1b. Range of PMs in different companies

What are the different kinds of PMs?

As noted previously the PM job can vary wildly depending on the company, the product, and the projects. But, given this range, how can you determine what kind of PM role fits you and your background the best? Luckily, there are some frameworks we can use to make generalizations about what a PM role is probably like.

1. What kind of PM does the product need?

Technical-focused

Some products are very technical by nature. Perhaps they are purely developer-facing tools, like Amazon Web Services, or any of its cloud computing competitors. Also in this bucket are APIs and other developer platform projects. Or, perhaps the product’s key value proposition is some piece of cutting-edge computer science research (e.g. any machine learning-based company).

These kinds of PMs likely work with their Engineering teams the closest; there might be minimal or no UX needs here. The kinds of users you’re dealing with can also vary. Your users might be developers, who are going to be a smaller, but much more vocal and knowledgeable community. Or, perhaps your company is trying to productize some cool new research into a consumer-facing product. In that case, you’ll be working with individual users, but a large part of your job will probably be thinking about how to communicate what your technology does and dealing with its limitations.

In these roles, it is very helpful for the PM to have a stronger technical background that’s at least somewhat aligned to the technical underpinnings of the product. Frankly, it’s hard to understand the user’s needs or to influence change in the organization without being very comfortable with the product and the subject matter. This is not to say that you can’t learn this content knowledge on the job, but companies looking for this kind of PM will likely focus on candidates with a matching background.

Design / Experience-focused

This second bucket is probably what most people consider the “canonical” PM role. Here, a PM’s product is not pushing technical boundaries, but is focused on bringing some kind of experience to users. These types of products are generally B2C, but some B2B companies, especially SaaS products, will have these kinds of PMs as well. For example, at companies like AirBnB, Uber or Facebook, the core value of the product is not some cutting-edge computer science or arcane back-end technology (although these companies do have a lot of these projects going on in their Engineering orgs!). Rather, these companies care a lot about improving their core user experience.

What tends to differentiate this bucket of PMs is that their goals tend to center around user metrics like adoption, engagement, retention, etc. To that end, the PM pays more attention to the design of the user experience. These PMs work closely with their UX and Engineering counterparts to figure out the user needs to either come up with new features or to improve existing ones.

Many companies with this kind of PM are open to hiring PMs with slightly less technical backgrounds. This varies company to company, but in general the value of a PM here is less in being able to understand all the technical underpinnings of a product, and more in being able to think clearly about the user need and work with many different teams. Frankly, career-switchers will be able to emphasize some of the “soft skills” they learned in, say, consulting or business school, to help bolster their application to this kind of a PM role.

Business-focused

Some companies want their PMs to be much more focused on the business side of things. These PMs seek to identify market gaps, consider the competitive landscape, and push out new products to exploit those opportunities. Amazon (outside of AWS) is known to have more business-focused PMs.

These PMs probably focus less on the user experience, and focus more on what products to offer and how to get it to market. They build a business case and execute on it. They still influence the product roadmap, but they’re probably building on top of some existing product or infrastructure, and looking for new areas to go with it. These PMs probably work relatively less with Engineering and UX and more with other business functions like marketing, operations, finance and business development.

Companies looking to hire this kind of PM are probably the most likely to consider applicants with previous business but non-technical backgrounds, e.g. career switchers coming from business school. Coming from a business function at another company could also be a plus if you previously worked on new product development.

Note: these buckets are not well defined or set in stone!

At the end of the day, a PM has to do whatever it takes to improve the product and accomplish her goals. A business-focused PM will have to work with the Engineering team to better understand the limits of the existing technical infrastructure in order to inform prioritization. Or, a technical-focused PM will have to work with all the business functions to launch a new product that’s heavily based on some new technology. Moreover, a PM might have to transition between the different buckets throughout the life cycle of one project. For example, he might have to be more business-focused at the beginning to determine an opportunity, then more technical-focused to help build out the product, and then more experience-focused to determine how to improve adoption of the product.

