Exec-or-Bust ..?

On what I gained and what I lost when I was promoted from Product Manager to Director of Product

I have always been a product manager, a creator. While typical product managers start off as developers and move up the ranks, I started out as a PM. In fact, the very first task I was given at my first position out of college was to research user habits and needs and then specify requirements for the development of a new system. The system included both hardware and software and I’ve spent 3 months interviewing users, performing tests and formalizing a 200-page PRD (that was back when waterfall development and PRDs reigned supreme). Listening to those users’ requirements felt natural, and coming up with creative ways to solve their woes truly felt like my calling. I then spent the following 2 years overseeing the development of the system, performing QA, and training users.

I do admit, looking back, that in the light of today’s ubiquitous lean and agile concepts, believing one can accurately specify a-priori requirements for a 2-years long development project seems naive at best, if not vain. Given that, we did manage to pull through — the development project was completed, the product was manufactured and delivered to dozens of clients, and I felt for the first time the pride in seeing a project through — from conception to delivery. The product was ‘my baby’, and seeing it through was moving and joyful. It was truly epic.

Tools of Trade

From that point forward throughout my career I specified, designed and delivered several other products ranging from hardware to software to web-based platforms. As I went on from one position to the next I acquired a broader set of tools — market research competency, user interface design skills, design principles acumen, A/B testing, KPI analytics and more.

I craved knowledge, a trait I consider imperative to aspiring A-class PMs. I enjoyed masterful books from the works of Eric Reis and Ash Maurya on lean methodologies, Peter Thiel and Grant Cardone on setting big goals, and Ben Horowitz and Dale Carnegie on management and the challenges of a CEO.

The knowledge I acquired and the design courses I attended made me a more productive product manager. I was able to produced UI designs, roadmaps, KPIs and test plans faster and better. I was able to push the development teams I worked with to ship and deliver more rapidly. I got better at what I did and felt good about it.

And then I got promoted, and it all came to a halt.

Career Path — the pursuit of coding

A good analogy to the career path I was treading on can be found in engineering. Engineers who assume a managerial position as team leaders must leave coding behind to meet their managerial responsibilities. Managing their peers and attaining new human resources traits is also required, sometimes resulting in a ‘fish out of water’ feeling. The transition is no small feat — it’s not for everyone and it must be properly addressed.

Much like engineers, some product managers might wish to remain on the “individual contributor” career path. So say Hunter Walk, previously assuming every product position at Linden Lab (creator of the virtual world of “Second Life”) and YouTube, in this beautiful “The Signal” post. He suggests an alternative route for career advancement than exec-or-bust:

Looking back on the earlier years of his career in product, Hunter recognized that every product manager will eventually reach a crossroads. It might seem as though the “right” path to take is to become a manager of product managers. But maybe the biggest impact you can make at a company is constantly getting better at the thing you enjoy doing the most.

Executive Point of View

Hunter Walk describes the creative joy of being an individual contributor, stating he enjoyed most the creative and interdisciplinary process of building a product. During my days as a PM I was a productive ‘individual contributor’’ of one major product — I studied, researched, designed and measured the innards of each incremental improvement of my product. As with all product I’ve led — it was “my baby”. Being promoted to the executive role of Director of Product meant assuming product ownership of several other products and leading a team of a few product managers and analysts.

As my PMs led each product’s development, two things happened. For one, I was able to set my sights on more strategic planning. The roadmaps I worked on were broader and included more products (though not significantly longer in time span), and I began addressing issues of diversified product lines and risk mitigation.

On the other hand, I hardly had any time left to ‘productive work’. I strongly felt the transition from being an individual contributor to being a manager. While I did like the 30,000-ft view, the lack of measurable ‘personal KPIs’ perplexed me, and I found it hard to define a good ‘productive’ day for myself. Meetings began clogging up my schedule and I found it hard getting any work done. Using the engineering analogy, I missed coding.

The post author describes what the transition meant for Walk:

As director of product management, Hunter was forced to step out of the weedsand look at YouTube’s product organization from a 30,000 ft. view. From this new vantage point, he assessed each PM holistically, grokking at what kept themuniquely motivated, all the while evaluating how their process and results rolled up into a larger mission and annual KPIs. This was not the same type of work at all.

Choose Your Own Path

Looking back on my career, I feel fortunate to have experienced both being a creative individual contributor and an executive. I strongly agree with the points raised by Walk positing product contribution is not done solely at the executive levels. There’s beauty in bare metal, beauty in getting your hands dirty in sketches. Beauty I truly miss.

Much like engineers, the executive-managerial route is not a one-size-fits-all path all product managers should tread on. A crucial element to creating runway for your own success is understanding what it is you want to do and going after it willingly, instead of having it happen to you.

As for myself, I tend to do exactly that. With Simplay I’m leaving the comfortable position of Director behind to start anew.

I look forward to getting my hands dirty again.