“So you’re the one who decides what color a box of detergent should be?”
That’s how one Silicon Valley veteran responded years ago when I told him I wanted to switch from engineering to become a product manager. It was the early days of the dot-com era, and in truth he was right. As you’ll learn in Chapter 1, for many years that was what product managers did. But as the role of product manager expanded into high tech, it adapted and evolved, meaning different things to different people. At some companies, product management was primarily an outbound marketing function. In others, it was more technical. Some companies used the term program managers for their product managers, others called them project managers, but called their project managers program managers. (Even more confusingly—everyone just called them all “PMs.”)
In the almost 20 years that have passed since that conversation, product management has matured. Today, in the digital world where we hardly agree on much, just about everyone can agree that product managers are essential contributors at the intersection of business, technology, and user experience. Thanks to successful product-first companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, people seem to finally be speaking the same language. Every year I’m contacted by hundreds of college students hoping to begin a career as a product manager. That’s awesome: when I was a college student I didn’t know what a product manager was. (Heck, I’m not sure I even knew when I became a product manager.)
As the technology industry coalesced around product management, a new problem emerged: how should you lead product teams? For me, making the leap from software engineer to product manager was challenging enough, but it was even harder to go from being an individual contributor product manager to product leader. Shifting from managing products to leading people managing products felt like uncharted territory. You need to be a people-first communicator who can rally everyone behind a vision without much formal authority. Leading people is hard enough, but leading product managers? Let’s say I made a lot of mistakes and leave it at that.
Well, good news friend. No matter whether you’re a product manager, a new product leader, a startup founder, a CEO, or a CTO, your path is going to be much easier than mine was. The book you’re holding in your hands will be your guide to navigating product leadership, the one I never had. Many of the books I found on leadership had solid advice, but didn’t fit cleanly into the rough-and-tumble world of product. Within these pages you’ll hear a diversity of opinions from the industry’s most successful and respected product leaders, insights that will help you lead your team and deliver exceptional products.
There is no one right way to build great products; but as we see from the sheer variety of product leaders interviewed and represented in this book, there is a right mentality and approach. You’ll still make lots of mistakes—everyone will. But after reading this book, you won’t make the same ones I did.