We are approaching the final days of product management. Does this mean you should think about changing careers?
I’m an international relations major, and the only thing we’re prepared to be good at is building scenarios and projections. Beyond the incredible work it does on my anxiety every time I see something about nuclear warheads on the news, it also serves to anticipate a lot when it comes to my personal life.
A scenario I’ve been building in my head over the past month is “when will I be obsolete?” It’s happened to almost every profession in history: Typewriters, secretaries, tailors… The world turns, things change and people get left behind, that’s life.
The more I think about this question, the more I believe that we are living in the last days of the zenith of product management. The natural follow-up question that arises is “so what?”. Will my position be transformed? Will I have to change jobs?
Allow me to share some of my thoughts on why the end is near and what we should do about it.
Revolutions begin silently. Most of the time, when people realize what is happening, it is already too late. Things that seem irrelevant at first glance are often the indicators of change that people ignore. Here are three things that I believe mark the end of product management:
- Inflation and hawkish federal banks
What!? global finance has an impact on my life?! Shocking, right? I won’t go too deep into the subject, but what you need to understand is this: post-Covid, inflation is rampant around the world and fed banks are raising interest rates everywhere. When interest rates are high, capital doesn’t have to take so much risk to be repaid, it can just relax in the bank. If the capital stays in the bank, startups lose their main source of income: investment. Without starving startups and their scaling mindset, product culture as we know it takes a heavy hit.
- The Metaverse and Internet 3.0
Much of product management relies on the user having to use the product from us. Call it “digital” all you want, but selling an app isn’t inherently different from selling a shoe: a single vendor provides good value for a single user. With the decentralization of the Internet, the boundaries between customer and supplier are blurred. Similarly, the metaverse blurs the line between physical and digital. We are on the threshold of a change in the way we deal with…well, reality. It will be so intense that it is impossible to predict the consequences. The only thing that is certain is that it will have consequences.
- Everyone wants to be a product manager
The first people to learn product management from Ries, Cagan or Moore led the way. They were close to the source, both in terms of reference and substance. More than 20 years after the birth of the movement, Product Management has become less a culture than a profession… a very well paid profession. People are flocking to the career in droves under promises of growth and high salaries with relatively little effort. There can only be so much demand for so many people, and even worse, we reproduce the lessons of biases built on the original material. Gear updates are much slower than market expansion.
So to recap, the 3 horsemen of the apocalypse are: A) less overall investment in the market, which means startups aren’t so hot anymore, B) a fundamental shift in technology, comparable only to birth of the internet or the popularization of mobile and C) too many people are becoming product managers, and not necessarily good ones since we’re learning from second-hand teachers at this point.
The transformation of the internet is so wild and I’m so unqualified to talk about it that I’m going to leave out further exploration. Each of the other two omens I mentioned have a thousand impacts on the product management labor market, from the subtle to the harsh. Since I can’t cover them all in 5 minutes of reading, I’ll focus on two that are already in progress.
The end of growth
In the same week, three Brazilian unicorns downsized by the hundreds. Likewise, more than 2,000 people were fired from Valley startups in March alone, according to The Information. Both sources are abundantly clear: with less money to invest, venture capitalists are looking for results rather than growth, and the “fat” begins to thin. Although Product Managers do not necessarily seem to be the main victims of these atypical layoffs, this change of pace dictates a fundamental change in what is expected of us. Squads, fast and continuous delivery; all of these concepts were underpinned by the need to grow quickly at the expense of positive financial results. Startups had to follow and consolidated companies had to follow if they wanted to be competitive. Now, without that kind of pressure on big and small, the following consequence ensues…
The return of project management
The Lean paradigm is expensive. Having teams oriented around challenges rather than revenue streams, expecting them to fail often so long as they achieve a lot in the end isn’t smart from a purely ROI standpoint, mostly because it takes so long to repay.
If there is less investment, less support for the Lean paradigm in the market, companies resort to more conservative and guaranteed means of capital return: projects.
Not only that, but an oversaturated market of product managers means people aren’t so interested in the quintessential aspect of culture anymore, they want the badge and the paycheck. Companies, especially the oldest ones, take advantage of this weakening of fundamental values to transmit project practices disguised as “product adaptations”, further reinforcing the return of Project Management.
Well… technically yes… but no.
Product Management is, in itself, an iteration of many other management schools that preceded it: Project Management, Business Management, Factory Line Management… Since the construction of the great pyramids of Egypt, someone had to be who does and someone who manages. Although management has moved from vertical to horizontal, it has always been an essential part of value creation.
Yes, you’re probably not going to retire as a product manager. Yes, most of the content produced around product management today will be laughing stock in a few years. Yes, if you choose not to adapt, you will be out of a job…but as I said at the beginning of this article, this has always been the case for almost every profession in history.
Things may change on the surface, but they never change on the bottom. As I said in a previous article, the job is about taking risks and communicating. In other words, you have to lead and the market will always need leaders.
I don’t think we will build projects like we used to. Product management has marked the industry and many good things have come out of it. I think we’ll settle for something in between. More demand for predictability, more risk aversion, fewer multidisciplinary teams, but shorter user feedback, fewer processes and more horizontal leadership.
I wouldn’t recommend that you go to the nearest used bookstore and pick up a PMBOK manual, but I would definitely recommend that you broaden your horizons on the subject. Members of the Product community sometimes tend to be obsessed with subject matter rather than substance. If you truly care about the core values of product development, change will come and go and you will always be a good leader.
Remember to frequently “listen” to the customer (either through data or direct feedback), be sympathetic to your external or internal stakeholders, ask more questions than answers, and have your teammates’ backs. This career will never end.