Product Management Trends - Part 1 of 4

Question: "I had a question for you that I am really interested in hearing your thoughts on.

I have been in the product management world for 15+ years now and one of the things that I have noticed is that it seems to be becoming a much more technical role requiring, in some cases, that people have programming backgrounds.

Now I do believe that it is important to understand the concepts the technical team is using, but I don't need a programming background to do that. I need to be able to challenge them on implementation choices, timelines, etc, but I wouldn't expect to review their code.

I have also seen the role becoming more tactical like a project manager. There seems to be increased pressure for product managers to focus on managing the team timelines and deliverables. Both of those take away time from thinking big and broad, doing the market research, figuring out what comes next, and so on.

Have you seen this happening as well? I am curious if it is a general shift across the space and if you have thoughts on whether it's a good shift or not."

There are several plausible explanations to the observations you had outlined. 

I have identified four types of product management. The two relevant approaches in this case are the Generalization and the Technology approaches to product management.

The Generalization approach views product management as being multidisciplinary and multifaceted, and responsible for nearly anything and everything related to the product. The main consideration that product management is a generalization, not a specialization, leads to monikers such as CEO of the Product to describe the espoused encompassing nature and profile of product management practitioners.

One common occurrence of the Generalization approach is that the product manager is assigned program manager responsibilities. This provides a possible explanation to your statement of the "role becoming more tactical like a project manager".

The Technology approach sees product management as an extension to product development – at times even subservient to product development. This approach exhibits a mindset that considers all product-related issues, roles, responsibilities, processes, and tasks from a technological or developmental viewpoint.

Under the Technology approach, product management practitioners are expected to be technically astute and indeed many are former engineers who perform a variety of activities that support product development and occasionally sales.

Their main job focus is to determine product functionality and features and communicate these to product development. At software companies who adopt Agile/Scrum, a lightweight software development method, it is considered acceptable for a product manager to also assume the responsibilities of the Scrum product owner role. The product owner role is an anomaly reserved to only Scrum and the resulting Product Manager vs Product Owner dilemma does not exist in any other lightweight (Agile) or heavyweight software development method. This dilemma will disappear if and when a company transitions to a software development method other than Scrum.

The Technology approach provides a logical explanation to the increased pressure you are seeing on product managers to be more technical, even to the point of having programming skills.

It should be noted that Generalization and the Technology approaches are unsupported and lack methodological foundation, and thus they can be invalidated.

The Methodology approach is supported by cogent rationales and solid arguments and it commits the product manager to engage in "thinking big and broad, doing the market research, figuring out what comes next, and so on". According to the Blackblot PMTK Methodology™ second foundation rule, product management is a strategic (not technical or tactical) function that operates solely in the problem space.

At the macro level, there is the slight possibility of companies pushing product managers to become more generalized and assume peripheral technical and project responsibilities as an aftereffect and repercussion of a previous global recession that forced everybody to do more. 

Job employment in the USA is presently strong and there is no economic recession. So I would discount this possibility because even if it were true there is usually a rebound for role specialization after a recession has ended. 

Coincidentally, there is however a talent recession nowadays – it has become VERY difficult to find qualified workers in many fields not just high-tech. This should not have any effect on product managers' job descriptions.

A more remote possibility and quite a stretch would be that consulting organizations are trying to sell their consultants, people who have been program managers for years, as product managers. Even if this is true, the reality is that the customer company and its executives shape the role of the product manager as they see fit. So this means that consulting organizations are in a secondary position to influence the role of a product manager.

The matter of establishing trends in product management is difficult to ascertain in the short term and this is particularly true for anything relating to business and social studies.

In conclusion, I do not see any verifiable trends or shifts in forcing product managers to be more technical or tactical. This has been going on for many years and will continue at companies who subscribe to Generalization and the Technology approaches, which is the likeliest explanation.

For more information about this topic see the Origins of the Product Manager vs Product Owner Dilemma, The Dichotomous Future of Product Management, and Product Manager as Product CEO articles.