Nikhyl Singhal (VP Meta): How to Advance Your Product Management Career (Part 1)
A 25+ year veteran on navigating the middle and late stages of your product career, finding the right company to join, and knowing when to switch companies
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Today, I want to share a special interview with Nikhyl Singhal, a VP of Product at Meta who has coached 100s of product leaders during his 25-year career.
This is part 1 of our conversation where we cover how to:
Navigate the middle and late stages of your product career
Find the right company to join
Decide when to switch companies
In part 2, we covered what top companies pay PMs, how to negotiate comp, and how to overcome the shadows of your superpowers.
Let’s dive in.
How to navigate the middle and late stages of your product career
Welcome Nikhyl! Can you start by sharing why your newsletter is called The Skip?
I came up with The Skip because I think a career is more of a marathon than a sprint.
People often think very short-term about their next role. Instead, you should think about how to set yourself up well for that skip role.
Since we’re old, let’s jump straight to the middle stage of a PM’s career. In this stage, PMs usually move from managing a product to managing a team. Do you think this step is a must-have to advance?
My answer is different today than before.
A few years ago, many PMs transitioned to leadership through people management. But today:
Small teams are in and large teams are out.
So I think you’ll have a tough time if your goal is to manage other PMs and managers.
Instead, think about your builder story. What did you build, what impact did you have, and what challenges did you overcome? For example, a good story is:
I turned around this product despite internal and external challenges.
I made mistakes, learned a lot, and still delivered despite the odds.
Compare the above to a manager story where you led a team of PMs that got re-orged due to slowing growth. Many companies today would rather hire the builder than the manager.
Yes, the career ladder makes you focus on that next promotion and on managing more people. But let’s not forget that we’re all here to build great products.
What needs to happen to get promoted and why might promotion be not as important as most people think?
The fastest way to get promoted is to find an environment where:
Your superpowers are on display.
You feel seen.
You can be your true self at work.
Find a role where who you are is the same as who your company wants you to be.
That being said, promotion is not always in your control. You may be qualified but there simply might not be enough budget or headcount.
What is in your control is your builder story. If you’re still learning and making an impact, you can pave a path to product leadership even if that promotion is taking longer than you want.
Promotion can always happen at another company if you have a good builder story.
Yes, just because you’re not getting promoted at your current company doesn’t mean that you can’t be a great leader at another company. So don’t just optimize for promotion - take a look at your whole board of options.
Let’s talk about the late stage of a PM’s career. Are there any other options besides climbing the ladder to VP or CPO?
There are definitely other options. Here are a few that come to mind:
Product VP or CPO: Consider this if you want to build the factory that creates the products.
General manager: Consider this if you want to build the business vs. the product.
Founder: Consider this if you love the 0-1 product journey.
Investor: Consider this if you want to create a portfolio of bets long-term.
Advisor: Consider this if you want to get out of operator roles but stay engaged as an advisor or a coach.
It’s valuable for everyone to reflect on their end game. For example, I can probably never be a good investor because I need rapid feedback loops instead of waiting 10 years to see what happens.
Yes, I think you like building and thinking deeply about a customer problem. That’s different from looking at the broader space and being okay if some companies in your portfolio don’t make it.
How to find the right company to join
It’s clear that your environment can play just as much of a role in your success as your skills. How do different company stages impact a PM’s job?
Yes. There are four company stages:
Drunken walk: The company is still chasing product market fit.
Product fit: The company is starting to see smoke that it hopes to turn into a fire.
Hypergrowth: The company is scaling the factory just as much as the product.
Scale: The company is a market leader but faces the innovator’s dilemma.
The company stage has a huge impact on your product role. So when people ask me if they should join company A or B, I often advise them:
“Let’s forget the names for a second. What company stage would best leverage your superpowers, make you feel seen, and help you be your true self at work?”
What company stages should a PM consider today?
We talked about how PM is now more of a builder function than a manager function.
Before, I’d say go be a founder if you like the early stage because founders have more upside. But times have changed. Many scale companies have slowed down hiring and many hyper-growth companies are now shrinking.
Today, I think you might be able to craft a better builder story if you join a product-fit company that has good funding and is scaling thoughtfully. Come in while the team is still small so that you can partner closely with the founders and get meaningful upside.
Be wary of joining hypergrowth companies that aren’t growing anymore. These companies often have inflated valuations and a declining culture.
So you recommend taking a look at product-fit companies that are growing at a steady pace?
Yes. Slow and steady wins the race.
How to decide when to switch companies
What are some good and bad reasons for switching companies?
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