There are few professional fields I’ve come across as diverse as the product management field. In all my conversations with other PMs, I haven’t experienced one instance where the roles discussed were exactly the same. While this is great news for aspiring PMs because there’s something for everyone, it can also become a major source of headaches when deciding where to work.
In this post I want to highlight some key ways the PM role varies across companies by summarizing and commenting on several great points found in the Cracking the PM Interview. It’s my hope that this post will at least help people to start thinking about the sort of companies they’d want to work at based on their skills and personal preferences.
Companies are transparent when their teams can see what every other teams are working on. There’s a culture of openness – PMs may work on projects in different teams and there is more frequent cross-team collaboration. In these companies, PMs have the benefit of understanding the bigger picture and making good use of other PMs’ subject matter expertise, at the expense of spreading themselves more thinly because of these additional interactions.
Companies that are more siloed have teams that focus on their own projects and try to minimize interaction with other teams. The culture at these companies is more closed, and teams are more heads down and less in-the-know of the big picture. Frequently these companies work with confidential projects where a leak could end up costing a huge amount of money.
Companies such as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo are more transparent, while companies such as Apple and Amazon are more siloed.
2. Ratio of PMs to Engineers
PMs work closely with engineers, and the amount of engineers they work with also vary widely among companies. The ratio could be 1:10 at a smaller startup or 1:3 at a larger company. A key thing to consider about the ratio as an aspiring PM is overall responsibility. In companies with more PMs, the PMs have less ownership of the product as a whole but more opportunities to learn from and work with other PMs. In companies with fewer PMs, the PMs tend to own a larger piece of the scope and more opportunities to do independent work.
Microsoft has a lot of PMs and Google and Twitter have very few PMs per engineer.
3. Product Strategy
There are two main methods that companies use regarding product strategy. One method is a “bottom up” approach, and the other is a “top down” approach.
In the bottom up approach, PMs and engineers make the key decisions on where the product should head in terms of technical and user experience design. In the top down approach, company executives and PMs make the big decisions and developers implement these decisions. PMs are more involved in product strategy with the bottom up approach and must work with many people to present a comprehensive plan. With the top down approach, PMs don’t have as much of an influence on product strategy until they are more senior.
Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Amazon use the bottom up approach, and Microsoft and Apple use the top down approach.
4. Company Culture
It’s difficult to characterize company culture as a dichotomy, since there’s just too many pieces to any company’s culture. But for the purposes of this post we’ll focus on the tendencies to have a more lighthearted culture or a more intense culture.
Companies such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook have a laid-back culture with plenty of great perks (free food, snacks, messages, laundry services, etc.). This isn’t to say the employees don’t work hard – there’s just more of an emphasis on the quality of their work as opposed to the number of hours worked.
Companies such as Apple and Amazon have a culture where hard work is prized. It’s common for employees to work long hours and take weekend calls because they are inspired by the company’s mission and don’t mind the work when there’s an amazing product at stake.
5. Prior Experience
Apart from technical or non-technical PMs, companies also look for PMs with backgrounds as diverse as MBAs, engineers, and new graduates during their hiring process. The examples below should give you some ideas of the huge variance among different companies.
Amazon – prefers MBAs, technical background not critical, doesn’t hire new graduates
Apple – hires college graduates, prefers technical background, doesn’t prefer MBAs
Facebook – hires college graduates, prefers highly technical background
Google – hires college graduates, prefers technical background, hires some MBAs, with more emphasis on master’s degrees or PhDs
Yahoo – hires college graduates, prefers experienced PMs, prefers technical background, hires some MBAs
Microsoft – hires college graduates, prefers technical background, hires some MBAs
Again, product management is a huge field with companies that emphasize many different skillsets for PMs. It’s absolutely vital to take a good hard look at the companies you want to work at and make sure that the PM role there works for you.
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