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The rise of the Product Management expert and why it sucks

Written by
Reid Cockrell Reid Cockrell
Senior Product Manager @ Red Sift

As I am sure we have all seen, there is an ever-increasing rise in product management “experts” online. Whether they are in the market to sell coaching to other product managers or consultancy-style services to companies, these people are absolutely everywhere.

Disclaimer: There are some excellent individuals out there doing the above and providing enormous value to their customer base. This isn’t about them.

While I have no issue with individuals who choose to pursue this as a career path, I do have an issue with the large number of people who are selling themselves as experts and quite frankly have no right to do so. I also believe this creates unnecessary pressure for product managers, encouraging them to feel like they should be moving up the ladder at rapid rate and if they aren’t VP at Unicorn Z within a few years of starting out then they are complete failures.

Product management has been around for a long time, but has become “sexy” in the last 5-10 years and the market has been flooded with people seeking advice on just about everything to do with product management ever since. This - alongside the general rise of “hustle culture” on places like LinkedIn - has presented people with an opportunity to be “influential” simply by being loud, rather than being right.

Everyone embellishes, especially online. But there is a fine line between embellishment and bullshit and far too frequently the knowledge distributed by these people falls into the latter - sometimes unintentionally - and does more harm than good. Let’s look at an example (details omitted to prevent me being sued):

"Everyone embellishes, especially online. But there is a fine line between embellishment and bullshit"

Reid Cockrell, Senior Product Manager @ Red Sift

My totally imaginary profile represents someone that I may or may not have stumbled upon on LinkedIn. This person offered consultancy services and training to “startups, scaleups and enterprises” to enable individuals and teams to work more efficiently. This profile shows that after graduating, they worked as a Data Analyst at a large, well known retail company, shifting into a PM role and then into Senior PM, spending a year or so in that role before starting the consultancy business.

I fail to see how a background like that would guarantee the provision of quality advice. Such a profile suggests minimal experience in PM, an inadequate basis for providing valuable advice to individual product managers or whole teams, especially as they had only ever worked at one company before heading for the consultancy trough.

I think that most of us would agree that the scope of the PM role can be insane - both in day-to-day expectations as well as in how vastly the responsibilities of the role can differ from one organisation to another. Whilst we’ve all read “Inspired”, “Continuous Discovery” etc, the reality is that most of us are working in highly-constrained, sub-optimal environments of different shapes and sizes and what success looks like for me and for you may be totally different even though we carry out the same role. Let’s take one example of this, enterprise PM vs startup PM:

As an enterprise PM, your challenge is to optimise the “old”. You are looking for ways to move the needle a percentage point, because a percentage point is big money. Enterprise companies are typically more process driven, slower-moving and politics plays a more significant factor in getting things done. You also typically own a slice of a slice of a slice of something, so your knowledge is specialised and deliberately confined and your environment is quite controlled.

Startup PMs have a different challenge, they build the “new”. The goals are likely far more stretching/unrealistic/unachievable and the resource they are operating with is spread quite thinly. The goalposts move at a rapid rate and adaptation becomes vital as your work environment is ever changing. The other big difference from the Enterprise environment is that the smaller the startup, the more “work that nobody else wants to do” gets put onto the PM. So PMs at these companies also end up wearing the hats of data analysts, copywriters, marketers, team leads, product owners, product designers, researchers or salespeople.

(FYI - If you are interested in this specific topic further, Spencer Wong writes about this much better than I can in his article Scaleup vs Startup in Product Management)

The reality is that there is no “one size fits all” for product managers, whether we would like there to be or not. Because of this, you simply can’t fast track becoming a good PM, because what makes a good PM at Company A might not work at Company B. In fact, you could be a good PM at Company A and a terrible PM at company B, despite going about your job in the exact same way. I had the joy of experiencing this, when I once took my “run fast and hard at the problem” startup approach into a behemoth enterprise and quickly realised that whilst I may have been running fast and hard, it may as well have been on treadmill because I was getting fucking nowhere.

