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One of the key things to understand quickly as you get into the Product Manager role is your operating environment.
- Are you a PM in a Startup? or a multi-billion-dollar Industrial Giant?
- How strong/mature is the product organization in the company?
- What do the reporting lines for other key functions such as Engineering, Software Development, Product Marketing, Customer Support look like in relation to Product Management?
Depending upon your operating environment, your role can differ quite a bit.
Take Product Management role in a Startup, for instance. The PM at a startup will often have the opportunity to work very closely with the top leaders of the business — the Founder, CEO, CTO, etc. Naturally then, the PM will be in lockstep on the overall business strategy and expectations of the leadership at all times.
Such close engagement with your leadership can be a very strong catalyst for building and growing amazing products that customers love. It affords the PM a high degree of freedom where they can try out new ideas and experiments. That there is often not a huge installed base or a big brand reputation to worry about is an added benefit. Except in a few cases, you can break things more often without running the risk of a major PR disaster, or a multi-million $ product recall. Product Management in these settings is a key function pivotal to the company.
But a word of caution here. While working directly with the Founders/CEO is great, the flip side is that it can sometimes result in the Product Manager running the risk of being reduced to a paper pusher for the founder’s / CEO’s vision. The Product Manager in such cases stops representing the customer (which is the essence of the job) and instead becomes a proxy of the management.
Budgets in Startups will often be tight — unless of course, the startup is well funded. If the Startup is well funded, it will perhaps have marketing managers, growth hackers, and other business development functions. If these functions aren’t there — the Product Manager will have to wear these hats along the way as they bring the product to market. Another related upside is that there are typically fewer organizational complexities and a preference for direct communication amongst team members. There is a bias for action rather than for long-winded meetings, and all this ultimately helps the PM focus on the product 90% of the time, instead of working on non-value add stuff.
On the other side of the spectrum, a Product Manager operating in a corporate environment will have a very different experience. In most cases, any facetime with top executives is limited to periodic product and business reviews or when requesting funds.
Talking about funds, typically in big companies, there is a bias for maximizing the return for every $ invested — which in and of itself is obviously the right thing to do — but the expectation on the timing of generating ROI tends to be very short — typically a few quarters if its a public company. I know I shouldn’t perhaps be generalizing this. After all, there are companies like Google, Amazon, Tesla, etc. which are massive but are still able to make long bets on moonshot product ideas. But those companies are largely exceptions to the rule. The reality is that the vast majority of the public companies out there are short term focused.
In such companies, there is then a tendency to look for incremental improvement opportunities to existing products, rather than coming up with something totally new or out of the ordinary. In other words, “Move Fast and Break things” is not a mantra that Product Managers in large established companies can easily subscribe to or sometimes, subscribe to at all.
In fact, you have to think about how to experiment on your crazy product ideas, how to create a customer discovery sandbox in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the current cash flows of the business or doesn’t adversely impact the valuable brand reputation that has been built over decades.
Another thing — in large matrixed organizations there is always massive organizational complexity to navigate through. Several “inter-departmental alignment meetings” must be accomplished before any decision can be made. There will often be multiple product lines, feature teams with various levels of product management involved in each stage of the development lifecycle. Communication lines are often complicated and clogged, so effective communication skills tend to be a PM’s greatest friend in a corporate setting.
In short, a Product Manager in a large corporate environment manages not only the product but also people, many of whom don’t report to them. Product Managers here are involved in all aspects of the business- working with engineering, marketing, sales, and customer support teams day in and day out.
Understanding which side of the Product Management spectrum one belongs to thus becomes important not only from a daily operations standpoint but also from a long term career standpoint. For Startups, tech-savvy Product Managers with a reasonably deep understanding of the product innards are preferred, while the expectation from a Product Manager in large companies is more ‘broad’, akin to a General Manager of the product albeit with no direct reporting lines.
In sum, acknowledging and understanding your operating environment will help you develop a sense of the constraints that you will have to navigate — and understanding the constraints will ultimately help you make better product decisions.