that one of the tasks they took on (in fact one that they added to the program) was a lot more effort than they expected, and requires expertise that is not in house. Fortunately, it is not something that the market demands, so I am not crushed by the deletion, but it is still annoying.

How it all begins

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Product Management

Pissing Off Product Management – Senior Management

Last post was about the ways that Sales finds to really tick off product management. However, sales is hardly unique in their ability to interfere and interrupt the product management role. Sales might have a loud voice and some big sticks, but senior management can be far more deleterious on the health of a program or project.

That they can really stick in the craw of product management is not obvious on the surface, and in fact can be completely hidden from the rest of the organization, but that hardly makes it less annoying or damaging.

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Product Management

Pissing Off Product Management – Sales

A topic on Quora a while back was a tongue in cheek how to piss off a product manager. I naturally have my own list. Product management, being at the center of so much of an organization’s activity, and power flow, we clearly can affect much of what happens.

In general, product managers are unflappable, bearing good and bad news with aplomb. But sometimes, people go out of their way to really piss us off. How many of the following do you agree with:

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Marketing/ Product Management

The Sales Conundrum – New Products

Ask 10 sales people why they struggle to get the order, and at least 9 of them will say that it’s because “we don’t have new products”. Not a surprise really. But then when you do launch a new product (and it is really a new product, not BNG*) they continue selling exclusively the older products.

We just launched a new product. One that had been in development for 4 years, and it is a vastly better product and platform for the future. We have a pipeline of improvements to add to this product, and enough high impact extensions to power the next three years. Awesome you say?

But I just went on a few sales calls almost two months post launch, and not once did I see our sales team talk about the new product to prospects.

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