A week ago, I celebrated the 58th complete trip around the Sun, and I took that as an opportunity to reflect on the changes in the business, and the field of product. I am in the middle of drafting a post on how product management is becoming very technocratic, but there is no doubt that the proliferation of purpose built tools, and supporting applications have lowered the bar of entry into product management.
That is the least of the concerns that I was reflecting upon.
The Early Years
Having first ventured into the field of product management in 1998, when I took a role as a Product Marketing Manager for a CD-SEM (Critical Dimension, Scanning Electron Microscope). Prior to that, I spent a few years as an Application Engineer in a small company that made measuring microscopes that had a strong play in photolithography. I was recruited for my domain knowledge, but it was a toehold into the realm of Product Management.
Of course, back then the state of the art, and the state of general product management knowledge was far smaller than today. Books on product management were from the CPG1 domain, and were more business oriented, and frankly more of brand management.
There was one training class that was relevant, offered by SEMI and it was really tailored to the semiconductor equipment industry. I took it, and it was helpful, but not really great.
This was pre-Google, and at the time the entire index of the public internet would fit on a CD-ROM. Yeah, that really was a thing. Crazy, right?
Somehow, I grew into the role, and got a front row seat on how marketing and product were not just related, but intrinsically intertwined, each needing the other to really function.
But I did learn a LOT from this stop on my career arc.
- B2B products are unique, and at the time the bulk of the literature was focused on B2C (in fact, I am not sure that B2B was even in the vernacular in 1998). This made it a challenge to understand, but I learned how to think outside the box, and not to be constrained.
- Marketing is not evil. In fact, success in product management demands that you understand markets, segments, and the strategy to address the needs of the market
- You sell to people. Understanding their motivations to buy, what problems they experience, and how you can solve those problems is the path to success.
- Engineers are not your natural enemy. Learning enough to talk to them will build bridges and create trust.
I also learned a few less good things.
- Funding is often directed to the team that has the best presentation, not the best chance of success (and in fact, nobody seems to ever revisit their pitch deck against actual performance)
- Great products do fail, while lousy products can succeed wildly for seemingly silly reasons
- Politics are unavoidable in product. You are the fulcrum between engineering marketing, operations, finance, and management. You will spend too damn much time coddling fragile egos
- You had better be pretty damn good at training sales teams. Unless you work for a company with only one product (pretty rare), you need to make your product easy to sell, and that means you need to get salespeople excited to sell it. You don’t get that unless you make the product compelling, and you can show them how they can retire quota, and rack up huge commission checks. You need to be a great pitchman.
These have been proven true over and over.
Not going to lie, by 2007 or so, I was beginning to feel pigeon-holed. I was good at my job, and in an alcohol fueled moment of candor, my boss told me that he would promote me, except that he knew that he couldn’t replace me. He could get a headcount, but the breadth and depth of my knowledge, the relationships I had built with key customers and the sales channel were too valuable for him to “fuck it up” by promoting me.
That was a giant kick in the balls. If I was less competent, I probably could have advanced my career. How does your ego recover from that gut-shot?
The only good thing that happened in this time frame was the rise of social media, and my finding other kindred spirits, product managers who were fumbling around in the dark, trying to make sense of the world we lived in. When I discovered some of the elder statesmen (and women) of product on Twitter, and in the blogosphere, it was cathartic. We were able to grouse together, to do some bench-racing2 and share stories - not only the feel good ones, but also when it went tits-up.
And that felt like home. It gave me hope that there was a community, and that we had many shared experiences. This is why I really got hooked on Twitter and kept coming back, even when it became less useful.
Frankly, post 2009, there were several turns and stops on my career that were interesting, but not really moving in a good direction at all times.
I bailed on the industrial measurement and test, dove into enterprise communications software. These were interesting diversions, but ultimately unsatisfying.
What did I want?
In 2012 or so, I had a come to Jesus moment. I was in a rut, what I was doing was good work, but it felt so transactional, and I was somewhat adrift. Sure, I had authority, a fantastic development team, and the company made good money on my products. But was I fulfilled? Did I think I was doing my life’s work?
But, then again, at several times during my career, I had crossed the threshold to managing people, and that was sub-optimal for a variety of reasons, chief among them that I was more of a doer, rather than a delegator. But also each time I was “promoted” to people manager, I never really was able to back fill my current role, so it was just mounding more responsibilities, and not giving me space to really be a manager.
