Being a Product Manager (PM) can look vastly different depending on the product, company, industry and team but there’s one dimension that has a greater impact than the rest. That’s the organization size.
The best way to explain the differences is through an extreme example – would you say that being a Chief Product Officer (CPO) of a small startup is the same as being a CPO in a large enterprise, like Netflix or Amazon? No, I’d imagine not.
The roles may have the same title but they’re vastly different.
Yes, in both cases you are still the most senior product person in the company and have overall responsibility for the product function but the day-to-day scope, breadth, responsibilities and remuneration are vastly different. You can’t land a CPO role at a startup and then immediately begin applying for the CPO of Netflix role.
Therefore organization size becomes an important dimension in determining one's seniority.
It is not uncommon for Heads of Product at small startups to take Senior PM roles at larger organisations and visa-versa, with Senior PMs taking product leadership roles at smaller organisations.
This doesn’t mean they’ve taken a step backwards or forwards in their career. Arguably, you could say that both roles are at an equivalent level of seniority. I’ll give you an example of why.
Startup CPO ≠ Enterprise CPO
The following are two real examples. Person A is the Head of Product for a startup with 20 employees. He has 3 PMs reporting to him who manage one product. As the company is still small they only have a single product line and are yet to diversify. The company turns just shy of $8 million in revenue a year.
Person B on the other hand is a Senior PM at a large enterprise. She has 1 Associate PM officially reporting to her and is also providing product leadership across a product line with another two mid-level PMs. Her product line’s budget is $16 million a year and she decides where that budget is spent.
Although Person A has the title Head of Product, he is still managing 3 PMs across a single product-line. Person B is performing the same duties as Person A. They both coach and manage people in their role and although Person B’s title is Senior PM, she has a larger budget. The differences are that Person B does not have the overall responsibility of the product function for the company. Being the Head of Product in Person B’s company would mean managing upwards of 60 PMs, not only 3.
To further put things into perspective, if you were to compare Person A, the startup Head of Product, to Person B’s manager, the Head of Product for her large organisation, things begin to look vastly different even though they have the same job title.
Person B’s manager, the Head of Product at the large enterprise, manages a product portfolio. He has several products under his responsibility and needs to manage investment across his product portfolio. His budget is north of $40+ million and his scope and responsibility are vastly different to Person A’s. So although they have the same title, they are not on an equal footing.
This by no means de-values product roles in smaller organisations, it merely shows that seniority in product has more to do with the scope of the role and its responsibilities than the title.
You could therefore imagine a product career to be more like a 2×2 matrix than a flat career ladder (and when you consider dual-career paths of IC vs people managers then it’s more like a 2×2 on top of a 2×2)
Embracing lateral career movements
I believe this is to be a good thing. The corporate career ladder is dead and we’ve witnessed this with the rise of the dual-track career paths. But in my experience, there is more depth in it than just wanting to be an individual contributor vs a people manager.
Organization size and type of product also play a large role. Some people are highly technical, they love to get their hands on JSON files, define APIs and system SLAs/SLOs, but for others, they couldn't imagine anything duller. Rather, they’d prefer to spend time in Figma, playing with designs and sketching on a notepad. They nerd out on brand style guides and interaction design – perhaps you are somewhere in the middle. Regardless, the beautiful thing about product is that we have a home for you.
You can be a technical product manager or even a platform manager and even specialise in roles like growth, product marketing and more recently in product operations.
The same goes for organization size. I know of people who refuse to work for large organizations (FAANG companies included). They know they prefer smaller organisations, some even love the fast pace and chaos of small startups. They thrive on wearing many different hats and working in a fast pace world. The opposite is also true. There are plenty of people who would rather have the stability of large enterprises.
I know more than one person who realised their "dream" to work at a FAANG company but quickly left…
I find there's a bias in our industry towards 'big names'…just bc someone worked at FB doesn't mean they're the best hire & not everyone in product-tech dreams to work there..
— Ant Murphy (@ant_murphy) August 3, 2021
It’s therefore not uncommon to look at a PM's career path and see PM → Senior PM → Head of Product → Senior PM. Titles alone make it seem that their career has gone backwards but they most likely haven’t. If you consider organization size into the mix they’ve likely consistently increased their scope and responsibility and therefore from a seniority point of view (titles aside) have advanced.
Don’t chase the title, chase the role
Careers are no longer a linear line, they’re a much more messy lattice and moving laterally to a smaller or larger organization shouldn’t be frowned upon. It should be celebrated! The experience of working in different roles, on different products, in different organization sizes will only make you a better PM.
I know many PMs, very senior ones who have spent their entire careers in the same organization or in similar organisation sizes. Although great, it does limit them in terms of breadth. As a result, some have never shipped a brand new product to the market or learned the lessons of having a product truly fail and have to sunset it. They’re still brilliant product leaders but brilliant in their context.
At the end of the day, titles don’t give seniority, experience does.