Making the Shift to Platform Product Management

Many startups begin with a great product — something that gets traction in a market, but then stumble trying to make the transition to a platform. This article describes the not often discussed shift in product management philosophy required to be a platform. The use of the word “platform” is defined as a set of technologies that enable products to share data and experiences with one another. An example of this would be moving from a monolithic codebase to a common set of API’s or services and you often see in web services or operating systems. In my career I’ve been a product leader at three of these companies, some with more success than others. The fact is, platform product management requires a different set of skills than customer facing product management roles and needs a different interview process and career path. This is the article I wish I had ten years ago detailing the changes required for platform product management.

A common journey for many startups is moving from a single customer product to multiple products where shared components exist. Another journey is one where the core product becomes so successful that a level of abstraction between the underlying technology and the customer facing product is required to scale, but there’s very little written about the shift in the product management organization that drives this.

For tech companies who want to scale growth or build new product lines, the question isn’t “if” they’ll build a technology platform, but “when” because of economies of scale.

When you decide to shift to a platform, you need to make an explicit delineation between customer facing product managers (AKA “Solutions Product managers” in SAAS companies) and platform product managers.

An example product organization supporting multiple products built on top of a set of shared components

The Job of a platform product manager is to prioritize the work of a component or set of components that are used by multiple consumer facing products and potentially end users as well. Here is a list of traits required to be great at platform product management. Keep in mind that while it’s important to have generalist product management skills, without these the platform PM won’t be successful.

1. Platform product managers understand the big picture.

Platform PM’s are in charge of creating functionality that spans multiple product lines. These PM’s need to understand the large strategic vision well enough to make short and long term trade-offs across different products. This PM will sometimes have to make unpopular decisions that hurt the short term revenue of a product line but make all products better over time.

2. Platform PM’s effectively manage different types of stakeholders.

There are three different users that a platform PM builds for. There’s the end user — or customers who are using the service that you build. You need to understand dependency trade-offs that affect the customer experience. Second, there exists multiple GM’s or solutions product managers who are trying to hit a goal with their particular product line and who need features from your team. Finally, there are the developers who are building on top of your service and will present a set of requirements, including working with their favorite frameworks and tools. Here’s a great post on these different constituencies.

Platform PM’s don’t just have to understand their customers, but their customer’s customers in order to be successful and when they fail, it’s often because they’ve only thought about the developer persona.

3. They create concise long term product roadmaps.

I’m a fan of keeping consumer facing roadmaps light so that teams can pivot quickly to meet customer demand. However, with Platform product roadmaps, it’s important to take a longer term view because you need to set expectations with many different stakeholders. These roadmaps also require a more detailed concise approach so that the technology you build is scalable, reliable and maintainable. The Platform PM will have to answer the question, “What if this technology needs to handle 100x the traffic?”

4. Project management skills are a plus.

I’m not saying you need a project manager in addition to the Platform PM, rather that the execution skills of great project management such as dependency management, team blockage removal and process health will help a platform team succeed. With longer term roadmaps, complex dependency management and more diverse stakeholders, project management skills are valuable to the team.

5. Being technical helps.

In some larger product organizations, we would refer to the Platform product manager as “TPM” or Technical product manager. At Amazon or Microsoft they sometimes call it program management. Many platform PM’s were former engineers which makes sense because this role is much moreinward facing with the engineering team than outward with customers. When people commonly ask, “does a product manager need to be a former engineer to be successful?” I’d ,say it depends, what type of product manager? Generally speaking, no, they don’t have to be former engineers and I’ve seen world-class PM’s succeed without an engineering background. However, the need to be technical increases with platform product management more than consumer product management because many of the problems you are solving are traditional computer science problems around scale, maintainability and architectural design. Not to mention one of your core customers on a technology platform is other developers so it helps to have been one.

6. Obsess over accurate & concise communication.

One of the traits developers love about a “Platform as a service” company like Stripe is a beautiful, simple API. Platform PMs need to obsess over how to communicate what their service does in a way that lets users integrate with it easily.

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As the product organization matures to establish platform thinking, the concept of outward (customer or solution) and inward (platform) facing product managers becomes necessary. Outward, “Solutions” Product managers are growing the user base, financial metrics and usage. Meanwhile, the platform PM in this situation loves making others successful and sometimes have the “lead from behind” quality exuding enthusiasm when others hit their numbers. Platform PM’s are often builders and enjoy being in the weeds with their team, while customer facing solutions PM’s are out of the office more than 50% of the time with customers.

When shifting to a platform (everyone wants to be a platform!) here are a few common pitfalls of platform product management.

1. Ivory tower instead of customer centric thinking.

When I’ve switched to a platform environment, I noticed a change in the way much of the engineering organization thinks about product development away from customer centricity. Prior to building a platform most product teams were fully cross functional. In a cross functional world, our engineers were spending time talking to customers with product managers and designers. Once we switched to a platform model where teams of engineers would own an API, we had entire teams working on good computer science problems, but not speaking to any customers for months on end. In the worst cases, we had teams of developers over-architecting a solution that customers didn’t really need in the first place. Customer empathy is something the platform PM needs to find ways to generate. Too often a platform team believes that if they provide value to internal stakeholders or other developers, it’s good enough. But it’s the combination of customer needs, stakeholder needs and developer needs that make for a great platform. In this sense, the voice of the customer becomes even more imperative for a platform PM.

2. Product organizations require strong architectural leadership/partnership.

The desire to be a platform is great, having the architectural leadership in place to execute on this is very different. I won’t go into the definition of a great software architect, but having a few pragmatic, thoughtful architects in your org to avoid complexity and lead conversations with PM’s and software developers is a necessity, because they truly understand what’s possible. The architecture team must have a holistic view of the entire system in mind when they help the PM make decisions. Great Platform PM’s know to engage the architects early and often in researching new development.

3. Investing in a platform too soon.

Building a new product is fraught with ambiguity, the need to respond quickly to customers, pivoting, prototyping, hacking and doing whatever it takes to find product market fit. This is not the time to start building out the platform underneath the product. My recommendation is to give the product time to find sustainable growth before investing in the underlying platform. Trying to build the platform at the same time as another PM is trying to find product market fit will slow the customer facing product down, reduce your likelihood of success and frustrate all who are involved.

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The world is littered with thousands of companies who made it past their first successful product, but were unable to transition to a platform or launch a successful second act. There’s great content on the web detailing product management of shiny new products & features using MVP / prototyping to get ideas off the ground, but very little on making the shift to scalable infrastructure that’s built to systematically launch new products and grow your business. Understanding how platform product management will change your product organization and your company can be the difference between an organization that’s built to last and a one trick pony.