2. Is the company B2B or B2C?

Here’s a set of (very, very) rough rules of thumb:

  • B2C companies tend to have more experience-focused PMs
  • B2B companies tend to have more business-focused PMs
  • Technical-focused PMs can be found in either B2B or B2C companies

Again, these are very rough correlations, and ultimately a lot comes down to the company itself and how it’s used to operating. As a counter-example, Amazon (ex-AWS) is a strong B2C company that is known for having more business-focused PMs.

But, these rules might help you target your job search better. If you don’t have experience working in tech and are trying to land a PM job coming from business school, for example, you probably have a better chance at a PM job at a B2B company (especially if the B2B product is for an industry that you have prior experience in). B2C companies will be a bit tougher if you’ve never worked in tech or new product development previously.

Corollary: Figure out the cultural “center” of the company

Every company has one function which is culturally the “center” of the company. These might not be the highest paid or the loudest people in the room, but they’re the ones who probably hold the most sway in a decision, all else equal. The function that’s at the center has probably been at the center since the inception of the company; it’s heavily rooted in the company’s culture, and is unlikely to change unless something significant happens to the company. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Engineering-centric companies
    • Common among newer tech companies
    • Notable examples: Google, Facebook
    • PMs here might be expected to be slightly more technical. Might be a bit harder to recruit for these positions if you haven’t had tech / PM experience beforehand
  • Design-centric companies
    • Not as common as engineering-centric, but represents a good chunk of newer tech companies
    • Notable examples: AirBnB, Snapchat
    • Similarly, may be a bit harder to recruit for these PM positions if you haven’t had tech / PM experience beforehand
  • Product-centric companies
    • Somewhat rare; these might not exist at all, but instead might just be engineering- or design-centric companies that have stronger product prioritization processes in place
    • Notable example: Spotify
    • Might be the hardest to recruit for these without prior PM experience, UNLESS you’ve had work experience in the specific industry of that company
  • Business-centric companies
    • More common among B2B companies and certain verticals like AdTech
    • Notable examples: Amazon, Salesforce
    • If you have no prior tech / PM experience, you may have the best luck here

 

3. How big is the company?

First off, the bigger the company, the more PMs are needed. When you’re a five-person startup, everybody can maintain open communications with each other, and the founder is probably making a lot of the decisions around the product. It’s unlikely that company needs a PM. As a company grows, however, product decisions become a bit more complex, the founder’s time becomes more divided, and there’s much higher coordination and communication costs between functions.

Small companies

At a smaller company (roughly 10 – 75 people), PMs will have more influence over the overall product and company, purely because there are fewer PMs. These PMs will likely have to flex the most in terms of their day to day activities. They may have to code a bit to help ship product, then take care of some marketing tasks for an upcoming launch, and then help set up some operational process.

These PMs are probably the most worried about finding product-market fit and gaining users. Given that the company is still small, these PMs have to be fairly scrappy and find shortcuts to accomplish what they want to do.

Medium companies

A PM at a medium-sized company (up to a few hundred employees) will probably have slightly less direct influence over all aspects of the product, but will probably be able to shape the processes that are forming in the company to deal with the increased size. The company will likely have built out teams to fill in the other functions on the business side, so the PM is transitioning from actually performing those other functions to becoming more of a coordinator.

Large companies

Large companies will most likely have a lot of PMs, so the scope of any given PM is probably going to be much narrower. A PM here really specializes in that smaller focus area, and has to conscientiously work to think bigger-picture about what’s happening with the rest of the company or the organization – especially in terms of how it impacts his specific area. The PM is unlikely to perform the role of another function like engineering, marketing or operations. Consequently, this PM will be relying the most on soft skills like communicating across the org and aligning different stakeholders. There will definitely be more process to deal with, although PMs generally still have the ability to shape these processes.

 

4. These are just generalizations!

All the above are generalizations, and exceptions definitely exist. None of the above should be interpreted as hard-and-fast rules about what kinds of people a company exclusively hires, or where you should apply if you’re thinking of career-switching. Remember that, as with many other areas in life, the particulars of your situation (including where you’re coming from, what you’ve worked on, and yes, who you know) can far outweigh any generalities! But, if you’re starting a PM job hunt from scratch, perhaps the above will help guide your plan of attack.