(2023-10-21) The Product Manager Role Is A Mistake

Michele Sollecito: The product manager role is a mistake. Software product companies aren’t usually started by people with a strong background in building software products. Those who most likely end up founding businesses are good at getting funding, and at understanding their target industry

These people tend to lead everything personally, and a lot could be said about the damage domain experts cause to their own companies when they lead things

Sometimes, though, they acknowledge the danger they represent, and hire somebody in charge of making decisions

Do you know, though, what all the great people mentioned above have in common? None of them was a product manager... None of them were motivated by OKRs, KPIs, data, or other people’s opinion. They were obsessed by their vision and craft.

So, sure, if you can find someone tremendous, you’re willing to get out of their way, and you can cope with their intensity, by all means give them control over your product and company. They’ll produce extraordinary things. Good chances are, though, that you wouldn’t be able to find them, that they wouldn’t want to work for you or with you. (A-Player)

So what do you do instead? The enormous mistake you can make is to adopt a model that requires tremendous people, without having these tremendous people. The product managers you can hire and are comfortable hiring aren’t tremendous people

So what happens when you try to replicate something you have heard or read, but with a different breed of people?

These PMs you hire have no vision, charisma, expertise, strong beliefs, or technical skills. So what do they do when you give them that kind of power? They play it safe, and they play politics.

First, they weaponize data-driven decisions

Next up is introducing frameworks and roles for everything.

Everything involves a large committee, where anyone can say “no” to anything, but nobody can fully say “yes”.

Meetings also tend to explode in number

As a final nail in the coffin, they hire a ton of bad people. People are hired based on whether they’d represent no threat, so any trace of greatness pretty much guarantees a rejection. The ideal hire becomes a mindless all-rounder, who semi-competently does everything they’re told, without any dissent or care for quality

Is there any alternative

You hire everyday great people. Each one needs to be great at something, obsessed by their craft, and driven by quality. You then put them together in a team, without individual responsibilities, ensuring that there’s minimal overlap in areas of greatness.

You could avoid team leads completely, and have area leads as outside-in coordinators. But if you decide that you prefer having a leader responsible for each area, then by all means put a great person in that role.

The leader of an area should be the person that gets closer to the various Jobs, Musk, and Bezos.

And what about product managers? Is there no space for PMs in a well-operating company? Not for the PM role, no

You do need people that obsess about product discovery, product observability, and other areas traditionally delegated to product managers. Almost inevitably, these people will have held a product manager role, and that’s fine. But you’re hiring because of the obsession and the strengths, not because of the title.

I’d be dishonest if I wouldn’t admit that the problems I described happen everytime anyone without vision, charisma, passion, technical skills, and willpower is put in charge. So why the focus on product managers? It’s because of this tendency to wanting people with a product manager title in charge of software product development.

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