PMs at a scaling company will end up touching almost all aspects of the business, ranging from sales to support, engineering to documentation. At various points I’ve seen PMs on my team:
- Pitch their product’s technical merits to close an important account
- Strategize with engineering leaders on how to improve morale on their team
- Rebuild company processes alongside leads from departments such as support, product marketing, and sales engineering
- Hunt for companies to acquire
- Placate upset customers
- Present to internal and external audiences, ranging from CEOs to analyst groups like Gartner
If you want to be excellent at fielding a diverse array of business needs you must field a diverse team. Need to build a partnership? Build a new product line? Modernize your data infrastructure? Staffing a wide array of skills and experience makes it much more likely that your PM team will have a qualified person for any given need. A wide array of experiences is also invaluable for cross-training. It’s common for a PM staff all-hands, a product demo showcase, or a casual lunch table conversation to morph into an opportunity for mentorship where PMs can share their experiences from past products with one another.
Here are some of the traits and backgrounds that I think are most valuable to collect on a scaled product management team. You won’t find all of these traits in one person, so it’s a set of skills that you need to build over time on your bench.
A Former CEO
When you’re a kid, the world seems to work by magic. You wake up with a roof above your head every morning, the family car has gas in it, your parents know the way to your school – everything happens without needing to know the mechanics behind it. CEOs know that magic isn’t real and that the world runs from people asking for advice on how to write your first contract, or Googling how to incorporate a Delaware C corp. As a result, they’re great at modeling an ownership mentality.
Bonus: ex-CEOs of small companies tend to have a low willingness to tolerate bullshit and view obstacles as problems to overcome rather than setbacks to be accepted. Founder/CEOs in particular also understand urgency in a way that sets the right tone on a fast-moving team.
A Transfer From Your Engineering Team
Engineers from your own team understand the best and worst of your technology – the nuances of what makes your technology special and the limitations that could block you. The former is most important, as it’s the key to certain product breakthroughs that answer the question “what can our product do that nothing else in the market can match?” Engineering transfers also have natural rapport with your engineering team and can help keep estimates realistic.
When it comes to solution-finding, engineers from your team are the opposite of CEOs. CEOs will often come up with creative solutions because they’re familiar with so many aspects of business (“maybe instead of building a new feature we need to get everyone a customer success manager”). Former engineers, by contrast, are more likely to dive deep into what you can build to solve a problem (“You can compete better in this market if we can improve performance by 3x”). The combination is powerful.
A Former Management Consultant
Consultants have strong communication and analytical skills, and know how to manage customer expectations – even more important than just knowing how to interact with customers smoothly. Consultants also know how to work hard and can set a positive example of how to put up with friction like status reports with a smile (if needed). They also usually have experience working with old school companies, and can understand how these legacy corporations think and make decisions.
A Former Customer
Customers deeply understand many of the most important details of your product: how it’s actually used by customers in practice rather than theory. They also often understand relative prioritization of features that look like good ideas – when two product ideas both look promising, which is more important?
Being able to tap a teammate on the shoulder and ask them what users really want is invaluable. The key? When you get a former customer on your team, trust their judgment on customer goals. Former customers sometimes have a tendency to second-guess their experience if they’re industry veterans but first-time PMs. As a leader it’s essential to make sure that these product experts’ knowledge is really unleashed.
Someone Who’s Helped Achieve Product/Market Fit
Hitting product/market fit is like falling in love; you know it when it happens, but until you’ve felt it you’re always wondering if you’re there and you just haven’t realized. Successful companies need to successively hit product/market fit for new markets and products as they scale, and people who’ve seen this process can keep you honest on whether you’re on track.
I also find that seeing a company hit product/market fit builds a certain deep optimism about business that is hard to learn or even describe to others. People who’ve seen a company make something where nothing existed before have seen the magic happen, and know that it can happen again.
A PM Who’s Worked on a Bottoms-up SaaS Product
SaaS products that achieve product-led growth (eg Dropbox, Notion, Slack) use viral consumer growth techniques and ultra-streamlined UX to grow without a heavyweight sales motion. No matter how enterprise-oriented your product is, your product and business efficiency will be improved if you can deploy these product-led growth tactics, and your users will appreciate it.
Bottoms-up SaaS PMs will push you to always strive for better usability, building happier customers in the long run.
A PM Who’s Worked on an Enterprise SaaS Product
Conversely, many of the most successful enterprise products have been built with top-down go-to-market motions that require a product that can be sold to an executive (often with the help of a steak dinner or Warriors tickets). Think of Salesforce, Workday, or Palantir. To achieve huge revenue numbers almost all companies eventually migrate up-market. Building an enterprise product helps you understand what you’ll need for this evolution:
- What are the enterprise features that you’ll need (SSO, user provisioning, audit logs)?
- How do you build a product that checks the right boxes to win an RFP?
- How do you make sure that your product can navigate the tricks of a lengthy procurement process?
Enterprise SaaS PMs will push you to build what the largest buyers need, building a stronger business in the long run.
A Former Head of Product
One of the most important roles of a Head of Product is setting up the culture and operational processes that allow a team to run smoothly. Think of meeting cadences, product retros, OKRs, interview loops, and more. Having an ex-Head of Product on your team gives you a head start on new ideas and a sounding board on your existing processes.
Heading a product team can also be a lonely job, and these folks can be a sounding board for challenges that you’re facing, even if they aren’t currently in the driver’s seat.
A PM from a Top-tier Public Technology Company
“Top-tier” means a large, successful company that has excellent leadership, a technology-driven business model, and lots of money. Examples as of this writing in 2021/22 would include the FAANG companies, Microsoft, AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, Coinbase, Block, and perhaps a dozen or so others (this is far from an exhaustive list!).
These companies have massive valuations and train PMs to think bigger about how to dominate existing markets or enter new ones. They’re also heavily technology-driven and favor a thinking style that focuses on using products to win. Finally, they train PMs to think differently about money. Most of us mortals think of money as a finite resource, but Facebook/Meta sure as hell doesn’t – as a result, they train their PMs to think of creative solutions to problems such as acquisition, partnership, paying up for recruiting, etc.
A Very Tenured PM
One of the hardest problems to crack as a product team are challenges that require very long time investments – for example, overhauling your database technologies to establish healthy gross margins, or holistically modernizing your UI. Many career optimizers don’t want to tackle these long-term projects because they build your resume slowly, and with more risk. This is unfortunate, because these huge projects tend to make-or-break your business. You can’t give up on re-platforming your product halfway through.
Long tenured product managers are one of the best tools to crack these long-term projects, for several reasons:
- They know your environment and business, and can handle the challenge of partnering with a wide array of teams for years. They know where the skeletons are hidden (they may have personally buried them), and why
- They are clearly at least fairly happy at your company and unlikely to job hop as long as you continue to take care of them
- They have more total equity. Future equity retains employees, but total equity incentives good long-term decision making
When you need to run a long-running project, a long-tenured leader is invaluable. This is the easiest skillset to acquire – retain your great PMs!
Look for these backgrounds when building your PM team:
- A former CEO
- A transfer from engineering
- A former consultant
- A former customer
- Someone who’s helped achieve product/market fit
- A PM with bottoms-up experience
- A PM with enterprise experience
- A former head of product
- A PM from a top-tier public company
- A very tenured PM