As the product management role has become far more popular here in Silicon Valley and at technology firms in general, we’ve started to see specialization in the role begin to emerge. While these specific product roles rarely have differentiated titles or formal separate requirements, savvy hiring managers are certainly looking for product managers with specific skill-sets and passion areas depending on the specific product stage and challenges they are solving for.
I’ve had the opportunity to serve in many distinct product roles as well as lead hiring for such roles as well. So I wanted to share my view of 3 high-level product management roles that exist in the field, which I affectionately call builders, tuners, and innovators.
Builders The builders are what most folks would classify as the classic product manager. As product managers are often seen as defining the what for their product, they are responsible for driving the roadmap for an existing product to build ever more useful, usable, and delightful experiences to serve the needs of their target users. Their super powers include truly understanding a target user segment, including their pain points, their proclivities, and what appeals to them. They know how to listen to users for insights on the problems they are solving for and not just taking user feature suggestions at face value. They know how to take the deluge of incoming feature requests, ruthlessly prioritize them, and come up with a coherent roadmap that optimizes for solving the right problems at the right time for their users. They get into the weeds of the entire user experience and are constantly polishing, refining, and reinventing where appropriate. They never feel like their product is done and see how the sky is the limit in terms of how they can expand the scope of their product offering to solve ever-more pressing problems for their users.
They thoughtfully consider the right trade-off in every sprint between scope, quality, and time. Yet they are constantly refining the machinery of their internal process to improve overall velocity and create more carrying capacity for future sprints.
The product managers that love being builders love solving real problems for users, delighting users with the experiences they are creating, and just love bringing products to life.
A product manager working on the next version of Microsoft Office, LinkedIn Profile, or Google’s Android operating system are all great examples of the builders that dominate the product management field.
Tuners The most common example of tuners are the growth hackers that have risen in popularity throughout consumer internet firms. Yet I prefer tuners because it embodies much more than just classic growth hackers. Tuners are folks with a unwavering focus on a specific north star metric that are empowered to do everything in their power to move that metric up and to the right. This normally takes the form of acquisition metrics (say signups), engagement metrics (say retained users), or monetization metrics (say paid subscriber growth).
These folks are analytical ninjas. They know everything there is to know about executing A/B tests and spend as much time improving the velocity of their testing, improving their testing infrastructure, or improving their analysis capabilities as they do running tests in the first place. They are incredible at idea generation of potential tests and then getting as many of those tests in the pipeline as quickly as possible. They develop strong internal intuition on what hypotheses are likely to work vs not based on the hundreds of tests they have already run in an effort to further prioritize their endless list of potential ideas.
They seek great ideas and best practices from everywhere but know that no general advice is ever better than simply running a test on your own specific product and users to see if the generalized rule applies to your own audience.
Tuners relish in moving the needle. They eagerly anticipate getting back the results of a test and seeing if their hypothesis panned out. They love seeing the impact they have on the company’s success in a very direct and significant way.
The classic example of folks that are tuners are Uber’s growth team, LinkedIn’s paid subscriptions optimization team, Facebook’s news feed optimization team, and Google’s search relevance team.
Innovators The innovators are the product managers tasked with the incredibly challenging job of finding product/market fit for a brand new product. They are truth seekers that take a hypothesis-driven approach to validate and iterate on practically every dimension of their product strategy, whether it’s target customer, problem their solving, value proposition, product differentiation, go to market, monetization, or more. They are constantly putting ever higher fidelity MVPs in front of potential users and leveraging a variety of customer validation techniques to quickly assess what’s resonating with who and why, both from a qualitative research perspective as well as eventually leveraging customer metrics from early product betas.
Innovators are constantly prioritizing their team efforts based on assessing the riskiest aspects of their product strategy, designing the right approach to validate it, and iterating until they come up with the right answer. At the same time, they are always carefully assessing whether it makes sense to continue to iterate on a dimension or whether it’s time to pivot their approach to try something completely different. They leverage a strong combination of product intuition, personal conviction, and customer validation to constantly steer the product team in what ends up hopefully being the right direction. They also accept failure as a very real possibility, since innovation is never straight-forward nor easy.
Innovators absolutely love being on the bleeding edge of bringing new solutions to market that the world has never seen before. They love going from 0 to 1, from whiteboard to launched product offering, and not waiting to see what the future holds, but instead inventing it themselves.
The classic examples of folks that are innovators are Amazon’s initial AWS team, Apple’s initial iWatch team, the founding stage of Airbnb, and so many other successful and unsuccessful startups. It’s also the role I’m currently playing at Notejoy.
A Few Words of Advice All of these types of product managers exist at established technology firms, while at smaller startups the type of product managers they have often depends on the stage their product is in it’s own lifecycle. It also turns out that every product manager in-fact does activities embodied in all three roles, but with differing levels of focus. I encourage product managers early on in their career to seek out experiences in all three of these roles in order to gain valuable experiences to round out your product experience but also to learn more about yourself on where your passion and skill lie. There’s nothing better or worse about each of these roles, it’s simply a matter of aligning your passion and skill with your ideal role.
One word of caution on taking on the role of an innovator: I encourage folks to first have experience at least as a builder before attempting to take this on. There are unique challenges to being successful as an innovator that become far more difficult to master when you are also simply mastering core builder competencies, making it far less likely for you to be successful in doing so. It’s also better to have established success as a builder when building out your personal product management reputation than a string of likely failures that are common as an innovator.
I hope this provides you a view into some of the specific product manager roles that have evolved as specialization has started to take place in the product management field.
Sachin Rekhi is the Founder & CEO of Notejoy, a collaborative notes app for your entire team. It helps you get your most important work out of the noise of email & Slack and into a fast and focused workspace. He’s also written over 125+ essays on product management and entrepreneurship. Subscribe to new essays at sachinrekhi.com.