Planning Your Career in Product – P1

4 transparent chess pieces

Welcome to my new mini-series. This series will aim to equip you with what you need to plan your career in the realm of product managers.

In this part we’ll start slow and just present you with the various options available in the job market. By the end of this part you’ll know:

  1. What are the various roles and titles that fall under the umbrella of ‘product management’
  2. What is the job description of each (well… don’t expect formal definitions – there are none)
  3. What’s the scope of responsibilities of each

 

But first – a disclaimer:

It’s impossible to tell anything definitive about what you are going to do and what you’re going to be responsible for based on the title alone. Different companies assign different meaning and ownership to each and every title. If what you see in reality is different then what I describe below then it’s most likely one of the following:

  1. The company hasn’t put a serious thinking nor done their research as for the meaning of each of the titles they grant
  2. The company has a different interpretation to each of the titles based on some internal logic/vision

I am basing what I’ve written below based on my own personal logic and what I’ve seen out there in various companies and job postings (and I’ve seen quite a few).

 

Last before we jump into the water – I mention in several occasions below the ‘product spheres of responsibilities’. I strongly advise that you read this post first (if you haven’t done so already) in order to understand what I refer to when mentioning those.

And with these notes behind us – let’s go.

 

The irrelevant product roles

When talking about building a career as a product manager it’s important to distinguish the titles which are relevant to the titles which are not.

I mean – there are many titles out there that hold the term ‘product’ in them. For example – product data analyst, product specialist, product operations and even product owner (which is most likely an upgraded term for a project manager).

All of these titles are usually irrelevant as a step in the product management career ladder (again, different companies may assign different meanings to those. I’m referring to the common cases).

The fact that you spent 5 years as a product specialist, for example, doesn’t mean you are a better product manager now.

Yes, you are probably more familiar with their work, and you probably can tell better if this is something that you want to do – but by spending time in this role – you probably haven’t made true product decisions or gained real experience in what it means to be a product manager.

Therefore, if a career in product management is what you’re after – don’t spend too much time in these roles.

 

The various product management roles

Product Manager

This is the beginning of the ladder. This is most likely the first position where you’ll actually do a product management job.

Product managers do differ by their level of experience and hence there are junior product managers and there are ‘senior’ ones. Where usually you’ll be considered a junior for the first 1-3 years of doing this role.

Your scope of responsibilities are usually limited to the ‘hands on’ part of the job (planning sprints, dealing with day-2-day priorities, writing specs/PRDs, interviewing customers and getting market feedback).

Those are very important aspects of the job and I’d definitely take the time to learn to excel at those.

Your main KPIs are a couple:

  1. Delivering features fast
  2. Delivering features in high quality

 

This requires you to master the product delivery process (see here), to hone your communication skills, to learn to lead without a formal authority and to measure your work by following the data.

If you’ll learn to communicate well with the various internal stakeholders, dig for the real pains (see here) and focus on delivering a true value – then you’ll most likely be ok.

When entering this role for the first time – you’ll probably know within a few months whether product management is for you, or this was just a mistake, but we’ll talk about it in some other post.

Aside from the hands-on aspects of the product management role, you may also be involved with the quarterly planning (see here). On one hand – this is a lot of work. On the other hand – you have a bigger opportunity to make an impact. If you are offered this opportunity you need to grab it. The alternative is that your boss will do it for you and tell you what are the features you’re going to work on next quarter. You don’t want that (unless you are really junior) – so might be worth even being proactive here and suggesting a plan ahead of time.

If you are a senior product manager then you might get the opportunity to be involved with the roadmap planning. For most companies & configurations – this is probably the top option for you to maximize your impact. Needless to say that if the opportunity shows itself – jump on it.

Be prepared, though, and do your homework. You want to prove that you know what you’re doing so you’ll get more chances to be involved with such planning. You can read more about it here.

Product Lead

This is a title that can hold many interpretations. For most companies – it doesn’t exist.

My observation is that companies usually grant this title to senior product managers when they want them to manage other, less experienced, product managers and while trying to avoid granting the title ‘director’.

Essentially you are very likely to do the same ‘hands on’ job you did before, but in addition you’ll also manage other product managers.

That’s a great opportunity to improve your management skills and also your time management skills. You’ll need to cover a lot of ground and make sure that your team keeps releasing high quality features in a timely manner. So – definitely challenges exist here and you’ll be learning a lot.

However, if this goes for quite some time (around a year) – then you should push (gently) for becoming a director.

Product Director (or Director of Product)

Personally, I think this is one of the most confusing product titles out there because there are many interpretations you can associate with it as to what is the actual scope of the responsibility involved.

Here is what it almost always means – you are designated to manage other product people. It could be that upon accepting this role no one reports to you, but you should be shown a clear path as for when this is going to happen.

If there are no commitments or guarantees which are given to you as for when you’re going to manage other product managers, UX designers or data analysts then most likely this title is just a BS title that the company granted you so you’ll feel ‘senior’. It’s good for putting on LinkedIn, but not much more than that.

