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ITX Product Momentum Podcast – Episode 10: Evolution of the Product Manager Role

The product manager role has been around for decades, but its contributions have been generally overlooked and misunderstood.  Opportunities to apply the product manager skill set as a lever of growth had not been fully realized – or were missed entirely. No longer is that the case, according to the 2019 State of Product Leadership report, prepared by Pendo + Product Collective.

In this episode, hosts Sean and Joe speak with Pendo Chief Marketing Officer Jake Sorofman about the recent report and the continuous evolution of the product manager role. “It’s a role on the rise,” Jake says, “but also one in a state of transition. It’s only in the last 10 years that digital product management has really come into focus as a very strategic part of the business.”

State of Product Leadership Report – Key Findings

Pendo has conducted the Product Leadership survey for the past 2 years, each time with a sample size of approximately 300 North American product leaders, as a way to contribute back to the community it serves. One key finding from the 2018 survey suggested that the product manager role had become the new “it role” within a corporate structure.

“It used to be that freshly minted MBAs were beating a path to Wall Street; now they want to be product managers in SaaS companies out in Silicon Valley,” Jake says. “That feels new and different.”

While that trend continues, the 2019 survey indicates that the role is in transition as product managers try to balance their new-found responsibilities with comparatively little authority. “It’s a discipline that requires leadership through influence, not authority, and that can yield some degree of frustration,” Jake adds.

How Technical Do I Need to Be?

The product manager job description has expanded as much as it has evolved. Many of the same responsibilities of the traditional product leader remain. But as the products we create become more sophisticated, product managers and PM wannabe’s want to know: how technical do I need to be?

The answer, Jake says, is “technical enough.” Today’s product manager interacts with a broad array of stakeholders. So they have to be technical enough to earn the credibility of their engineering team – their core constituency – and to understand and convey the voice of the customer.

“It also depends on how technical the product is and how technical the buyer is,” Jake adds. To the extent that it’s a technical product sold to a technical buyer, I’d argue that there is a stronger case for them to be truly technical themselves.”

The 2019 report supports Jake’s belief. A year before, 1% of product managers reported a design or creative background. This year’s double-digit growth was obvious and, it turns out, reflective of the evolution of the product leader role.

Users of digital products and platforms expect solutions that are “simple and inviting and delightful and intuitive,” Jake says. That’s challenge enough. But the real trick is to understand that expectations are “no longer shaped by the next best alternative – i.e., other available solutions to your problem – but instead by the user’s last best experience” regardless of the domain from which that experience comes.

This may explain why, according to the 2019 Survey, today’s product managers are coming out of the user experience camp than from the more traditional marketing track. Perhaps more importantly, this fact speaks to how UX and design have become absolutely critical to how we think about great products these days.

CPOs on the Rise

This development may also speak to the increasing number of chief product officers occupying C-suite offices. The 2019 report states that nearly three times as many organizations touted CPOs as in 2018. It’s an acknowledgment of (a) the increasingly strategic role that product managers hold, and (b) the distinction between Marketing (in its traditional sense) and digital Product Management. While Marketing still enjoys a seat at the table, there seems to be a growing awareness of the unique perspective that the PM role provides – one that combines the Xs and Os of the traditional marketing knowledge set with the technological wherewithal that emanates from the UX/UI disciplines.

“Ultimately, product management is an iterative, exploratory process of solving for problems over time that requires deep insight into customer needs across all markets,” Jake says. Today’s product managers are getting closer to that insight; that’s what’s so critical, he adds.

“The reason having a CPO is better is because it gives Product more influence in strategic decision making within the company. And companies are recognizing now that Product is the new battlefield. You need to deliver an exceptional product – an exceptional product experience – without that you’re quickly discovered and stamped out.”

Product Management: Synthesis vs. Analysis

So what’s drawing today’s MBAs to Silicon Valley and product manager roles? The survey doesn’t get into that level of detail. But the answer may be in the nuance that comes with this level of complex problem solving that intrigues them.

“Product management is as much about synthesis as it is about analysis,” Jake offers. “There’s a lot of art that goes into synthesis, pulling together lots of data and feedback and inspiration. That’s really where great products come from; it’s not from being explicitly driven by customer feedback or explicitly driven for that matter by the rare genius – someone who can see around corners. It’s a combination of all these things.”

To learn more from Jake’s conversation with Sean and Joe, particularly why Jake looks outside his domain to draw creativity and inspiration – check out ITX Product Momentum Podcast – Episode 10: Evolving Role of the Product Manager.  

Check out Pendo’s 2019 ProductCraft. The Conference.

On Jake’s nightstand

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, by Phil Knight. “I love this book because he’s a great writer and a really thoughtful person,” Jake says, “but also because he puts so much passion into building a brand and building a great company. And I don’t think it fundamentally changed him as a person.”

On Jake’s bookshelf

Jake brings a healthy dose of cynicism when it comes to business books. “I don’t love them,” he admits. “But there are a few I’ve read over the years that have changed my life, though most have bored me to tears.” The life-changers – “really important books that if you haven’t read them you should now fast forward to today” – include:

The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christensen.

The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell.

Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey A. Moore.


2019 State of Product Leadership, prepared by Pendo + Product Collective

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