I hated (and still hate) managing people.
So, stepping into a management role is not appealing to me.3 At all.
I finally realized that the brass rings in my career are done, that there were no further rungs for me on the ladder, and that being proficient as an individual contributor is not a bad thing.
I am at peace.
I have a good job, doing meaningful work, I have great peers, and I work with three development teams that pretty much kick ass. I like the people I work with.
I could do with a wee bit less politics, but it is not terrible.
I have avoided many instances of pressure to step into a management role (mainly because I do not want to leave my current employer, and I know that accepting that promotion will lead to a departure).
No, I am good, I am hopeful to last 6 more years until I can retire.
The Coming Storm
Time for Swami Anderson to place his clenched fist upon his turban and predict…
The Commoditization of the Product Manager Role is going to dilute the power and influence of the role. It is great that tools and teachable best practice skills are here to improve the processes of product management. But I am seeing many people without a well grounded understanding of the role and domains they work in using these skills and tools to outsource the knowledge and synthesis of the tasks to stakeholders, and becoming facilitators, rather than leaders. This is not terrible, but it means that as time goes on, the value of product management moves to the periphery, rather than in the product manager.
This shift in power makes it more likely that the role itself becomes less “special” and more rote.
AI is Going to Fuck Things Up - Product management was long the focal point, the axis about which the product and the organization coexisted. That meant that there was something special in the product manager - some mojo if you will - that accelerates the whole process. Leaders spent good money on a role (product manager) because they demonstratively were able to see, touch, feel the value from the role. The proceduralized product manager using tools and being more of a facilitator is going to be combined with AI tools to fill in the analytical gaps that a former deep domain knowledge product manager brought and allow companies to hire these “thin” product managers as fresh outs, to combine their tool savviness, with a machine intelligence to round out the activities.
While the AI’s today are prone to hallucinations, it is clear that as the training sets and parameters get tweaked, a lot of my special sauce that I learned over 2+ decades in a variety of roles will no longer be valuable.
Furthermore, the more procedural product people will find that their ability to advance the ranks will be stunted, because the secret sauce will be automated. Their value to the org will be the role of facilitator and aggregator, and less analytical.
I know this is dark, but it is coming. As an example, one of my activities is to create short, medium, and long descriptions for the trainings we build (technically not a PM role, but I am good at it and like doing it). It takes me about 10 minutes to write these and validate the length(s).
Let’s assume that a mid-level marketing person does the job as well, and spends the same 10 minutes to complete this. If their fully burdened4 salary is $120 an hour, then that 10 minutes of activity costs about $20.
One of my developers built a tool that automatically submits the course outline to ChatGPT, with the request to produce 25, 50, 125 word summaries, and a full description of the course. It takes about 7 seconds, and since we are paying for the service, the API token to accomplish this costs $0.01, all at the push of a button.
Expect businesses to squeeze a lot of costs out of marketing and product management in the coming years.
Product Management has been good to me, even if I have been incredibly pessimistic about it at times. It has been an interesting, exciting, and completely unpredictable career arc, and I have been blessed with the opportunities that it afforded me.
I just worry that my experience is not really going to be possible in the future. Will there be a similar arc, or will product management devolve into two roles, an MBA sort that really isn’t close to the product, and a tactical role, more akin to a facilitator and tool user that is closer to a project manager?
I do not know, but the world is a changin’.
If I was in college today, I am not sure I would look to Product Management as the career to shoot for, and that makes me sad5.
Consumer Packaged Goods ↩
Bench Racing is the post race bullshitting session over beers at whatever watering hole is convenient ↩
Fun fact: the people I managed universally tell me that I was one of the best managers they ever had. Too bad I got so little support from my leaders to be successful. Every time I got that bump, I was out within 6-9 months, as the stress took a toll on my health and sanity ↩
Fully burdened salary is the hourly rate of pay, plus all the incidental expenses, like technology (laptop, etc), benefits, bonus, etc. It is often 2X to 3X the base rate. ↩
To be honest, I am still of the camp that product managers are made, not trained, that you need to grow into it via roles that connect with customers, and develop the empathy needed to understand the unmet needs, and how to address them. No tool is going to replace that.