Product Management Product Organisation

Designing a framework for Product Management careers


Careers in Product are still a mess, for Product Management pros & wannabees, managers and HR people alike. We’ve created the first version of a framework aimed at making all Product career paths clear and accessible. In its future versions, this Product Careers Framework will facilitate the recruitment and assessment of Product Managers, as well as help with mapping their career paths. —–

Usually, when I meet Product Managers, they all end up asking the same question : “How did you become Product Manager?” My answer – and believe me, I’m not the only one – is always the same : “Chance! I didn’t even know I was a Product guy”.

You might say that things have changed since I started working in Product 16 years ago. There is a growing number of people who have chosen this path, either post-graduation or when going through a career conversion. But, because Product Management was born “by accident”, our discipline lacks structure when compared to more established careers such as marketing or coding.

And the litany goes on and on : What do these jobs cover? How do we recruit? Is there a “sacred” path? How does someone evolve as a Product builder? Can I grow without becoming a manager?

This article won’t answer all these questions in detail. But we propose the framework below as a first response to build upon. So ????here is the woooorld’s first ???? (ok this might be a bit too much…) Product Career Framework that we built at Thiga Academy to structure our new training programs.

Let’s first dive into its nine components. Then we’ll take a look at the two career axes it offers.

Disclaimer : I have no shares in M&M’s.

Product Ownership : the peanut

If Product Management were an M&M candy, Product Ownership would be the peanut, the core. No Product Ownership means no Product at all.

However, the Product Owner is sometimes considered a technical or functional project leader, with no input on the why, the why now, and even the what. I believe it’s a huge mistake. “Product Owner” is not a job:  it’s a role in the team.

“PO” is one of the Product Manager’s hats. Without it, a PM can’t really be a PM. A Product Guy who’s not also a PO is a Product Marketer, Product Strategist, Product Coach, etc., depending on his or her role. Which is why the PO role is the Core 1 Level in the framework.

Some Product Owners are limited solely to this role by their organization. They’re stuck in a “by the book” Scrum and are asked to feed developers with Stories, but without challenging the need. This kind of PO is usually oriented towards the dev team only.

But some POs go beyond this and invest time in designing the whole product process, which is the only way to make sure that the upstream and downstream of development make the product properly. This type of PO couples Product with Process Ownership. They are a confirmed PO (Core 2 Level): the caramelized peanut, the praline (feeling hungry now?).

Then, there are Product people whose title is “PO”, but take care of the peanut and the chocolate. They are simply misnamed PMs.

So we shouldn’t talk about PO positions or recruiting a PO and a PM. Everybody should be a PM, or be given the space to be a PM.

Product domains : 8 shades of chocolate

Around the peanut, a Product builder can develop eight shades of chocolate :

  • Product design : make the user journey usable and engaging
  • Product data : leverage the power of data to make a better product
  • Product growth : generate traction & engagement all along the user funnel
  • Product marketing : develop awareness around the product and its features/benefits
  • Product strategy : discover true and false formulas for the problem/product/market equation
  • Product organisation : build an environment where products and product builders can emerge and grow sustainably
  • Product tech : understand technical challenges and evolutions, without coding
  • Product soft skills : develop and promote the product mindset

The minimum requirement to be a Product Manager (PM Level 01), is to know the basics of these eight domains. In addition to delivery, the PM will be responsible for discovering the right problem, imagining and testing solutions, thinking about the value proposition, taking care of the journey in terms of use and ROI, and collaborating efficiently with the actors that will help him or her through the process.

Using these strong foundations, the PM will be able to choose two paths for his or her career :

  • Full-stack
  • Expert

Red, yellow or blue M&M’s…  none is better than the other !

You surely noticed that, apart from soft skills, these eight domains match with areas related to existing professions or curriculum. Why?

Because the Product Manager is a jack-of-all-trades composer, their profession is to be a bit into everything. He or she must take informed decisions by mixing flavours.

As there’s no sacred path to become a PM, you don’t start from scratch in the profession. Your education and your past experience will colour your profile and give you an advantage in one or several domains. An SEO expert will have a “Queen of Product Growth” card in their hand and a former Recruiter will surely be better in user interviewing (Product Discovery).

But being a jack-of-all-trades doesn’t mean being a know-it-all. To take informed decisions, a former SEO as a newborn PM would rely on more technical and more design-oriented team members, just as a CEO would hire a great CTO and a genius CDO.

So please, let’s stop with the myths. You don’t “need” to be an engineer, a marketer, or know how to code to become a PM. Every background will lead to a different kind of Product Manager. I know Product leaders who studied law or biology, others that were MDs or HR officers. Diversity is the fuel of Product.

Moreover, there is only one Product “golden ticket” : the mindset. How to listen and how to doubt are not things you learn only at school. The academic background is not that important: the skill-set can be learned more easily that the mindset.

