Where do Product Managers come from?

I was reading the interesting but flawed article on Techcrunch about “product guys”.  As in, Product Managers.  Let’s at least start with the right title.  Cripes.

One of the author’s contentions was that good product managers must have coded in their past, in order to properly collaborate and empathise with their engineer co-workers.

This assertion made me think about where good product managers came from.

The first answer is that product managers don’t come from product management.  As in, there is no university degree for product management that is a mainstream path into product management as a job.  (Yes, there are a handful of product design degrees, but sadly at present a tiny portion of product managers carry this pedigree.)

Therefore, product management is more of a trade, with the apprenticeship starting elsewhere.  Good product managers come from many places.

In enterprise software, pre-sales engineers are a common path to product management.  Why?  They spend all day demonstrating their products and even deploying them in customer environments.  Maybe pre-sales engineers get so frustrated with the product that they want to take it upon themselves to fix the issues.  It’s also the case that pre-sales travel can burn you out, for which a headquarters job can be appealing.

Product managers can also come from customer care.  People who spend all day troubleshooting users’ issues can develop an acute sense of what product features work, don’t work, and why.

Product managers can also come from engineering, especially those who tend to interact with product managers such as architects.  Again, the motivation can be rooted in frustration and the sense that “I can do this job better”.  Or, the realization that coding products isn’t a long-term career goal.

I have also seen great product managers come from quality assurance.  The attention to detail that QA instills helps condition product managers to “sweat the details” of a great user experience.

Every path into product management – pre-sales, engineering, customer care, quality assurance – brings a valuable facet to the product manager job.  And experiences that product managers per se wouldn’t otherwise have to the same depth.

Which leads to my final point.  No matter what your heritage, you are only bringing one facet of the role based on past experience.  Thus, product management is a journey of curiosity, learning, collaboration, trial & error, persistence, passion and so forth.  Product managers who demonstrate those traits tend to succeed.  And the rest probably less so.

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