Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Who is a Google Product Manager?

I have had a lot of people ping me in recent times to ask this question. What does it mean to be a Google Product Manager? What credentials are required? How does it compare to an APM or indeed to other functions?
I will try to put together an intelligent answer to this question based on my initial two months here at Google. (Yeah, it is almost two months! Can you believe it?) I will probably revisit my answer to this question in another 6 months or so.

What exactly is the role?
Product Management at Google is a complicated beast. Your ass is on the line if the product fails, yet there may not be any direct reports. You are the guy pulling together multiple functions - marketing, legal, PR, Sales, Engineering, Operations, Technical Account managers, User support, and many more, to run the product. The product is yours. The various functions used to run the product aren't. The principle tool that you have at your disposal is Influence.

At first, this may not sound too different from other product management roles in similar sized companies, but there are some key differences that I have noticed:

1. Product Management can be pretty hierarchical in many companies, it is not in Google

2. Like the other functions, Product Managers are not tied to a particular product or sector for the duration of their work in Google. They are free to rotate at reasonable intervals to completely different sectors

3. Most Google Product Managers are generalists (especially MBAs). They are recruited for their overall well-rounded skills and not necessarily for a particular sector focus. (There are however, some PMs who are recruited especially for their sector expertise)

What are the key skills that successful Product Managers at Google have?
In my perception, most PMs at Google have to be good at (in no particular order)
1. Managing immense complexity ( a direct result of the mixed structure here at Google)

2. Influencing people, a trait that needs credibility, communication skills, and a people-skills

3. Making decisions. One needs to be able to decide, take responsibility for those decisions and live with it

4. Something that is different from the rest. Have to have something special in terms of achievements in their background. This is especially true for the generalists who can't necessarily distinguish themselves on uber-sector-specific-experience. That special sauce could be starting one's own company at some point, MBA from a top B-school, or some such thing. Something which helps differentiate you from the rest in some way

5. Extremely good understanding of the Internet services landscape and opinions on everything form state of online video market to new mobile business models to future of search

6. A passionate self-starting personality helps. Self-starting especially because no one seems to tell you what to do out here, yet everything seems to be doing the things they need to do

Who is an APM then?
Short answer, an APM is usually an undergrad with a little bit of work experience. These guys tend to match the typical profile of that target segment of many of Google's user facing products. They tend to be pretty young, passionate, and incredibly talented folks. Kind of like Wharton undergrads relative to Wharton MBAs (If you went to Wharton, you would know the story here)

Oh come on, there has to be some glitches
I do not know if these are glitches but they are definitely things that one needs to know before deciding to work here at Google. These challenges ensure that certain personality types love it here, and others hate it:

1. You make your own job. I found my product, I am helping define my role, and beyond a minimum bar, have to decide how much I can take a bite off. If you like structure, you are going to be frustrated

2. If you like hierarchical companies, with organization definitions, Google will hurt you. It is hard to work just by influencing especially if you are used to a more hands-on approach to delegation of work

3. You hate good food :). (That's a little bit of humor, an ode to the obsession with food that Google inculcates in us Googlers)

I am sure I am missing something. And I am also sure that some of the traits I pointed out are not Google specific. Keep in mind, its only a couple of months. It will be fun to revisit this in a few months to see what I would like to change in this post. I will compare it to the other functions in Google (OSO, PSO, Biz-dev) etc at a later date. I am in the thick of an exciting new product out here, there are loads of challenges, the team is around the globe, the product has an exciting mix of legal, sales, technical challenges, and my life is awesome.