Full-stack alchemist : the “standard” career axis – Level 02, 03 & 04

As we said, being full-stack means being a jack-of-all-trades. When gaining experience, a PM who doesn’t want to become an expert will develop a strong skill-set in all the domains. After a few years, with success and failures on their track record, he or she will naturally become Lead PM (Level 02).

The role of the Lead PM is to focus on decision-making. They will possess big-picture thinking and the ability to orchestrate with talents across all the activities (discovery, delivery, optimization) and domains leading to product success (tech, but also design, data, growth…).

A Lead PM is not necessarily a manager. He or she can be a PM senior enough to be given a major or tricky functional area, to help their manager with strategic thinking and support PMs in the team as well as mentor junior PMs…

The evolution of a Lead PM is to either:

  • choose an expert track and become a Lead Expert (see below)
  • or follow the Full-stack axis and a position of Head of Product (Level 03).

The Head of Product (or HoP) can have different titles depending on the size and nature of the organisation, such as VP Product or sometimes CPO in a startup. The role of the HoP is to lead his or her Product Organisation – they don’t have an operational role.

An HoP is not asked to be an expert in all the fields, but to lead, grow and defend the importance of every domain and teammate that is under his or her responsibility.

Their spectrum of responsibility can be limited to being Head of Product Ownership and Product Organisation: in this case, they’ll be managing Product Managers only. But more often than not, the HoP also leads other domains. In this case, the additional responsibility of Head of Product Strategy, Product Design, Product Data, Product Growth, and / or Product Marketing can be added.

By the way, more and more Product Designers become full-stack and evolve towards Head of Product positions. Diversity, you said it!

What’s after HoP? There’s the CPO (Level 04). If the HoP leads the whole product organisation, both roles are combined. However, if a company is big enough to have several HoPs, you usually need a CPO.

CPO is a singular position in the product organization, more related to negotiation skills and politics than to pure product management. A lot of CPOs in scale-ups are not former PMs, for example. Often far from the field, their mission is to be in the board and ensure than the voice and culture of Product is not crushed by other forces (Tech, Marketing, Sales).

Of course, let’s not mix labels and reality. Some “Heads of” have the title of CPO, like co-founders that don’t manage a team (at the beginning). I’m talking here about the real responsibilities and content of the job, rather than a title on LinkedIn.

Dark, milk or white chocolate : the “Expert” career axis

Not everyone wants to be full-stack Product person or a manager – or at least not at this point. Well, don’t worry : you can evolve without it.

PMs can “level up” by developing chocolate in only one domain, because they like it or because it matches with his or her background. They will then follow an expert track.

What’s in it for you? To be an expert PM is to be more autonomous and more efficient in one area of your work. When you don’t have a designer  – or not a full-time one -, knowing how to build a more usable and engaging product on your own can be a major plus for success.

An expert PM can also become an authority on the subject of their specific field within their team. Take a company who, for economic or cultural reasons, wouldn’t hire product strategists or product growth managers. Having an internal thought leader is a step towards an more product-oriented organization.

For the manager, the obvious benefit is to give their PMs the opportunity to grow without adding an unnecessary hierarchical layer. But it also engenders one of the keys to building an efficient team : a good mix. Diversity AND complementarity are the basis of great product organizations.

Combining flavors

Product grows in fields of opportunities: a Product career is rarely a straight line. You can choose an expertise now and combine it with full-stack development afterwards – or the other way around.

Here’s an example.

What about the Product guys who are not full-stack and don’t have (or no longer have) a PO role?

Product Manager is not the only Product profession : Product designers, Product data analysts (sometimes called data scientists), Product growth managers, Product marketing managers, Product strategists…. All these profiles have developed their own expertise and are important actors in the success of a product, especially where there is a close proximity to the PM. Ensuring that this proximity is maximized is a common task, and a growing responsibility of the “Heads of”.

Sometimes, and this is the last evolution path we’ll talk about, an expert PM chooses to give back his PO hat and be a full-time product specialist. It can be harder than you think – but it’s the beauty of Product : challenges!

NB : There’s another possible evolution : CEO. Before, it was classically a tech-savvy, CTO-like leader who became the CEO of a startup. But the trend is shifting towards Product guys.

A framework : so what now?

As I told you, this is the first version of the Product Career Framework. You can of course use it freely: for  self-assessment or to build career paths for you and your team. Our only advice would be :

  • Do not over-complicate : positions must have meaning and represent a motivating accomplishment;
  • Avoid being dogmatic : no one can be good at everything ;
  • Adapt to your structure’s size and culture
  • Do not create silos

Our objective is to list competencies and ideally allow you to generate an idea of your career path. What for?

  • For a PM to know where he or she sits and the possible directions they can go.
  • For a manager to easily compose a diverse and complementary team, and allow it to evolve.
  • For a recruiter to assess competencies thanks to a common language with the managers.

Stay tuned… 😉

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