Product Management Career Ladders at 8 Top Technology Firms
Slides: Product Management Career Ladders by Sachin Rekhi, Founder & CEO, Notejoy
One of the areas I often mentor product managers on are the career paths available to them within the profession. Since there isn’t a lot of discussion about this out there, I wanted to share what the career ladders look like for product managers at 8 top technology firms as well as some of the key dimensions upon which advancement in the profession occur.
Product organizations tend to be a small proportion of technology firm’s overall R&D teams, with ratios of up to 1 product manager to 10 engineers as common. Given this, companies tend not to focus on developing the same formalized career ladders compared to their engineering counterparts except at the largest tech firms who have achieved the scale of hundreds of product managers within their organization. The 8 technology firms whose career ladders I’ve showcased below have all achieved this scale and have thus invested in career ladders for their respective product organizations.
Dimensions of Advancement
Across all product organizations, I’ve found the most common dimensions of advancement are independence, product scope, and leadership.
At the earliest stage of your career in product management, a key dimension of your advancement is the independence you exhibit in the role. Associate Product Managers and Product Managers are often expected to operate with some independence, but with regular supervision and check-ins with their manager. As you advance to Senior Product Manager and beyond, you are expected to operate in the role completely independently from such supervision. This certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t leverage your manager as a coach to help you through various product problems and challenges that you run into, as the best managers are able to offer advice to take your capabilities to the next level regardless of your current role. But instead it simply means that such check-ins no longer become required for you to successfully execute on a given product initiative.
Independence is usually earned through accumulating and successfully executing against a variety of product initiatives across all stages of a product's lifecycle, including early product planning, customer research and validation, roadmap planning, product development sprints, beta testing, product launch, metrics analysis, and post-launch iteration. The key to advancement along this dimension is both exhibiting that you’ve had such experiences across the product lifecycle and as you’ve encountered such new situations you’ve been able to tackle the various challenges that you are presented with ease and minimal required supervision.
I encourage folks at the earliest stage of their career to seek out experiences that enable them to gain breadth of experience across the various phases of the product lifecycle as quickly as possible. Fast-moving product teams with strong execution velocity allow you to build up such experiences as quickly as possible. I also encourage folks to take advantage of the ability to rotate across products in large tech firms in order to gain experiences in all stages of the product lifecycle since the product they are currently working on may not afford opportunities to learn about other stages.
The second important dimension of advancement in product management is product scope. Product scope covers both the overall amount of product functionality that you drive as well as the complexity of the product offerings you are responsible for. For example, a junior product manager may be responsible for feature enhancements to an existing feature in the product. Whereas a more seasoned product manager may be responsible for an entire feature area or product, including brand-new product offerings that haven’t existed before.
You typically see product scope increase from features, to feature areas, to a product, to multiple products, and potentially to suites of product offerings. You see complexity of product increase from incremental improvements to existing functionality to ownership of more complex product offerings (for example, Facebook News Feed, Google Search, etc) as well as to responsibility for innovation in new product categories.
I encourage product managers to first focus on exhibiting mastery of the given product area that they are responsible for. Such exhibited mastery will build the trust within the team that you can add more product areas to your scope. Once you’ve been able to do so, it becomes important to find ways to find such increased scope. Proactive managers will help you find logical adjacencies that you could easily take on with ease. But it’s equally the responsibility of product managers to seek out such opportunities and have meaningful conversations with their manager on what those could be.
I’ve seen product managers increase their product scope by taking on existing product adjacencies, but also by tackling new product categories that the company is not yet involved with or simply leveraging the success of their existing product area to increase the product’s ambition. Some of the fastest advancement I’ve seen is in-fact with folks who leveraged this last strategy.
Product management is largely a leadership role and it represents the third dimension of advancement in the profession. Initially this involves exhibiting mastery of the core dimensions of product leadership within your feature team: strong written and verbal communication, ability to articulate and evangelize your product area’s vision and strategy, and your ability to drive the team to achieve it’s shared objectives.
As you grow in your role, your scope of leadership influence expands beyond your feature team (the specific designers, developers, testers, etc that are implementing your features) to broader sets of folks within the organization. This includes cross-team and cross-disciplinary leadership, executive leadership, and customer leadership. The best product experiences span across individual product manager’s ownership, therefore making it incredibly important that product managers can drive alignment with other product managers through strong cross-team product leadership. Similarly the actual product only speaks to a part of the customer’s journey with a given product, so it’s important to develop strong cross-disciplinary leadership across marketing, customer service, sales, and more. Executive leadership, or ability to manage up to the executive team within your company, becomes critical to evangelize investment in new product categories as well as accelerate investment in existing product areas. And finally, customer leadership involves the ability for product managers to directly engage with and influence customers of your product.
An independent aspect of leadership that becomes critical for advancement in the profession is your ability to lead and manage a team of product managers. You’ll find that most career paths in product management ultimately branch into two paths: one for the individual contributor and the other for a people manager. Individual contributors continue to increase their product scope and leadership as described above. People managers, on the other hand, increase their leadership through mentoring, coaching, and driving results through a team of product managers that report to them. While most product organizations allow advancement for individual contributors to very senior levels such as Principal Product Manager or equivalent, the highest level roles within the profession remain reserved for those along the people management path. Those along the people management path exhibit their mastery through their ability to effectively mentor and coach their team, their ability to drive strong operational results through team members, and their ability to coalesce and align the team along a broad vision encompassing all of the individual product areas.
The above slides showcase the specific product management titles and career paths of 8 top technology firms, including Amazon, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Salesforce, Twitter, and Uber. You’ll notice many similarities between many of the firms, as the titles and levels have evolved together over time and also allow mobility between organizations. You’ll notice a few notable exceptions though, including Facebook that has chosen a very flat title structure compared to other organizations, though internal leveling within each title allows for them to compensate and reward individuals more specifically. Amazon has also taken a different approach with their more senior roles, which can be more cross-functional in nature.
I hope this gives you a sense of the career ladders most common in product management roles as well as some of the key dimensions of advancement that you’ll need to master as a product manager to accelerate your own success in the role.
Want to accelerate your product career?
I've finally distilled my 15+ years of product experience into a new course designed to help PMs master their craft. Join us for the Fall '22 cohort of Mastering Product Management.
Are you building a new product?
Learn how to leverage the Deliberate Startup methodology, a modern approach to finding product/market fit. Join us for the Fall '22 cohort of Finding Product/Market Fit.
Enjoyed this essay?
Get my monthly essays on product management & entrepreneurship delivered to your inbox.
Jun 07, 2016