The Tale of Two Product Managers

New and seasoned PMs all too often find roles that are pitched as Product Management roles, but in reality they are nowhere near an actual PM role. We have all seen it, the job post with the title “Product Manager” followed by a description that resembles something similar to a Project Manager or Product Owner. Sometimes the description is spot on but after a little digging you find out that the role isn’t a true PM role. It seems as if a lot of companies today just see “Product Manager” as some new hip term that is used to describe the person who “talks to the engineers” without realizing what the responsibilities of a PM are, let alone the value that a truly great PM can add. 

The reality is, unless you are going to a company that is famously product driven or a FAANG, it can be hard to tell. The danger comes in getting yourself stuck in one of these roles. A move in to one of these roles could be a great learning experience, but will probably stunt your growth as a PM. 

What you need to look for is joining a company as a Product Manager on an Empowered Product Team. Marty Cagan describes Empowered Product Teams as:

“cross-functional (product, design and engineering); they are focused on and measured by outcomes (rather than output); and they are empowered to figure out the best way to solve the problems they’ve been asked to solve.The purpose of a product team in this sense is to solve problems in ways our customers love, yet work for our business.”

That’s why interviewing is so important because it’s your opportunity to determine if the company is looking for a true Product Manager, or something that they think is a Product Manager. I like to ask these questions when interviewing to gauge companies:

  1. How are the teams structured?
    • This will let you see how the PM role is utilized, either within a scrum team or as a separate entity. You want to make sure the PM is embedded within the team or squad.
    • This is also an opportunity to see if you will have data or design resources in your squad (because if you don’t, the responsibility will probably be on you).
  2. How large is the Product Team? 
    • You want to be wary of places that have a lot of Product resources when compared to engineers. A typical scrum team is between 5-8 people, so if a company has a 15 engineers and 5 Product Managers I would be concerned. Too many PMs could mean that PMs would have to battle each other for engineering resources, and likely function more as Project Managers. 
  3. What’s the current backlog look like?
    • This is a tricky question that can reveal a lot. First of all if there is no backlog at all, that’s good because it means that it’s up to you to fill it up. If it’s up to you and the squad to create and prioritize the backlog, that usually means you are a part of an empowered team.
    • If a backlog already exists, that isn’t a bad thing either. If the product isn’t brand new, you can expect features to have been designed and prioritized prior to your arrival. However, this is your opportunity to find if it’s your responsibility to fill and prioritize the backlog. If filling and prioritizing the backlog someone else’s responsibility, then they are looking for a Project Manager or Product Owner. 
  4. How are the teams measured?
    • This will let you know if the teams are measured on outcomes, rather than output.
    • Often times empowered teams are measured by an OKR, typically quarterly. 

I also like to look at the current PMs on staff, and the VP/Director/whoever is leading the product team. If they come from a FAANG or product driven org, they are most likely operating or building empowered product teams. 

Keep in-mind that you shouldn’t write off a company simply because they are not empowered. Building empowered teams requires a lot of resources, and a lot of trust. Younger companies that have a product minded founder or co-founder are most likely not going to be empowered. Working hand in hand with a co-founder in a Product role can be an amazing opportunity for a PM. 

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