Starting Out: How to Choose the Right Product Roles? PART I
I've recently shared some of my past experiences in my posts. To diversify and be even more helpful for those of you who're entering or new to product management, I'd like to start sharing more "how-to's". As always, contact me for what you'd like tips on!
In this post I'm going to answer: "I'm just starting out. How do I choose the right product roles?"
I'll take you through:
PART I - Types of Product Roles (THIS POST)
PART II - How to Select (for your unique self)
Types of Product Roles
If you Google, there are many ways in which people defined types or archetypes of product managers. I believe those do make sense but in my opinion, most are over-generalization which might miss the important nuances and overlaps between types. So I'm going to use a different approach: let's look at 3 key dimensions in which product roles differ: Product, Focus Area, Company.
Dimension #1: Product
Obviously types of products you manage largely determine your role and responsibility as a product manager. And let's focus on just software products or else it'll be all over the place. For starter, here are the broad categories:
Consumer Products: or are often referred to as "B2C" products, broadly as ones that are directly used by or sold to consumers. Most of the internet-based software products nowadays are not directly "sold" to consumers but rather monetized in other ways like Ads (e.g. Google, Facebook), subscriptions (Netflix, Spotify), or commerce (Amazon.com). It can also be a combination of these. Characteristics of consumer products include strong focus on user experience (UX), larger user base (therefore more "A/B testing" used), and lots of growth/monetization considerations.
Enterprise Products: or often as "B2B" products, broadly referring to ones that are sold to the businesses/companies, and are used by the employees of these companies. Most of the enterprise software product are SaaS (software-as-a-service) and cloud-based and it's in many ways closer to consumer products. But unique characteristics include stronger focus on productivity/efficiency/security/reliability (vs pure UX), enterprise sales, and longer release cycles.
Internal Products: or sometimes people say "internal enterprise", referring to business software (like an enterprise product) that's uniquely built internally for the employees of the company (and is not for sale externally - at least initially). It might seem mistaken to call them "products", but if we define a software product broadly as a piece of software that solves specific business/user problems, it fits quite well. Also, usually we have internal products built (by internal product team) only for companies at a larger scale, partly because these companies have the "market size" (employee size), but partly also because 3rd party software can't serve the unique needs for the company. Internal products share some of considerations for enterprise products (e.g. focus on productivity), but are unique in that it's custom built for the one company and the customers are your colleagues (which can still be in good size with various competing needs you need to understand and prioritize).
Platform Products: This is probably the hardest to explain, and there are actually quite a few subtypes. In the simplest term, platform products are for other software to build on top of. Think Stripe's payment platform for other software with transactions to be built on top of, Shopify's e-commerce platform for online stores to be built on top of, etc. There are also internal platforms (data & services) where a company's user-facing software are built on top of. When we think of the specific "product" we actually deliver, you would usually have APIs as core interface for the customers, often with documentation and minimum UI tools included as a package (e.g. developer portal).
With me so far? Let's move on to the 2nd dimension.
Dimension #2: Focus Area
Most well known "products" (e.g. a website, an app, etc.) are quite big in scale that there are a huge team behind it, including multiple (usually many) PMs managing different parts of the product. I don't think you'd be surprised that Facebook.com has at least hundreds of PMs behind it. Well so that's exactly why the #2 dimension as "focus area" matters. Depending on the products, there are typically a few ways PM focus areas are divided:
By User Funnel: specifically how we acquire users, how we keep them, how we get them to be more engaged, how we convert them (into purchasing or subscribing), etc. So you'd have growth focused PMs, user engagement focused PMs, conversion/premium subscription focused PMs etc.
By Functionality: different features or sections of the product owned by different PMs. E.g A PM focuses on content feeds, another focuses on content creation, another focuses on content search, yet another focuses on user profiles.
By Component: A bit different from by functionality. It divides the product into logical components each requires some background or domain expertise. E.g you'd have UI focused PM, search engine focused PM, machine learning/AI/recommendation engine focused PM, payment focused PM.
By Vertical: verticals could be defined differently in different products, but we often see it defined as key customer segments a single product will support, especially when each segment has very unique needs. E.g. A PM focuses on healthcare industry customers, another in financial industry, yet another on education etc.
And above is not exhaustive either. They do represent majority well.
Dimension #3: Company
This should be intuitive too: the company you work for does matter. But what do you look at about the company exactly? Brand, size, culture, people, outlook.
Brand: Let's face it the company brand does matter. Why? for starter, you should expect a well reputable / successful company to be excellent in at least something that's important. Be it good product, good strategy, good talent, good execution regimen, good processes, you name it. Of course it doesn't mean the company is great at all of them. Just like person, no company is perfect. Secondly, it does impact your resume and therefore your talent brand and future career opportunities. This is of course assuming you're like me who realized by now that in tech industry, you likely won't retire in same company after working for it over 25 years.
Size: Size does matter, too. Of course it's not the bigger the better. You just have to know the differences and what you're looking for. Smaller companies usually provide more product ownership and faster growth opportunities, you as a PM might get to wear different hats, and are less structured in processes. But it can be chaotic at times. Bigger companies might have better benefits and perks, have stronger brand, have many talented people to learn from, and with processes better defined. But just know that as a PM, you might be a small fish in a giant lake and you'll likely have to work with the hierarchies and politics and lots of stakeholders to align on every key decision in your product.
Culture: A company's culture decides lots of things for the company: how they hire and fire, how they make decisions, the values they standby / prioritize, how they treat employees. For PMs, it affects how you drive decision making across teams. E.g. is it top-down or bottom up. Is it open or closed, do people encourage and discourage feedback, do people focus on right things to do vs politics or self interests.
People: I think when it comes to work happiness, I fully agree with the saying that goes "it's not about where you work, it's about who you work with". Of course it'll include your manager, your peer, your cross functional partners, and stakeholders. It's about day to day engagement with them. It's about how much you can learn and grow by working with them. I believe even more importantly, it's also about the connections you'll ultimately build even after you leave the company. As a PM you work with lots of people, everyday. You will want to work with who you enjoy with and admire.
Outlook: It's not about how successful the company has been leading up to this point. It's about where the company is headed. Of course you don't want to join a sinking ship, on one extreme. And if you're lucky to catch a rocket ship, you will expect much better personal growth opportunity with it as well.
You see, a number of archetypes just don't do justice, when it comes to assessing the PM roles for yourself. All above factors combined will decide how much you enjoy the role, be your best, learn, grow, and develop your career in product.
I'm not encouraging you to over-complicate it. I'm just encouraging you to look at it broadly and then break it down. Like a good PM :).
In PART II, we'll talk about how YOU select the best role for yourself! Stay tuned!
Like this post? Want to contribute to what I miss? Comment below or contact me!