Do We Really Need Product Managers?

Do We Really Need Product Managers?

There has been much recent debate, and no small amount of schadenfreude, about the role of Product Managers in tech.

Brian Chesky, the founder of AirBnB, became a catalyst for the discussion when he announced he was “getting rid of classic product management” at Figma’s Config23 conference in June 2023.

Allegedly, the announcement was cheered by the thousands of designers who were in the audience.

Irrespective of whether Chesky was misquoted or misunderstood (yes to both), the story that product management is somehow ‘in decline’ has caught fire.

Commentators have piled in on either side. Engineers have often voiced doubts about the value of the role, arguing that they represent an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy between developers and the customer.

Marty Cagan was quick to seize the initiative and mount a spirited defence of Product Managers. Job titles may change, he argues, but someone, somewhere must be doing the role.

For startups this is usually the founder/CEO, for scaleups it could be a UX designer or a tech lead, in the enterprise it is often a business owner.

Adobe’s own Chief Product Officer, Scott Belsky, has highlighted the benefit of ‘collapsing the talent stack’ to maintain the agility and rapid feedback loops that give startup teams an advantage.

When your company gets big enough, you start thinking: “I should probably hire a Chief Product Officer. Well, maybe you don’t have to hire that product leader. Maybe with AI you can still lead the product and be the CEO. I think we’ll start seeing the talent stack collapse like this and it’ll help companies move faster.

Whatever the blogosphere says, it’s hard to overlook the stark reality that, as the tech industry downsizes at scale, Product Managers at all levels have been badly impacted. Job satisfaction in the role is at an all time low.

In fact, Payscale’s US Job Market Report for 2023 placed Senior Product Manager as the role with the highest % of people planning on leaving their job in the next 6 months.

Payscale’s research found that a striking 66% of Senior Product Managers were planning to quit due to a combination of factors including job insecurity, return-to-office mandates and stressful work environments.

High profile layoffs across the tech sector in general have also played a role.

This should not come as a surprise. In fact, it’s predictable and, I would argue, necessary.

Why is it predictable? The key is in the word ‘manager’.

Wages account for the majority of company costs. When companies urgently need to save money, the easiest way to do so is to reduce headcount.

As most tech companies need to cut costs in order to ‘rightsize’ their financial forecasts and show profit instead of growth, the obvious targets fall into one of two categories:

  • Managers
  • High Earners

All managers are targets and Product Managers, by definition, fall into this category. Many fall into both.

Front line roles and core functions need to remain operational, so cutting layers of management is the most risk reduced approach.

So Product Managers need to go, especially the most senior ones. At least in the short term.

Why is it necessary? Because it marks a long overdue correction to over-capacity in the role.

In my view, product management shouldn’t be regarded as ‘just’ another layer of management. Product Managers are not General Managers.

Product Management is closer to a craft, requiring passion, commitment and a strong desire to develop specific skills and achieve domain mastery over many years.

The best Product Managers have a circle of competence that incorporates UX design, accessibility, user research, technical architecture, software testing, project management, corporate strategy, sales, marketing and business analysis.

This is not achieved overnight.

Recently, however, the role has attracted a broader cohort. A cohort less motivated by mastery of craft or the creation of ‘magical’ customer experiences.

This cohort is more interested in the fastest track to career advancement, or simply following the crowd. They are more about the ‘manager’ than the ‘product’.

Peter Thiel was famously critical of this cohort, saying they

tend to be high extrovert/low conviction people -- a combination that in my experience leads towards extremely herd-like thinking and behaviour.

Product management has been on an upward trajectory for the last 15 years. In 2010 it was a little known role. Since then, it has become fashionable, even glamorous, to be a Product Manager. Like the tech sector as a whole, we’ve had a pretty good run.

However, as Product Management has no corresponding qualification that precedes it (in contrast to design or software development) it is vulnerable to entryism by those who have little interest in its history or core principles.

As a result, the fast followers have piled in. Product Management now attracts Ivy League graduates and MBAs who, if they can’t be the CEO right now, want to be ‘the CEO of the Product’ in the meantime.

If a correction makes the role less glamorous and the fast followers move onto the next trend then it should be welcomed.

Those that remain, despite insecurity, redundancy and a fair degree of gloating from other functions, will be those that are committed to the craft and the journey that motivates and inspires true Product Managers.

To extend Thiel’s description, those that remain will be low extrovert/ high conviction people who are not afraid to think and act in a contrarian manner.

And Product Management will be better for it.

Scott Potter compares the current pile on of Product Managers to a similar reaction against ‘Agile practitioners’ in the past.

We've seen it with scrum masters and with other roles that were once only filled by experienced people with the right levels of authority and autonomy.

Over time we see these roles get divided down, dumbed down and replicated.

Ever since Peter Drucker defined the purpose and role of ‘management’ in the 1950s, there has never been any serious question about its value to an organisation. Its numbers have ebbed and flowed but, like the stock market, it has trended upwards over the long term.

By the same token, the combination of factors that lead to the birth of Product Management have not and will not fundamentally change.

Engineers like writing code and implementing architectural patterns. Designers like to create elegant interfaces and compelling services. CEOs like managing capital efficiently and making profits.

These ambitions and priorities do not automatically progress in lockstep. Often they are at odds, leading to stasis and conflict.

The need for someone to ‘manage’ these separate interests towards a shared purpose becomes self-evident early on. Even seed-stage startups find themselves recruiting Product Managers at some level.

It will be the people with a genuine passion to reconcile the interests of customers, commerce and technology in the service of developing world class products who will endure. And they will continue to prove to the industry that we really do need Product Managers after all.