In a world where we are increasingly encouraged to move at hyper-speed and are constantly barraged with content from individuals who are more “successful” than ourselves, I believe the best PMs will be the ones who allow themselves the time to slow down, learn and experience product management across an array of environments so they can understand not just what works, but why it works and how that knowledge can be leveraged in the future in different situations. The knowledge of how to perform the role well needs to come from you - with that knowledge being shaped by what you’ve seen work and not work at different organisations, not by what gets written in content online where the advice is only applicable to 0.1% of all companies and PMs on the planet.

I appreciate there is value that can be drawn from books, online content and coaching/mentoring. This is not an attempt to discredit those methods in their entirety - It is just a word of warning to adopt a cautious approach when dealing with these so-called “experts” and how to tell the bad from the good. Consider asking yourself the following questions:

Have they done what I’m trying to do?

It’s important when seeking advice to understand whether or not your potential advisor or mentor has ever personally achieved what you are trying to achieve. Some-one who has only done product work at sub-50 person start ups is likely not the right person to advise PMs or teams that are at a later stage of growth or are at enterprise scale. Real-world, contextual advice from someone who has experienced the same issues or blockers that you are currently facing and knows how to navigate them is so much more valuable than someone who is preaching theory.

Do they have a varied background?

We have a natural tendency to over-index on experience and it does not correlate with expertise in a linear fashion. However, someone who has been an product manager for 6-8 years across 3-4 roles has a broader array of experiences to draw on than someone who has only seen product development in one place, irregardless of the success they have seen at that one place. Experiencing product management across multiple organisations offers the opportunity to see things done well, to see things done badly and everything in between - the kind of experience that helps you become well-rounded in the future.

Is what they’ve achieved replicable for me?

We also over-index on success and assume that because some-one had a rapid rise to the top, they know what they are doing and we might be able to replicate that rapid success if we do what they did. This never works in practice, because of one or more of the following:

  1. They are a genius. Unfortunately for most of us mere-mortals, this is not an achievable state.

  2. They were in the right place at the right time. They got on the rocket ship with impeccable timing and rode it to the moon. This doesn’t mean they aren’t a good PM, it just means that the growth that was achieved would have most likely have happened anyway.

  3. They are lying. They’re lying about what they achieved, how it was achieved, their contributions to those achievements and most other things in between.

Do they admit that they were lucky?

In order to be successful, you need an enormous amount of luck. You can be the most hard working individual on the planet but if things don’t fall your way, you won’t get very far. You can certainly place yourself in situations to create luck or take advantage of it when it arises, but accepting that there are other factors is critical. Someone who understands that they have been “lucky” in elements of their career as they have advanced is likely smart and self-aware enough to know that their own knowledge has limitations and therefore will be less likely to advise on things they know nothing about. They also probably won’t be a bellend, which always helps.

I realise there is some irony within this article, as I am producing product management advice about why you shouldn’t take advice from people who produce product management advice. My intention is not to discredit all such advice, including my own, but rather to encourage a critical approach to obtaining and consuming advice. Success in this field requires a deep understanding of different environments, patience and the ability to adapt to ever changing circumstances. Remember, the best PMs are those who have taken the time to learn and grow, understanding that true expertise comes from a combination of practical experience and continuous learning, not from chasing quick wins or superficial accolades, or advice from superficial business management books. Always remember the old Latin tag - caveat emptor (buyer beware).



Reid Cockrell

Reid Cockrell
Senior Product Manager @ Red Sift

Reid has over 7 years of product management experience, with the last 2 years spent in leadership roles that also included day-to-day product management responsibilities. Successfully built, launched and grown SaaS products across organisations of differing sizes & stages. Proven track record of delivering commercial growth, increasing product usage and improving user experience. Demonstrated consistent success in solving complex customer problems by using a solid knowledge of product principles, data analytics and UX & research practices. Confident in gathering feedback from customers as well as nurturing strong internal relationships. A hands-on, quick learner with the ability to adapt and thrive in a fast-paced environment.

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