Friends Don't Let Friends Become Product Managers

When asked how to join the ranks of product management, my first instinct is to dissuade them from the profession.

This is a post the Dude has been dying to write for a long time. He wasn't sure he 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.

Then there are the consultants. People from 280-Group, Pragmatic Marketing, Brainmates and others. Tales of huge successes, and how they turn around organizations around fill the blogosphere. Training courses to increase the skills of junior product managers and product marketers are glitzy, and well honed, delivered with an eye to trying to score a professional services engagement, in the guise of “deploying” their theories. (NB: The folks I interact with from these orgs are top notch, and great assets, don't read this as a knock.)

At the end of the day though, new product managers learn that even with all these great templates and ideas, they have to go back to the reality of their organization. And that organization is likely somewhat dysfunctional, the role will still be poorly defined, and the expectations of what they will do will not match up that well to the ephemeral Pragmatic Framework. The truth is, product management morphs to whatever is needed by the organization. If the powers that be want you to manage the ERP configurations, or they value you being used worldwide to close orders, or to buy the developers coffee, you will do it. All the “we need to be strategic” mottos go out the door when you are tossed into the tactical morass.

Where to go?

So you become a junior product manager, you have some success, you get exposure (good and bad) to execs, so you progress. You get to drop the 'junior'. You become a “go to” person. If you are in a good place you will climb the ladder, but often you will need to move around (between companies) to get real progress. The jobs are out there, and recruiters will find you. Finally, you are senior. You have the chops and the reputation. But what comes next on the career ladder is not obvious. The fact is, there aren’t that many true director or higher roles in product management. Partly this is because it often reports directly to either a GM or into a Marketing or Engineering director. And product management is not a good breeding ground for great marketers. (if you report into engineering, my sympathies)

Some places will just promote product managers to the title of “Director of Product Management”. In fact, at my last job, we had a product management summit meeting with about 85 product managers and product marketers in the room. Virtually everybody in the room had a director title. I struck up conversations, because I knew that many of the business units were small, and these were my peers. And it dawned on me that most of these directors of product management had no staff. No junior product managers, no senior product managers. Maybe a technical product manager (which was really a “product owner” but they were so junior they needed to ask permission to go to the loo), but they were the product manager in fact, if not in title.

Sadly, this is not uncommon. Senior product managers get to a point where they max out their HR set pay scale (I hate radford, whoever the hell they are). So the only way to give them a raise is to elevate their title. So there are many largish companies with directors that have no direct reports. Whacky. Add to that the fact that even large companies are organized to smallish business units, there often isn’t a need for more than a couple of real product managers per BU.

So, you have put a decade into the role, you get to a point where you have seen just about everything, and you know how to cherry-pick the best of the competing frameworks, where do you go?

As I mentioned before, there aren’t enough true product leader positions to evolve into. You might be happy with the title, and the paycheck, but a time comes when you tire of fighting the same battles alone. So you look for a rung up in the corporate world. A General Manager role, or if you prefer, a VP role in marketing is not out of the question.

Sidebar: One word of caution, if there is a leader’s role (GM, VP Marketing, etc) at your current company, and you are offered it, you probably shouldn’t take it. Chances are that there is enough institutional memory of you being the go-to guy, that it will continue added to your new, expansive role. Take the Dude's advice and move to a new company, otherwise all your old tasks and responsibilities will still be expected of you, regardless of how you try to delegate them.

There are other options open to a good senior product manager. You can become a consultant, and try your hand as a hired gun. Pragmatic, the 280-Group, and others are always looking to expand their ranks. That might give you enough exposure to go it solo.

Or you might want to look to the corner office. Product Management is an excellent training ground for a GM or a business unit manager. Get the P&L, and the responsibility that you have been working towards. But like true product leader positions, there aren’t that many chances to make this jump.

Or you can just move to new places and solve new problems (which are often just refactored problems you have seen before).

In my case, I know I don’t want that corner office. I know that I am not a good “executive” candidate (Dir or VP of Product). And I can’t take the consultant route (pre-existing health condition that pretty much would screw me if the jokers in congress are ever successful at repealing the ACA). So I am trapped. And after 15 years of this, I sometimes wish I was dead. I just happen to be very good at what I do, and even when I try to get away from it, I get pulled back in.

The Punchline

And that folks, is why I try to discourage folks from joining this profession. It is thankless. It has too few good next rungs on the career ladder, and it will soak the life right out of you while you watch. You will be blamed for all that is bad. You will be vilified for making the right but unpopular decision. When you hit a home run, everyone else will take credit. You will help sales people blow away their quota and rake in huge bonuses and commissions, but at best they will buy you a beer and a steak. Executives will pressure you into traveling halfway around the world to force signoff on a system to make the quarter’s revenue targets. And you will likely drink yourself to sleep too many nights to count.

Yep, product management is a glamorous career. Right up there with drug addict.

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