It’s impossible to count how many people at my college wanted to be “writers”. So many early-twenty-somethings here in the US think they are going to spend their lives as screenwriters or novelists. My colleagues from India tell me most people there want to be doctors or engineers, which tells you something about the decline of the United States.
Back in the mid-2000’s, a popular buddy-comedy came out about a novelist and an actor and their adventures in the “California wine country”. The author of the film is an LA novelist. The only people he knew, and the only characters he could create, were writers and actors. I read that his first novel was about a screenwriter. The movie was popular, but I found the characters utterly boring. Who cares about a novelist and his romantic adventures? Herman Melville spent years at sea, giving him the material to write Moby Dick. Fyodor Dostoevsky wanted to be a writer from an early age, but he spent years in a prison camp followed by years of forced military service, to give him a view into nihilism and its effect on the human soul. The point is, these great writers earned the right to talk about something, they didn’t just go to college and come out a genius with brilliant things to say.
I’ve been hearing a lot about “product management” lately. I work in product management, in fact, and I’ve worked with product managers for many years. However, I didn’t realize until recently that product management is the hot new field. Everyone wants to major in PM in business school. As one VP I know told me, “people want to be PMs because that’s where CEOs come from.” Well, like 19-year-olds feeling entitled to be great novelists, b-school students are apparently expecting to become CEOs. Somewhere missing in this sense of entitlement is that achievement has to be earned, and that is has to be earned by developing specific expertise. A college student who wants to be a novelist thinks he or she simply deserves to be a novelist by virtue of his or her brilliance; a b-school PM student apparently thinks the same way about being a CEO.
Back when I worked in TAC, one of my mentors was a TAC engineer who had previously been a product manager for GSR (12000-series) line cards. He went back to TAC because he wanted to get into the new CRS-1 router and felt it was the best place to learn the new product quickly. It made sense at the time, but it is inconceivable now that a PM would go to TAC. The product manager career path is directed towards managing business, not technology, and it would be a step down for product managers to become technical again.
If you don’t work for a tech company, you may not know a lot about product management, but PMs are very important to the development of the products you use. They decide what products are brought to market; what features they will have; they prioritize product roadmaps. They are held accountable for the revenue (or lack thereof) for a product.
Imagine, now, that somebody with that responsibility for, say, a router has no direct experience as a network engineer, but instead has an MBA from Kellogg or Haas or Wharton. They’ve studied product management as a discipline, but know nothing about the technology that they own. Suppose this person has no particular interest in or passion for their field–they just want to succeed in business and be a CEO some day. What do you think the roadmap will look like? Do you think the product will take into account the needs of the customer? When various technologists come to such a PM, will he be able to rationally sort through their competing proposals and select the correct technology?
To be clear, I am not criticizing any individual or my current employer here. This problem extends industry-wide and explains why so many badly conceived products exist. The problem of corporatism, which I’ve written about often, extends beyond product management too. How often are decisions in IT departments made by business people who have little to no experience in the field they are responsible for? I got into network engineering because I was fascinated by it and loved it. I’m not the best engineer out there–I’ve worked with some brilliant people–but I do care about the industry and the products we make. And most importantly, I care about network engineers because I’ve been one.
Corporatists believe generic management principles can be learned which apply to any business, and that they don’t really need domain-specific expertise. They know business, so why would they? True, there are some “business” specific tasks like finance that where generic business knowledge is really all that’s needed. But the mistaken thinking that generic business knowledge qualifies one to be authoritative on technical topics doesn’t make sense. This is how tech CEO’s end up CEO of coffee companies–it’s just business, right?
I don’t mean to denigrate product management as a discipline. PMs have an important role to play, and product management is the art of making decisions between different alternatives with constrained resources. I am saying this: that if you want to become a product manager, spend the time to learn not just the business, but the actual thing you are product managing. You’d be better off spending a couple years in TAC out of business school than going straight into PM. Not that many CEO-aspiring PMs would ever do that, these days.
Now off to write my first novel.