Careers in Product Management: A Generalist’s Lament

When I interviewed for a technical product manager’s position with my current employer I was asked if my background managing a low-power wireless networking stack for embedded devices with 128K of flash would be transferrable and appropriate for a company who provides educational software sold to school districts and running on large enterprise-scale systems in the cloud. I said ‘sure’ it can.

My argument ran that a good C engineer could become a good Java engineer. The good in the engineer does not come from his knowledge of a particular programming language but rather from his aptitude for abstract thinking, ability to decompose problems and to work as part of a team. A good product manager is a good product manager. Whatever the product vision is (and whatever the product is) it needs to be articulated in simple terms to audiences internal and external, it needs to be launched, its performance and metrics tracked; it must be squared against competition and it must be decomposed into a set of requirements and priorities for the engineering.

Admittedly, in making this argument then I put my own interests ahead of the truth. I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t worry that once I transitioned into this new universe there would be a huge learning curve to overcome, much like there is a huge learning curve to overcome in going from C to Java. I also knew that the chances of this hypothetical C developer being hired by a Java shop were  infinitesimally small. “How much better were my chances”, I wondered?

Whether through the sheer powers of elocution or luck, the chances turned out to be much better indeed. I was hired, and the transition I worried about for myself has gone off without a hitch. I’ve now been in my new role for 6 months, and I don’t feel particularly disadvantaged by my background to be in this very different domain. And that’s the essence of my lament…

Is there something intangible about a market that my 5 years of experience failed to surface? If I’d been in embedded for 10 years, would I be less capable of making this transition or is it all ultimately the same stuff? Are we, the product managers, just delusional about our so-called vertical expertise and are our skills more interchangeable than we care to admit?

If this is indeed the case, count me disappointed. It means that either we can never become exceptionally good or that there is just isn’t that much that’s specific to any one product. While there is still no limit to how much experience and expertise we can accumulate, would this observation imply that it doesn’t matter where we do it or whether we hop across multiple domains in the process?

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4 responses to “Careers in Product Management: A Generalist’s Lament

  1. I also recently made a transition between industries as a Product Manager and felt the same way.
    I think the key thing is “A good product manager is a good product manager.” And some of the other defining traits of a good product manager are being able to adapt, being able to listen and being able to learn. Coincidentally, those are the traits that make changing industries easier too.
    However, since most of what a product manager must communicate is market, buyer or user related and those are very industry specific, familiarity with those areas and specifics are extremely valuable.

    • Thank you for your comment, Josie. I totally agree. The industry familiarity can a challenge at first, but I think it’s really overstated for a product manager. It’s definitely more critical for bizdev and sales people because it’s so much more about the Rolodex for them. :)

  2. I loved this post. I recently had a similar experience as a project manager. For 3 years I worked managing complex development projects in one of the largest Fortune 500 Telecom’s focusing on internal billing and ordering enterprise projects in a waterfall environment. I found myself at an interview for a public (but small) multimedia content distribution and syndication company managing smaller fast paced projects that were customer facing in an Agile dev environment. I’ve been here 8 months now and love it. The skills that make a project manager great: abilitiy to facilitate communication, manage business expectations, control scope creep and budget, keep things running on time etc are the same no matter what system or size you are working with. The ability to sell yourself and articulate your accomplishments make all the difference :)

  3. Thanks, Dana. I totally agree. I think people in communication-driven roles like project management and product management are generally more transplantable because those are largely cross-cutting skills. And yes, at the end of the day it’s all about articulating the value you are bringing to the table.

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