Stakeholder management, or the art of cultivating productive relationships across teams, is at the heart of a product managers job. (Shutterstock)
When you doomscroll Twitter - even on a dull day - you will notice at least 10-12 threads on #ProductManagement. If you’re exposed to the tribe of Indie hackers and bootstrappers, and the rest of the product hunt tribe- then the conversations happening around products are the only thing that you see.
PM’ing, of late, is one of the most sought after roles and the average salary of a PM (with an average five years’ experience) can range from Rs 15-28 lakh depending on the product, company and business (data mostly anecdotal).
However, if you speak to PMs who have been in this field longer (seven years or more), you will notice that they are neither enamoured by the glamour of the role, nor by the current hype around the role. Common statements you will hear from them are something like this:
- “It is a lonely job. The team is always cross-functional. It is slightly glorified as mini-CEO of the product, etc. In reality, it involves a lot of negotiation and convincing folks across the company. So if you don't like patiently navigating people with different points of view, this will be frustrating,” Gireesh Subramaniam, vice-president of product management, Freshdesk.
- “Today, product management is a well-recognised function but by no means is it a well-understood function. There's a lot of ambiguity in what's expected out of a product manager and that changes not just with every organisation but even at different stages within the same organisation,” Sanjeev NC, product manager, SuperOps.ai.
- “You will find many PMs complain that they are expected to be mini-CEOs but feel helpless and lacking a sense of control in their jobs. Companies and Founders should only expect their PMs to take radical ownership to the extent that they are willing to empower their product teams to take decisions. Otherwise, PMs are just glorified document makers,” Ravish Bhatia, product manager, Indiagold.
So, what is the real thing and what is currently happening in this space that any aspiring PM should know? Let us tear down the role of the PM and some trends affected by remote work that will acquaint you better with the role itself and the life of a PM.
1. PMing is an evolving role. Certainly not along the path of a ‘mini-CEO’.
In traditional organisations, product management was done by different people and they weren't labelled "product managers". While the responsibilities existed, the said title didn’t across many organizations.
“The job descriptions don't do justice to the role if you ask me. I mean, if you're applying for a PM role and you expect to do only the things listed in the JD, then you're in for a surprise. The nature of the role is fluid - what you do doesn't change but how you do it definitely changes. Anyone stepping into the role should be ready to adapt,” Sanjeev NC, product manager, SuperOps.ai.
The number one job of a product manager is owning the problem, not the solution. If a person is not able to identify the problem in a scenario, then they're going to struggle. For example, "editing tweets" is not a problem. The real problem is that people sometimes tweet unfiltered thoughts and they regret it later. But, that's what makes Twitter so great - as a product manager, you can choose to ignore that problem (PMs in general must hand-pick problem statements with the highest RoI- even if some statements appear to be burning, but can be prioritized for later). If you're fixated on "editing tweets" as a problem, then everything downstream is a mess.
2. Building a remote team- a product manager’s perspective
Earlier work atmosphere was like play. There was humour and water-cooler conversations that helped "speed up" work. Now all interactions are work interactions, in the COVID world.
According to Husain Ghadially, principal product lead at GoFood Search and Recommendations, “All the casual interaction with colleagues has disappeared. I have seen this increase anxiety. Everyone is mostly working through the week and weekend as well and that is creating implicit pressure. A lot of the team members have joined during the pandemic. Owing to the absence of in-person companionship, they’re not able to see the impact their work is creating.”
His observations around team building during the pandemic include:
- A lot more rigour around documentation.
- Onboarding has been impacted significantly.
- Attrition has gone up due to burnouts and anxiety.
3. There is no ‘Github’ equivalent for PMs.
GitHub is a great versioning and collaborative software for developers - but a seamless equivalent doesn’t exist for product managers, whose entire job is legitimised around the efficacy of documentation.
Other than serving as a documentation platform, what GitHub does for founders and the hiring team is to help spot purple cows - the self-motivated, affable lot of meritocrats that stand out in a sea of fish.
According to Palak Varma, a product management consultant (who specialises in B2C products), “PMs usually come with a lot of theoretical knowledge, and aren’t from diverse backgrounds that probably know how sales, marketing and legal really work. And so, another caveat to picking the right PM is that most PMs eventually grow into the role, and then give themselves a proper label and definition.”
