How the PM Role is Evolving and What You Can Do About It
How to get ahead of the curve in today's challenging PM job environment
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200+ PMs attended live to hear us talk about:
How the PM role is evolving
The case for a dual career track for PMs
Our favorite PM use cases for AI
How to avoid PM title envy and choose your own path
Below are my abridged notes from the conversation.
How the PM role is evolving
Welcome everyone! Let's start by talking about the PM role itself. Two anecdotes:
Brian Chesky (Airbnb CEO) recently shared that he changed the traditional PM function by unifying product management and product marketing.
Several top founders shared that they’re proud of not hiring PMs.
Why do you think there are questions about the traditional PM role?
Well, I led the product team at Airbnb so I’m happy to share some context.
Many PMs tell me that they don’t have enough time to talk to customers or innovate because they’re too busy with internal meetings and processes.
If you draw a pie chart of how PMs spend their time, it's trended increasingly toward internal processes, systems, and communication over the last 10 years.
This all takes time away from focusing on the actual product. That’s what led Airbnb to focus more on customer obsession and less on internal shenanigans.
So I’d love to see our function shift away from internal management and more towards customer obsession and building.
I also used to work at Airbnb so it was really interesting to hear Brian talk about this. I’ll add that the PM role is very different inside every company.
More than any other role, PM is a collection of hats. Airbnb PMs have to put on their product management and marketing hats. At companies where there are no PMs, engineers, designers, or the founder might be wearing the product hat.
How do Airbnb PMs manage both product and marketing?
At a typical company, PMs usually focus on their product area which often leads to shipping the org chart.
At Airbnb, Hiroki Asai leads product and marketing and came from Apple where he worked closely with Steve Jobs. That’s why Airbnb’s product approach is different:
They start by writing a marketing narrative that describes a user’s end-to-end experience with Airbnb. They work backward from this narrative rather than forward from what can be shipped.
They do major releases twice a year. The marketing narrative defines how a user’s end-to-end journey might improve after each of these releases. For example, one focus area might be: “When I travel with a large group, I can easily find the right home."
They build products to bring the narrative to reality. The narrative comes before any individual feature.
The biggest advantage of this approach is that it brings multiple product teams together to bring the same narrative to life. This leads to a more cohesive product.
“Show me the incentive and I’ll show you the outcome” is a common refrain. As companies scale, PMs start getting evaluated based on how well they did during a big product review or how well they get along with stakeholders. How do you design incentives to focus more on customer impact and building?
I think it has to start top-down. Your company culture is pretty much dictated by the founder or the executive team.
I’ll give you an example:
At certain companies that I don’t want to name, peer feedback was very important. As a result, nobody wanted to push boundaries because they worried about “What will X say in my peer feedback?”
So they ended up just doing the least controversial things. But in the most successful company that I worked at, what you deliver is more important. Peer feedback was only 10% of someone's performance review.
I’m not saying that collaboration isn’t important. But when your success is defined only by peer feedback or by “Did I get a product review with the CEO?” that starts to kill the culture in my opinion.
The reality is that everyone cares about something different. Some care about the outcome, others care about the process, while still others care about the craft.
So if you’re a leader, be cautious about designing your incentives. Think about the behaviors that you want people to have and then incentivize those behaviors.
For example, if you hold a company meeting and start talking about processes or metrics instead of the user experience, people aren’t going to focus on users.
I think Duolingo incentivizes customer obsession really well. The leaders really care about building a delightful experience so they often ask during product reviews:
Did you talk to customers? Did they like this?
If you bake that in everywhere - job letters, reviews, conversations - your employees will naturally take it seriously. On the flip side, you can usually tell if a product isn't incentivized right (e.g., having too many notifications).
The traditional PM role has indexed too much on internal stakeholder management vs. talking to customers and building products.
Airbnb crafts a marketing narrative of the end user journey first before shipping products across teams to make that narrative a reality.
To design an org to focus on customer obsession, it needs to start at the top.
The case for a dual career track for PMs (IC + management)
Speaking of incentives, let’s talk about whether a dual career track for PMs is possible. Managers were hit hard by recent layoffs — do you think it’s possible for PMs to continue to grow as ICs instead of having to manage a team?
I personally love to keep my hands on the product and pick roles that allow me to do so. In my role at Duolingo, I have a team but I’m also still shipping stuff myself.
So my advice is to get really clear about what you’re looking for in your career.
Some people love to manage. Others hate it but become managers anyway because of career ladders. I hope that a dual IC + management PM career track will be one of the better outcomes of this difficult tech environment that we’re in right now.
It’s important to be conscious of disrupting your career.
There’s no doubt that the market has shifted to people who can build.
Last year, I noticed that many interview candidates only focused on their ability to manage a lot of people. I think it’s going to be harder for career managers to land opportunities now.
In fact, I’ve met a lot of leaders who have purposely downranked. They’ve taken lower titles to really sharpen their build skills again.
To add to what Nickey and John said — many companies already have dual tracks. Meta, for example, offers a PM IC track up to the product director level (L8). Similarly, Coinbase and Airbnb both have IC tracks up to principal or higher.
It’s still a really tough job market for PMs. If you haven’t worked at FAANG or similar companies, how can you even get hired?
FAANG experience is great but I think early-stage experience is just as valuable. At growing startups, you have to wear so many hats that you can often grow your career faster than at FAANG.
I recommend finding a good series B or C startup that’s growing responsibly.
Yes, I think finding a growing startup that matches your domain and skill set is underrated. Another tip is to find the hiring manager. If you come from a non-traditional background, a hiring manager is usually much more open to having a conversation with you than the recruiter (see my cold email guide).
You can also look at companies beyond the traditional tech industry. For example, Lego was growing its tech product org a few years ago. Don’t completely write off major brands that are building out a product division with a strong leader in charge.
You can also build and ship something yourself. For example, you could build an AI bot, write a newsletter, or put something else into the world for customers.
With no code tools and AI, it’s easier than ever to PM your own product.
So don’t just look for PM roles, create your own PM role to get good experience and eventually the opportunities will come.
The market has shifted to people who can build.
Be really clear about what you’re looking for in your career - whether that’s building or management.
Find a startup that’s growing responsibly, look beyond traditional tech, or start building something yourself.
How PMs can best use AI
That’s a great transition to how PMs can leverage generative AI. Let’s say I’m a PM who’s not really working on a gen AI product. How do I get my hands dirty?
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