The Versatile Product Manager
Why product managers should be working in different markets and expertise and why companies should be looking for such product managers.
Too many times, companies look for an exact match of a product manager’s experience with the company’s market or for a very technical product manager that can get very deep into engineering work. While these requirements are not bad by themselves, it is much more important to have a competent product manager than that product manager having the exact market or technology pre-experience.
The same goes for product managers themselves. While it is very nice and comfortable to stay and continue doing the things you already know, if you want to develop yourself and become a master of product management you need to get out of your comfort zone and jump between different type of companies, different type of tech technologies and different type of markets.
It is not necessarily bad to have product managers that already know the market. However, there is also a disadvantage. If your entire team only knows your market and have never experienced other markets, you risk a thought process of stagnation. You reduce the chance of benefiting from ideas that flourish in other markets and it might be unlikely that your team will come with breakthrough ideas that disrupt the market.
For product managers that already have experience in different markets, learning a new market usually take only a few months. While they learn the market they usually ask a lot of laymen questions that can highlight areas in which disruption can happen.
They can also bring methodologies that can help a company try new things. A B2C product manager can bring a B2B product, methodologies of optimizations and analytics, while a B2B product manager may bring a B2C product, an experience of juggling prioritization and very technological understanding.
I encourage companies to try and make their product management team as diverse as they can with different expertise from different markets.
I encourage product managers to do the same. Don’t stay in the same market all your career. Try to work in different markets.
Try Different Sizes
The same goes for company types. A product manager work in a big and mature company with mature products is so much different than a product manager work in a startup that is still looking for a product market fit.
It requires different characteristics as a product manager excelling in these different environments. A job in Google, Facebook or Amazon is so much different from work in a startup.
As a product manager it’s best to try all of the options. At the end you may find yourself preferring specific environments, but having the experience from different cultures strengthen you and give you an edge over other product managers..
Be a Generalist
Should a product manager have a very deep marketing, UX or engineering background?
It is very important for product managers to understand enough in all areas they touch. They must understand user experience, technology, business, marketing, legal and more areas enough to be able to judge work done in this area.
But don’t confuse understanding with expertise. If you expect your product manager to solve engineering problems instead of the development team, handle the user experience instead of a professional UX and UI team, you rob all sides of their ability to deliver a great product.
The product manager becomes too busy in the daily tasks and does not have the time to think strategy, maintain focus and look on the big picture. You also don’t necessarily get the best expert for each task and compromise on quality. And finally, you prevent your other parts of the team from thinking and innovating.
Think like a CEO
Ben Horowitz wrote Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager, in which he claimed that the product manager is the CEO of the product. While many claim that a product manager cannot be the CEO because he does not have the absolute control of the resources and authority, the essence and the metaphor is still right. Product managers should care and think as though they are the CEO of the product.
Marty Cagan describes it in a different way in Owner vs Employee, in which he describes why a product manager must think and behave like an owner.
The message is clear. As a product manager, you must consider every aspect of the product and work to solve any issue. Such attitude requires quite a bit of versatility.
There is no question in my mind that as a company if you can get a product manager that knows your market, has very deep knowledge in marketing, user experience and technology and is also a very competent product manager, you should take them.
But if you need to choose between a competent product manager that needs to learn the market and rely on engineering and others to give them the advice when needed vs a product manager that is inexperienced but knows your market, you should take the competent product manager.
You should always prefer product management skills and right attitude over a narrow knowledge of the domain. The first is hard to acquire, while the latter is easy to catch up.
Being able to focus the team, handle priorities, handle customer feedback and other day to day things that product managers do are things that for an inexperienced product manager will take years. On the other hand, an experienced product manager can learn a new market or new technology in just a few months.
And if you are a product manager make sure you get a vast experience as you can. Don’t stay in one place and one methodology. Learn them all so you can choose later what best works for you.