Many companies provide a single career path up the proverbial corporate ladder where the only way to get ahead is by moving up in the title, rung by rung. In product management, this usually takes the form of something like this:
For most of my career, I worked at startups that had single-track product management career paths like this. Luckily, most of these companies were small enough that I was able to manage small teams while being hands-on, defining products, and collaborating with designers and engineers to bring those products to life. On two different occasions, though, I was faced with choosing between being a manager or an individual contributor (often referred to as an IC). Both took place at different times in my career, so depending on what stage you are at, my hope is that you find my experience useful.
I joined Spinner, the world’s first streaming music service, in 1998 as one of a dozen or so employees. This was my first job as a product manager, and I was thrilled to have finally made the transition from marketing to product management. We were a small but mighty team that grew the business and the company rapidly. Within a year, we had grown to over one hundred employees. I managed a team of product managers, designers, and front-end developers. It was an exciting time leading a collaborative team, as we created numerous versions of our music player that was branded for a variety of partnerships.
In 1999, American Online acquired the company. As part of the transition process, AOL brought in a few executives whose job was to evaluate their newly acquired staff in an attempt to integrate Spinner into their organization. I vividly remember the day I was called into a conference room with one of these individuals who asked a few questions about my role and responsibilities. At one point, she said, “Ah, you see, at AOL, you’re either an IC or a people manager. You can’t be both. You have to choose.” I felt like I was in the movie The Matrix, choosing between the red pill or the blue pill. I knew once I made my decision, there would be no turning back.
Based on what I had seen so far of the AOL culture, I did not think I was cut out for the politics that seemed to dominate daily corporate life. Although I loved finding and hiring talented people to join my team, the work I enjoyed the most was creating something from scratch. Creating a vision, solving problems, and building products that people loved—is what drove me each and every day. I chose to give up my reins as a manager and spent the remainder of my career at AOL as an individual contributor. Looking back, I think the decision was easy because I was fairly new to product management at that time. Frankly, I wasn’t sure what the career path of a product manager even looked like back then. What I did know is that I wanted to have a direct impact on products that would be used by millions of people.
I was eventually recruited away from AOL to join another music start-up called Musicmatch. Musicmatch was another pioneer in the digital music space with its CD ripping and burning software called the Musicmatch Jukebox. Similar to my experience at Spinner, I managed a small team while being hands-on with the product development process. One of the highlights from there was creating an in-house usability testing facility and hiring a UX researcher to help us better understand how customers were using our products and how we could make them better.
Shortly after leaving Musicmatch, I was asked to join another digital music start-up called Sonos. When I joined in 2005, I was the only software product manager. The team at Sonos sought me out because of my experience with streaming music services. I had a strong network built from my days at Spinner/AOL and was able to leverage those relationships to establish new partnerships for Sonos. I also had experience developing software for hardware, which was an uncommon thing back then, before there were smartphones and IoT products. I jumped right in, wearing a number of hats. One moment I would wear a business development hat, negotiating with Pandora. Another minute, I would be working with a designer, sketching design ideas for our remote control software. The minute after that, I would be working with our acoustics team to figure out how we could tweak the EQ settings of our speakers to deliver the optimum sound quality.
When I look back on those days, I’m honestly not sure how I did it all, but I loved every minute of it. At some point, however, it became clear that I was spreading myself too thin, and we needed to expand the team. To organize the work, my boss and I decided to split music service integrations into its own workstream. I hired and managed two additional people—one who would be responsible for the music service partnerships and the other who would be responsible for our 3rd party developer APIs and website. In addition to managing those new employees, I was the hands-on product manager for all other aspects of Sonos software. Again, I reached a breaking point where I was not being the best manager I could be to my staff, nor was I doing my best work as the PM for the Sonos software. I remember the CEO of Sonos telling me that one of the worst possible outcomes in promoting a great software engineer to being a manager is that you gain a mediocre manager and lose a talented engineer. The same could be said for product managers. My boss was extremely supportive and gave me a few weeks to do some much-needed soul searching to figure out what the best path forward would be for me.
“I remember the CEO of Sonos telling me that one of the worst possible outcomes in promoting a great software engineer to being a manager is that you gain a mediocre manager and lose a talented engineer.”
I am a deeply introspective person, to begin with. Having the time and space to reflect on where I was at this particular stage of my career was such good fortune. I figured out the right path to take by asking myself one simple question:
What are you working on that gets you out of bed?
Looking back, I realized that I was focusing my energy on redesigning our apps and defining new features. Thinking about our customer needs, collaborating with designers and engineers, and launching new products—these were the things that got me out of bed in the morning. At the same time, I was not spending enough time filling the open positions on my team. I would block out a few hours each week for phone screens and the occasional interview and then wonder why it was taking months to fill the position.
Again, I was faced with choosing between management and individual contribution. Even though I had made this decision once before, this time it wasn’t as easy. For one thing, Sonos didn’t have a 2-track career path for product managers at the time. They did offer a dual-career path for engineers, however. Another reason this was a difficult decision was my ego. At this point in my career, I had worked as a product manager for more than ten years and had some preconceived notions about my future that were based on the continuous climb up that invisible ladder. For me, this had less to do with power and more to do with money. The loftier the title, the higher the compensation.
Ultimately, I knew that money wouldn’t make me happy. What made me happy was thinking, “How can I help people listen to more music every day?” Deciding to be an individual contributor (again!) was the best decision for me because I was happiest having the most direct impact on the product. It was also the best decision for the company because they didn’t have to worry about further developing my management skills and, instead, they could unleash me on special projects, such as creating a ground-breaking retail experience for the flagship Sonos store in New York City.
As Shakespeare wrote, “To thine own self be true.”
In order to know which path you should take, you need to be honest with yourself. Set aside a few days for some deep introspection. Grab a journal and a pen and ask yourself these three key questions:
1) What are your strengths as well as your blind spots?
Be open to the feedback you’ve been given, the good and the bad. Take a co-worker out for coffee and ask them for feedback. Review those performance reviews again. If you already manage people, provide them with a way to give feedback.
2) What do you enjoy doing the most?
Ask yourself what gets you out of bed every day. Is it thinking about how to help your newest team member grow? Or do you thrive when brainstorming ideas for helping your customers use your product more easily?
3) Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
Do you have dreams of becoming a CEO or starting your own company? If so, the manager track might be best for you. Perhaps you’d rather be a subject matter expert in a particular field, speaking at conferences and being sought after for your brilliant insights.
Whether you decide to focus on managing or would rather be an individual contributor, I encourage you to champion a dual-track path at your company if it doesn’t already offer it.
Here’s what dual-track paths might look like based on my experience:
Having a track that rewards senior individual contributors helps retain a critical aspect of your company’s brain trust while ensuring people becoming managers are doing so because they want to.
In my particular case, Sonos did eventually develop a dual-track path for product managers, and I was the archetype for the Principal Product Manager role. It was gratifying to be recognized and rewarded for my contributions as the most senior product manager at the company in terms of tenure and experience.
After leaving Sonos, I decided to pursue yet another career path by leveraging my extensive experience to start a consulting business. Being my own boss while having a direct impact on the success of my business offers me the best of both worlds.
Does your company offer different tracks for product managers? Have you ever faced the challenge of deciding if becoming a manager is right for you? What do you think?