With a GitHub like platform, there could be a possibility for PMs to showcase their portfolio, processes, documentation, and how they drive consensus in collaboration. At the outset, it could democratise the way PMs are even hired.
In some cases, the first product hires are done by business leaders who may not have exact job descriptions cut out for the product manager. There’s no agency for product managers, and ambiguity is a bane if you’re just starting out to build software.
Especially in the early stages of product development, it’s imperative for product managers (junior or otherwise) to take radical ownership of ensuring holistic execution of the vision.
From talking to several pioneers, it’s come to light that CVs cannot be one pagers, they should be case studies in how you built products, features, etc. Real PM's should talk about what their users want and how they really deliver value. CVs are not numbers but graphs. Or user reviews.
4. Stakeholder management, and async communication
Aside from documentation, the other aspect that forms the nucleus of product management is stakeholder management - the art of cultivating productive relationships across teams.
So far, those relationships have existed in the outside world. The virus has virtualized relationships as well.
According to Vikrama Dhiman, head of product (mobility at GoJek), “To keep abreast with changing times and the rise of asynchronous communication, PMs are now becoming more adaptive to revisiting communication styles to single-mindedly focus on driving decisions and maintaining a trail history of discussions. The post-pandemic PM must:
- Know how to document
- Respond on Slack
- Have a good Zoom background
- Be presentable in front of the camera
- Know how to drive one-on-one with team members
- Be able to share byte-sized updates to management
What used to be footnotes are now very important.”
Earlier visibility was conference rooms, executive chambers and today it is Slack, as everyone gets this opportunity to notice you. Font formatting, video, animation memes are how you get noticed. Like how email replaced letters, Slack has replaced emails.
5. With remote, focus is more on metrics and outcome.
The critical aspect of scaling teams has been - the culture of remote. To be able to weed out most of the fluff and recruit a team that solves something, because when you are in a remote setting (whether due to the pandemic or not), it is very difficult to not show progress. You have to deliver and you have to let the numbers speak. “I think because of that most roadmaps have become more transparent for sure, but also more intentional. We are not anymore building things because we had about five meetings on it. There are more clear-cut reasons on why we should build something,” says Vindhya C., product at Pexels.
“As a remote PM, structured and analytical thinking are extremely critical components because they directly determine whether or not the remote engineering and design teams have clarity on what needs to be built. For example, if a product requirements document or PRD has not been researched and written in a detailed, thought through and well-structured fashion, it will lead to execution challenges. If as a PM, you find yourself going on multiple Zoom calls explaining the PRD to everyone or making too many revisions because you forgot multiple edge cases, then it is a sign that more thought should have gone in scoping and structuring the product. A well thought through PRD not only invites less resistance from engineering and design teams, but also allows quick and rapid execution, says Ravish Bhatia, product manager at Indiagold.
6. By 2025, there may not be a PM role.
PMs are first principle thinkers. They persistently drive the vision of the product from ground-up. Core traits that define them include:
- Are they observant enough?
- Are they able to prioritise enough?
- Are they open to feedback?
“In 2025 there will be no PM role. At the very core the right experience metrics by 2025 every company will have a great CX (Customer eXperience). It will no longer be an edge,” says Shravan Tickoo, product manager at Byju’s.
He further shares first principles qualifications of a PM. According to him, a PM:
- Designs the right experiment
- Sees the right metrics (success outcomes)
- Based on the experiment, has the metrics delivered.
At the heart of all organizations, customer centricity will take precedence in a way that the goals of all teams across the organization will be tightly aligned to the organization’s north star. With accountability rising across all levels, the power of orchestration and alignment that a product manager typically brings, could potentially become the bare minimum needed to qualify for any role, at any level.
This coherence, with a matrix of tooling and stacks that every team of the organization employs - could just be above the benchmark for the PM’s role to become less generalist, possibly giving rise to a school of PMs skilled in certain verticals, or at high-demand skills like engineering or growth.
(Varun Choraria, Associate Product Marketer, Vymo Inc, is the co-author of this piece.)