The Great Debate

In 1998 Ben Horowitz, of Opsware and Andreessen Horowitz fame, penned a piece entitled “Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager” where he asserted:

“A good product manager is the CEO of the product. A good product manager takes full responsibility and measures themselves in terms of the success of the product. They are responsible for right product/right time and all that entails. A good product manager knows the context going in (the company, our revenue funding, competition, etc.), and they take responsibility for devising and executing a winning plan (no excuses).”

To a certain extent, Horowitz’s words have become a mantra amongst product managers and purveyors of product management methodologies, training, and certification.

In 2017 Martin Eriksson wrote a retort to this piece entitled “Product Managers – You Are Not the CEO of Anything.”  Eriksson asserted:

“Where the two roles differ completely is in authority. Product managers simply don’t have any direct authority over most of the things needed to make their products successful – from user and data research through design and development to marketing, sales, and support. Even today’s most senior product leaders only have hiring and firing control over their direct reports – other product managers. Does that sound like any CEO you know?

A CEO, on the other hand, stands truly alone, with ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of not just the company but every product in it. The CEO also controls all the resources of the company – with hiring and firing prerogatives across the company and final say on the budget. Does that sound like any product manager you know?”

In the past 20 years I have been a product manager, product owner, director of product management, VP of product management, General Manager, and a Chief Operating Officer among other things.  While I like the idea of a product manager being the CEO of their product, I think it is a romanticized notion of the reality of product management.

The Reality of Product Management

As Eriksson noted, product managers are not General Managers.  Product managers inherit constraints from other parts of the business.  They do not determine how many developers work in the organization or on a specific product.  They do not determine how many quota carrying sales reps there are or how their quotas and sales compensation plans are set.  They do not determine what the operating profit margin or EBITDA targets are. 

Product managers inherit constraints that are set by the CEO or other executives in the company.  A core challenge for product managers is to use their influence to optimize how all parts of the organization work to achieve the product and company’s goals.

Product managers need to be experts in the problem domain of the market, customers, and prospects they serve.  They need to be able to empathize with the day-to-day challenges their users face.  Effective product managers go beyond that, they also understand the challenges employees face in their own organizations.  For example:

  • Product Marketing
  • Development
  • Operations
  • Customer Support Reps
  • Sales Development Reps
  • Sales Execs
  • Distributors & Channel Sales Partners
  • Pre Sales Consultants
  • Professional Services Consultants
  • Finance
  • International Marketing, Sales, Support & Operations

While the scope of a product manager’s job is similar to that of the CEO, product managers work within the constraints they are given to help all parts of the organization maximize their performance.

Product Managers as Player/Coach

There is no perfect metaphor to describe the role of a product manager.  One possibility is that of a player/coach.  While the player/coach model has its detractors, I think it is a good way of looking at product management. Product managers have a definite ‘player’ role in identifying, defining, and prioritizing product requirements.  They also serve as a ‘coach’ for other parts of the organization.  They strive to provide the support the needs of marketing, sales, development, operations, support, professional services, finance etc.  Product managers ‘win’ when everyone achieves their goals.

By John Mecke

John is a 25 year veteran of the enterprise technology market. He has led six global product management organizations for three public companies and three private equity-backed firms. He played a key role in delivering a $115 million dividend for his private equity backers – a 2.8x return in less than three years. He has led five acquisitions for a total consideration of over $175 million. He has led eight divestitures for a total consideration of $24.5 million in cash. John regularly blogs about product management and mergers/acquisitions.