Are reports on the "death of the product managers" greatly exaggerated?

A discussion on why product manager roles are changing and five observations of high-velocity organizations.

Recently, there’s been a few announcements by companies about eliminating the product manager role. Airbnb announced in June 2023 that they have eliminated the role in favor of them being product marketers. Stripe has famously resisted hiring product managers until five years after they started. Dovetail announced a similar move. Palantir believes in “forward deployed engineering” and putting engineers in front of customers as much as possible, often at the expense of product managers.

It’s also quite controversial to have one at a startup with less than 20 employees. I recently talked to a founder who sells to product managers. He is very much of the belief that product managers are critical. I asked him more about the internal structure of his organization. “Oh,” he said, “of course, we don’t have one. It would slow us down.” The contradiction wasn’t lost on either of us.

What is happening, then? Are product managers dead?

As a former product marketer and now founder, I believe a great product is how companies live and die.

I also believe that the debate is misplaced about the existence of the product manager. Instead, it should be about the cultural norms and rituals that companies embody - how can we learn from what product managers do well and build that into the foundation of the company?

At Arcade, a startup of 10, everyone has some degree of product intuition — and if that is ever in question, then there is potentially a mismatch.

My worst fear is that the second we hire a product manager, that critical responsibility pools into that one individual, and the rest of us get lazy about shipping or innovating.

I don’t know the solution, but I do believe that a great product is the intersection between hard problems and simple, elegant solutions.

Note that in the visual above, it does not necessarily mean innovation. Many people get wrapped up in creating the coolest rocket ship ever and, in the process, fail to realize that no one would understand how to operate the rocket ship — but a topic for another time.

There are also a few things that I’ve observed from afar that signal a fast and cutting-edge organization. I don’t have an opinion yet about when to hire a product manager. But what I do know is that whatever the title is, there needs to be existing elements in the company and that the role is critical.

Here are five things that I’ve observed as themes for a product-forward organization:

#1 Everyone should own the customer

One cultural norm that I love about Stripe is that they tend to be on the frontlines everywhere. They respond to customer tweets and complaints. They are involved in Reddit debates. They resolve bugs quickly inside Slack channels. Patrick Collison has done an excellent job modeling this. As far as I can tell, there is a sense of collective ownership.

Companies that have a lot of “touchiness” about contacting the customer, in my opinion, will not survive. It is better to be overly customer-obsessed with customers getting multiple pings from companies than be in a silent bubble. Also, when people hear directly from the customer, they tend to be more motivated to do great work.

I realize that enterprise companies may not have this luxury, but in our onboarding process, we constantly emphasize that customers are meant to be talked to.

One of the most effective ways for us to do this has been through our BI tool, Metabase. It allows Arcaders to self-serve information and be proactive about engaging with customers - with relevant context to how they’re using the product.

#2 Great product managers are great product marketers, and vice versa

I don’t really care about product managers vs. product marketers. In some ways, the role is too similar. I believe things have gotten lost in translation when product managers don’t think about distribution strategy.

And, before any ship, there should be some hypothesis about the launch message.

#3 Having a constant drumbeat drives product velocity

To build on this, shipping velocity is not just internal but external. I love companies that ship new product announcements on a weekly basis — it instills a discipline that if a week has gone by without them shipping something valuable for the customer, then it’s a week wasted.

The product manager should be the one putting together the announcement materials and feel comfortable putting their name on the blog/the video/etc.

Three images of Bobby Pinero's Tweets
(*Twitter / Bobby Pinero)

In my mind, Bobby Pinero (CEO of Equals) is world-class in not just building Equals but how he markets Equals. Some can say this seems like a frenetic pace to the point of almost muddying the “key moments,” but it’s a pace that every company should aspire to, even big ones!

#4 Building prototypes early and often leads to great product

Much of the time, we don’t know if something is valuable until someone engages with it. I can see a lot of the pushback around product managers as people who do not code, and sit from a perch above that slows down things because they cannot prototype quickly. This can slow things down.

Great product managers and organizations build working prototypes early and often.

Prototypes are valuable. As you can tell, I’m in favor of building in public…maybe even with an Arcade ;)

#5 Find moments to celebrate and demo!

Building some moments within the process can put pressure on teams - especially product managers - to build great prototypes early and often! The cadence and seriousness that you treat this ritual can really also send the right message.

At Arcade, we have a weekly Monday morning demo meeting. We always push to demo every change. This is a fun moment for the team to see what we’ve done in the past week, but also catch last minute bugs and give feedback.

My take? I don’t think that product managers are dead, but the ones that used to survive no longer will. The marketing-oriented, high-velocity product manager will be the ones that drive companies forward.

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