Meta Skills: The Essence of Product Management
I once attended a workshop which introduced the concept of “maker skills” vs “meta skills.” Maker skills are the tangible tasks that essentially define one job versus another — selling vs coding vs managing. Meta skills are the intangible abilities that make us effective at our jobs and separate those who are “qualified” from those who are “excellent.”
This concept has been extremely helpful to me in understanding my role as a product manager. Product management as a discipline is classically difficult to describe and train/hire for. Ask anyone who either is, or has worked with, a product manager what exactly they do, and you will get some combination of confusion, ambiguity, and eagerness to change the subject (if you do get a clear, helpful definition, please do let me know so I can frame it on my wall).
The reason it’s such a hard role to understand is that the most important aspects of the role are the “meta skills.” The product manager is essentially a meta role — not singularly responsible for any specific task (yes, we do all kinds of tasks, but they’re not special to this role the way coding is unique to an engineer). The whole point of the role is to sit between all the so-called maker disciplines of engineering, design, QA, and ensure that everything is being done in the best interest of the company and its customers.
My bold (and controversial) assertion about product management is this:
If technology companies hired and trained their makers based not just on their maker skills but on their meta skills (and really trusted their employees to use these skills), then product managers would be irrelevant and unnecessary.
Stripe famously operated without product managers for years. As described in a 2012 Quora post by co-founder Patrick Collison, their engineers managed the product themselves. All of the maker skills we employ as product managers — calling customers, interpreting data, keeping release notes, building roadmaps — can easily be learned and performed by any other role in software development.
It seems to me, then, that companies end up hiring product managers not because they need someone to do these tasks, but because they desperately need someone they can trust to be their eyes and ears on the front lines. To ensure the software development organization is “doing the right things.”
(Stripe does in fact have product managers now, which is explained in this Quora post as a way of dealing with rapid growth. However, they still maintain a relatively non-traditional approach to product management that requires the engineers to be heavily involved in the product discovery process.)
Now, to be clear, I’m not advocating that every company go out and fire their product management team and start yapping to their engineering leaders about meta skills. There plenty of great companies in the marketplace who owe much of their success to strong product management teams (mine included). The reality is, that almost no companies actually do hire and train for meta skills across their organization and would not be equipped to run effectively on this basis. Attempting to change this overnight (especially in an organization with more than a dozen people) would be like performing open-heart surgery with a pocket knife.
In his article on “soft” skills, Seth makes a compelling case that these meta skills are becoming essential in this post-industrial era in business. Companies can no longer find success simply by collecting a group of specialists in various tasks. In the zero-sum world of modern technology (how many eyeballs do people have?), it’s become essential to not just do some things, not even to do the right things, but to do things in the right way. It’s for this reason that product management has become an ever more important — and popular — discipline in the last two decades.
If there was one thing I would change about the “real skills” Seth has outlined, it’s the word “experience” used in describing wisdom and perception. Experience is a tricky word. In modern companies, the word means the number of years you’ve spent in the industry or a particular role. It’s one of the primary qualifications considered in the hiring process for almost any job. That’s why there are “entry-level” jobs which (supposedly) require no experience and then “senior” jobs which apparently are based on the amount of experience someone has. The problem is that experience is measured in the wrong way.
Experience as a concept is critical to life in the world we live in. If you couldn’t experience things in life, what would be the point of living? Experience is also a critical aspect of learning. That is, you can only learn so much by reading a textbook — you have to experience things in person to truly learn them. But how do you measure experience?
Most companies measure experience as the number of years you have sat a desk within a particular company or with a particular job title. Yet surely anyone can see that this is grossly rudimentary way to measure experience. It has no direct connection to any of the things you’ve actually experienced or the experiences you’ve actually learned from. Experience measured in this way equates the guy who sits at his desk watching YouTube videos while barking orders at his direct reports with the girl who spends her nights and weekends wondering how her employees are doing because she cares so much about their well being. And still, the number one qualification on every job listing is: “must have X years of experience.”
So, I assert that experience is a bastardized word that is more a bastion of the status quo — the companies that would prefer the word “soft” skills — than a descriptor of the qualities we look for in people with “real skills.” Perhaps a more accurate, and less dangerous, term would be “engagement.” How engaged were you when you did you work? How did you engage with the challenges you faced so you could learn from them? How well did you engage your customers or employees when you interacted with them? It is by asking these questions that we can really get at the nature of someone and understand their meta skills.
I have to say thanks to Seth for writing on this topic and helping me to think more intelligently about what truly makes people good at what they do. For a long time I’ve felt that there was something wrong with how people are trained and hired in most companies, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Writing this piece has given me new inspiration to think intelligently about who people really are and what they really bring to the table, regardless of how long they sat in a desk at their last company.
Note: Credit goes to Prabhakar Gopalan for the concept of maker and meta skills. I’m very thankful for his help in shaping my thinking about the role and value of product management.