Product Careers Shouldn’t be Left to Chance

The product management problem we see today is different to the one we saw 10 or more years ago.

10 years ago many product managers were still trying to find their footing. Now we have access to amazing product management content, books, training courses and people who can help you become a better product manager. Rather today we see the product management problem as an organisational one. Some organisations are, perhaps unintentionally, preventing product people from doing great work – we wondered, who’s solving that problem?

Over the last decade, product management has been more widely adopted and practised in organisations. One could argue that product management has managed to ‘cross the chasm’ and move into the majority adopters.

One challenge this brings is that many companies begin to hire product managers without fully understanding what the function and role actually are. Some companies may adopt a different interpretation of product management, and try to wedge this function into their existing organisational structure. This leads to many ill-defined product roles. Trying to navigate the vast array of role titles and descriptions as an individual product manager is time-consuming, challenging, and frustrating.

During a series of interviews with product managers in 2020, we learned that many product managers spend a large portion of their time when they look for roles deciphering job descriptions and determining what type of product manager the company is actually looking for – is it truly a product manager or do they really just want a delivery manager?

We heard stories of product managers who took a new role only to find themselves no longer doing meaningful product work. Often these product managers felt trapped. They didn’t want to leave their new role out of fear that it would reflect badly on their CV but staying in this environment made them unhappy. We heard “I never want to work for a company like that again” time and time again. Feeling like you’re held captive in unfriendly product environments isn’t just frustrating, it has a lasting negative impact on product management careers.

Unfortunately, some product managers have never had the opportunity to work in ‘good product' environments. They do pseudo product management, churning out feature after feature at the behest of a few executives. The decision making is central rather than distributed. Product managers who work in these environments may be at a disadvantage when they apply for new product roles. It may be difficult for them to compete for true product jobs as they may not have had the opportunity to perform some of the more strategic product tasks such as problem discovery or opportunity assessment.

Compare this experience to stories from those who landed their first product role in a product-led company. The experience is almost night-and-day. In product-led companies, the customer problem is central to business discussions, product teams have the ability to independently decide which problems to solve and can perform product tasks without fear of executives stopping them. The operating rhythm of the team includes market research and customer insights. Feature requests are not de-rigour.

How can a product manager distinguish between a product-led environment and a non-product-led one? How can a product manager decide what companies they should apply for a job at? How can a product manager avoid pseudo product roles? More importantly, should product managers have to navigate the profession in this way? Careers in product management shouldn’t be left to chance.

Leaders of our profession have a responsibility to create environments and career paths for those that are beginning their journey. Product managers shouldn’t have to decipher job posts to try and determine whether the role is a true or a pseudo product role.

After all, if we expect product managers to guide organisations, deliver valuable customer and business outcomes, and continue the economic growth cycle, we cannot leave their careers to chance.

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