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The Product Manager has been a highly recruited role for Technology companies in recent years. Entire books have been written exclusively on how to interview for Product Manager roles. It has been described as a “mini-CEO” and is seen as a training ground for future C level executives. Notable individuals who have held the title of Product Manager earlier in their career include Sundar Pichai (CEO of Google), Marissa Mayer (former CEO of Yahoo), and Kevin Systrom (founder of Instagram).

History of Product Management

When trying to give context to Product Management, people often go back to an internal memo at Proctor & Gamble in 1931, followed by citations of The Toyota Way, including Kaizen and Kanban. These are interesting for sure, but now are largely historical.

Modern product management in technology companies was reborn after the Agile Manifesto was published in 2001.

Today’s Product Management Landscape

Today most companies hire Product Managers and implant them in an engineering team alongside engineers and designers where they follow some version of Agile or Scrum methodologies, taking part in ceremonies like Daily Standup and Sprint Planning. Job descriptions are littered with specific terms from these methodologies.

In general, there are three distinct types of teams you will find employing Product Managers in modern technology companies:

  1. A Delivery Team is a group of software engineers plus a backlog administrator, this administrator’s title should actually be “Product Owner”. This is the type of team that will get a set of requirements, estimate, design and execute the work. The Product Owner is a member of the Agile team that defines stories, prioritizes the backlog and maintains the conceptual and technical integrity of the team. They also represent the customer and, in some cases, may be the actual customer embedded alongside the development team.
  2. A Feature Team exists to serve the business. Feature Teams are typically provided a roadmap of features and projects they are asked to design and deliver. Feature teams are often run by someone with the title of “Product Manager”, but they are actually a Project Manager. Their job is to deliver the project or features on a timeline for the business. This is the job that most Product Managers are being hired to do today in tech companies, though it is not the true role of a Product Manager. Internal stakeholders (i.e. Sales, Marketing, Executives) decide which features translate into business success rather the journey of discovery a Product Manager may unearth.
  3. Finally, A Product Team, AKA “empowered product team”, is a team that is given customer or business problems to solve, then are empowered to discover, design, and deliver a solution to those problems, and are held accountable to the results. These Product Managers are the future leaders of tomorrow that you will find working today at world-class product companies like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google and Tesla. While some of these companies have recently been in the news for hearings about antitrust violations, the impact their products have made on the world cannot be denied. All recent world changing tech innovation has its origins in an empowered product team.

Looking Forward

As shown above, with the rapid expansion of Product Manager jobs, came an equally rapid misunderstanding of the very essence of the role. Today’s Product Coaching is the blind leading the blind. Product Schools are popping up selling certificates like “Product Leader”, “Product Executive’’ while simply re-hashing segments of great literature like Inspired, The Lean Startup, and What You Do is Who You Are. Product Leadership is promoted without even basic understanding of the role. In fact, I worked for a Director of Product who admitted that she did not know the difference between a Product Manager and Project Manager!

There are exceptions, including Associate Product Manager programs, which are paid positions that companies like Google, Facebook and Uber hire for rotational on the job training for up to 24 months.

Luckily, Silicon Valley does not have a monopoly on empowered product teams, quite the opposite, as they are incredibly open on sharing the secrets that they have used to achieve their results. The literature is available and has been replicated in startups around the world. There is no hard barrier to entry, no specific degree required, and nothing to stop you from entering the field and becoming a leader of tomorrow.

Originally published on the author’s personal blog here.