Whether you manage other product people or not – you should leverage this title to climb to the next ‘spheres of responsibilities’. And I’m talking about the roadmap planning and the product strategy.

Again – it could be that as product manager you already dealt with the product roadmap, but now you should expect to get full ownership on that. It means that based on the product strategy and the north star you should be managing the roadmap planning of your product. 

If you have people assigned to you – then I recommend getting them involved with the roadmap planning while you are orchestrating the process.

However, the diamond in the crown here is definitely the product strategy. If you can get ownership of that, or at least be highly involved – then your impact in the company has greatly improved. You can make decisions that will definitely move the needle (hopefully in the right direction). You can read more about product strategy here.

Head of Product

To me, this title means you fully own a product, or a group of products, if they belong under the same ‘product hierarchy’. It means that you’re fully responsible for defining the ‘full stack’ of the responsibilities pyramid. Starting from the top by setting the north star of your products down to managing the hands-on aspects.

Now, in reality there may be some various configurations that make this less cut and clear.

First – does it necessarily mean you are going to manage other product people? Not necessarily, but most likely yes – if things go well. I mean – it could be that your company is relatively small or it just formed a new business unit and wants you to lead the product there. There are no other product functions in this unit or company and you’ll be a one-man-show until the product actually proves itself and gets some serious traction.

Now, depending on how ‘big’ the problem your product is solving and how the company is funded – it may take a while (even more than a year) before you’ll actually be managing anyone. 

In that case you’ll be defining the north star, the product strategy, the roadmap and everything else yourself, but you’ll also be responsible for the day-2-day hands on parts… I covered such a scenario in this post, so naturally I recommend reading it.

 

Second – does it mean you report to the CEO? Nope. If they wanted you to report to the CEO they would probably have made you a VP product (or a CPO). Another scenario might be that you are reporting to the CEO, but this is temporary until they bring on board a VP product.

Hence, the company is telling you that they trust you to lead this new initiative or product, but you will still need supervision.

Hey – we can work with that!

You just climbed another step in the ladder and you have tons of responsibility on your hands. You can make an actual impact so this is still a great opportunity.

 

Now, I do see a lot of companies making a lot of confusion between a director of product and a head of product. At the end of the day, I remind you, the titles are usually made up after a short meeting between the HR and the CEO. It could be likely that no one has really thought about it seriously enough.

Hence, a company may advertise that it’s looking for a director of product, while they are actually looking for a ‘head of product’.

If you start a process with such a company and you understand on the way (or even after you started working there) that the actual work fits a different title – then ask to change it.

 

Personally, I’d always prefer a ‘head of product’ over a ‘director or product’ for two reasons:

  1. Clear product ownership
  2. Clear spheres of responsibilities

But again – you must align those with the company you (are going to) work for. Ideally, before entering the role.

VP Product

This is the major league. If you made it this far – then you are the top tier.

For some companies – this is the top you can reach as a product guy. For other, bigger companies, there is another step – the CPO.

The bottom line is that you have full ownership of one or more products. As long as you are aligned with the company’s north star – you can make any decision you want as for how to shape the product, its vision and its roadmap. You are also most likely to have full ownership of the hiring process for all the product roles in your group.

What’s the difference between this title and the ‘head of product’? Mainly a declaration of seniority and more freedom. If you have the opportunity and the negotiation skills – always aim for a VP product instead of a ‘head of product’, though many times it’s not up to you.

One thing though – unless the company is really big – then it’s less likely that the company has a CPO, VP product and Head of product. Most companies will usually give up on one of these three.

It usually means that on many occasions – the VP Product reports directly to the CEO – which is great for you!

CPO (Chief Product Officer)

This is definitely the top tier. You can’t go higher than that – at least not in the company you’re at.

Unlike VP Product – CPO is a ‘C’ level and hence:

  1. They always report to the CEO
  2. There is only one, at most, for the company

 

CPO oversees all the product activity of the companies. As a CPO you’ll certainly be involved with setting up the north star of the company, and the north star of each of the business units within the company. You’ll define the overall product strategy and will sign on any specific product strategy your subordinates will suggest (after they iterated to your satisfaction).

It’s your responsibility to grow the product group, plan for its budget and come up with a hiring plan.

Your day-2-day would be spent most likely around strategy decisions (not necessarily product) and… politics. The hands-on aspects would be quite far from you and you will definitely manage other product people. Usually directors or ‘head ofs’.

You should have a huge impact on your company’s overall performance and if you can’t find a way to move the needle, then something is very wrong with either your skills or how the company manages itself.

If it’s the former (your skills) then find a good mentor ASAP, because you REALLY don’t want to screw up this opportunity.

Therefore, ask yourself daily – how did I move the needle today? And be honest. Don’t wait for someone to tell you that you need to improve.

 

That wraps up the post for today.

If you found this post/series useful – please let me know in the comments. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.

 

Thank you, and until next time 🙂

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