A lot of product management writing is about the individual product manager (PM), with emphasis on tools, lean start-up models and envisioning new products. Here, I’m focused on leading larger product management teams.
Tech companies should have a product management team that vaguely scales with Engineering. 30 Engineering folks might suggest 3 product managers; 200 Engineering folks may need 15-20+ product managers wrestling with priorities/problem definition/validation/market sensing/interrupts. At this scale, someone needs to lead the product team and drive coherent results. Let’s call her/him the VP Product Management (“VPPM”). Other possible titles: Director of Products, Chief Product Officer, Customer Visionary, Head of Product.
In my experience, executives looking to hire a VPPM tend to favor subject experts or CTOs rather than candidates with specific experience leading product management teams. It would seem obvious to me that the #1 hiring criterion for a VPPM role is someone who has done it before – who has executive-level product leadership experience – but I‘m often outvoted.
<soapbox> It’s axiomatic that CFO candidates need to understand revenue recognition and cash-versus-accrual. That CMOs demonstrate a love of lead gen and market positioning. That Engineering VPs have spent time building production code and earning the respect of their finicky software craftsmen. Often, though, this doesn’t carry over to VP/Director of Product Management openings. Hiring execs may take a “how hard could it be?” attitude. After all, you just call up a few customers, write down what they want, and give it to Engineering… </soapbox>
So here’s what I think a VPPM does at medium-to-large tech companies:
1. Know what product management does, and “sell” that to peer organizations.
Product management should always include product strategy, release-level feature choices, economic rationale for every major effort, and whole product thinking. It probably also includes high level bug triage and UI/UX review. It should not include project management, primary customer support, routine website text editing or pricing administration/order entry.
Individual product managers are rarely able to define their jobs, or push back on groups that dump random work in their direction. Without someone to establish job boundaries, they end up doing a little of everything and not enough of their real value-add. Steve Johnson calls these folks “product janitors.”
2. Continually connect activities and deliverables to business outcomes
Most line organizations focus on deliverables, not business results or coherent product offerings. That keeps product managers in the minutia: templates and process flows and presentations and release planning meetings. Our internal customers notice timeliness more than coherent strategy. (How often do we rush market analysis because our developers are idle? Ship a product with poorly considered pricing?) Prompt – but purely tactical – product management is just filling out forms.
The VPPM must politely (but relentlessly) push for strategic clarity and intended business results. Tie what-we-are-doing directly to why-it-matters. Ask irritatingly hard questions:
“Why are we starting development if we haven’t validated this market segment?” “Pivoting from consumers to enterprise buyers changes our technical priorities, pricing and sales/distribution model. Let’s review our assumptions.” “We’re pushing features here, instead of customer benefits. Why should buyers care?” “Tell me again why we need to build that ourselves rather than using off-the-shelf software.” “Does Sales concur with your revenue projections?”
3. Make sure there’s a company-level product strategy.
Lots of companies have missing, muddled or misguided product strategies. Multi-year dreams that lack specificity and short-term reality. Catch phrases instead of strategic choices. Individual PMs will struggle to fit their products into a broader whole. So someone has to push for coherent strategies and resource allocation decisions.
The VPPM doesn’t have to invent or discover the strategy personally, but must push the company’s best minds (collectively) to create one. Aggressively defend a good strategy against random changes, fads and single-customer escalations. And push to allocate technical resources strategically among products, not just based on last year’s budget.
4. Drive real participation/input
We all talk about wanting input from customers and stakeholders. Truth be told, market input is usually haphazardly, with poor feedback mechanisms. Every product manager has some unique wiki or spreadsheet for tracking requests/requirements. Sales (or Support or Marketing or Sales Engineering or Professional Services) is tired of asking for enhancements that never get built.
The VPPM has to unify and defend a robust input process, with a common mechanism and accessible list. More importantly, she also has to bravely point out that “asking” is not the same as “getting.” That most enhancement requests will never, ever be fulfilled. No matter the size of the engineering team, demands from customers and sales teams will always far outstrip technical resources. The backlog is infinite. A VPPM has to do some masterful politicking, since no one wants their hot idea to be postponed. Repeat the following one hundred times: “Yes, I love your idea. But we’ve decided that A, B, and C are more important and will be worked on this quarter.”
5. Build organizational support for good decision-making.
Functional organizations tend to think functionally, often narrowly. Someone needs to encourage rational, cross-functional solutions. More analysis, less magical thinking. More inter-organizational problem-solving, less territoriality. More action, fewer committees. Crystal-clear recollections of what we decided at last week’s senior staff meeting, and why. Cold, hard market logic. At the executive level, decision-making can be about personalities, selective memory and emotional-tinged beliefs. So someone has to be the Chief Rationalist. It might be the VP Marketing, or the COO. Often, it’s the VP Product Management.
6. Mentor product managers.
Ask any great product manager how she learned her craft, and you’ll hear about an early mentor. Product management is hard, experiential, and doesn’t come out of books. We learn by watching and doing and stubbing our toes. By making choices and analyzing previous choices. By getting coached through product strategies and economic decision-making. By seeing that collaboration among many smart people is better than being the smartest person in the room. The VPPM should be training up the next crop of Directors.
If you’re an executive looking to fill the top product job, ask candidates to talk about their experience on the above items. You’ll want someone who knows what “good” looks like, who’s been there. Who has a track record of building cross-functional partnerships and growing strong product teams. Product newbies with other strong skills (CTO, internationally respected SME) can succeed. They tend, though, to miss the nuances and organizational challenges. They create “kitchen sink” product teams where individual PMs are told to be 100% responsive to every sales person and every customer and every support issue and every user story. Their product managers struggle to focus and succeed.
The VPPM isn’t the most important person on executive staff, and doesn’t have the largest organization. A strong VPPM, though, will drive better processes, more cooperation and coherent products. If you’re an executive shopping for one, insist on some previous experience.
 I updated this post in Feb 2022 with different numbers. My thinking and math have evolved since 2014.