5 Competency Layers of Product Management
+ How does the PM role evolve along a career ladder?
In this wintry edition of Behind Product Lines (BPL), we will:
conduct a quick survey around what direction BPL should take in 2023
take a look into 5 Competency layers Product Managers build in every role
unpack how the PM role evolves as you climb higher in a career (my personal example)
Got a different suggestion? Share it with me here.
The 5 Competency Layers of a Product Manager
A few days ago, a Product Manager asked me:
"I've been working as a PM in the real estate industry for a number of years. Am I limiting my career & the jobs I can apply to?"
Product Managers worry about getting stuck in one industry.
While hiring managers in industries like Fintech and e-commerce are increasingly getting picky about PMs having relevant experiences, there are still a number of transferable skills that allow PMs to move around.
For example, I personally started my PM career in the auto industry (Pakwheels). I stayed in that space for 4 years before I moved onto recruitment tech (Bayt).
👉 The hard skills like spec writing & roadmapping were largely transferable. I didn't have to relearn that.
👉 Both the auto & recruitment product were marketplaces. The buyer-seller dynamics were similar to the employer-job seeker relationship.
👉 Yes, I had to learn recruitment jargon & processes (like sourcing, time-to-hire etc.) but I got up to speed over time.
So, here's how I think about this.
PM skills & competencies can be broken into 5 buckets:
1. Human Skills
Non-technical skills that determine how effectively you work with others. Some of these are innate (ex: empathy, curiosity etc.), but others can be adopted with mentorship & exposure. (ex: critical analysis, communication etc.)
2. Hard Skills
These are abilities that help you tackle tasks in a PM's core routine. Ex: ability to prepare specs/wireframes, run tools like JIRA, interpret data etc.
Point 1 & 2 are mostly foundational competencies.
3. Product Category Skills
This is a competency specific to the type of product the PM is operating with. Ex: if a PM works on a 2-sided marketplace OR an e-commerce platform, the knowledge/dynamics of that product can come in handy in other products in the same category.
4. Domain-specific Skills
This is a competency related to ability to the understand a specific industry or domain. Ex: a PM that's working on a health tech app had to be aware of the terminology, common stakeholders like clinics/doctors/nurses, metrics, the processes/regulations etc.
5. Company-specific skills
This competency relates to the ability to work efficiently at a specific firm. Ex: a person who works at vFairs knows about the company's vision, leadership style, the people involved, the culture etc.
💡 Most Product Manager jobs will leverage Layer 1 & 2. As long as you're strengthening that, you're in a good place. They are the most transferable skills.
💡As a PM, it's a common mistake to think your skills are limited to "equivalent" products. In reality, your Layer 4 skills make you valuable to even adjacent products in the same industry.
💡Your Layer 3 competencies would help you in cross-domain products of the same product type.
In short, don't worry spending too much time in the same domain.
Focus on building strong foundations for your competency stack. Even if you aim to apply to a completely new domain years later, you can stack Layer 3+ with learning & exposure as long as Layer 1 & 2 stands firm.
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How do responsibilities evolve in a product management career?
There really is no standard Product Management career ladder. Since the role varies so much from one company to another, so does "career progression".
Without getting into job titles, I can share how the role evolved in my career. This summary will help budding Product Manager understand how the role evolves as you ascend vertically in this track.
Here’s a depiction of a typical product management path (it’s not the only one though):
Image Credit: The Product Manager
Entry-level Product Manager
As an Entry-Level Product Manager at Pakwheels & Yallamotor, I was mostly focused mostly on crafting solutions for localized problems:
Understand pain points from a customer & devise a technical solution
Develop specs & prototypes
Work with engineers & designers to deliver it and iron out kinks
The strategic portion was mainly driven by supervisors
Mid-Level Product Manager
When I moved into a Mid-level Product Manager role at Bayt, the changes I saw were:
Ownership of a larger product area, especially high-traffic areas
More autonomy on backlog specifics & prioritization (didn't need approvals for everything)
I had more customer exposure and discovery opportunities + lots of sales demos
Deeper insights on data & dashboards
Better grip on the industry & domain
Group Product Manager
The next step into a Group-level Lead Product Manager shifted quite a bit of responsibilities:
I was no longer writing detailed specs or prototypes (Product owners and junior PMs handled that)
I got involved in hiring for my team and embroiled in a lot more interviews.
There was a lot more "managing up" - I had to produce reports, get into investor meetings, present status on key initiatives etc.
I had more of a say on our project management methodology & was able to affect process changes to tailor it for the product needs
Director of Product Management / VP
The role became very strategic in nature e.g. I had to care about the ecosystem of products we were building like how we could get our recruitment products (namely Talentera, AfterHire and Evalufy) to talk with each other.
I was attending product reviews and sprint demos where I had to share detailed feedback on the user experience.
I was in talks with a lot more tech stack providers & partners e.g. choosing the analytics tech stack, live chat integrations etc.
Lots of cross-functional collaboration e.g. organizing go-to-market campaigns with marketing.
Owning the PnL and other OKRs through and through
Note that the job titles and roles above are very specific to the companies I worked for. The boundaries of what a PM does varies from one role to another. This is neatly explained in this diagram from levels.fyi:
If you're just getting into more meetings and delivering more documents over time, then that's not really growth in the discipline.
The litmus test is the balance shift between tactical and strategic initiatives. As you accumulate experience, you're able to guide teams on what mistakes to avoid & have a better sense in navigating competition.