Apprentice Product Managers
I find that most tech product companies out there are struggling to find enough very strong product managers. I have written many times in various ways about how critical it is to put very strong people in this role, and I meet execs every week that tell me that they need more. Great products are the result of a strong product team, and the anchor of that strong product team is a very strong product manager.
One company that realized this a long time ago is Google. Their first product manager, Marissa Mayer, set a very high bar, and they have worked hard over the years to recruit and develop a very strong army of product managers. Most people know that Google has many exceptionally strong engineers, but less known is how hard they have worked to develop a set of product managers that are worthy of these engineers.
Very early on they realized that these strong product leaders were in very short supply, and one thing they did was to establish the Associate Product Manager (APM) program. I have always taken the liberty of referring to this as their Apprentice Product Manager program, as lots of big companies have Associate Product Managers (the common term for entry-level product managers) but that has a very different meaning than Google's APM program.
In the Google program, they work hard to find the absolute best and brightest, from inside the company and outside, and entry to this program gives the lucky aspiring product leader entrance into a two-year apprentice program to learn how to become an exceptional product leader. Marissa gets most of the credit for this program, and put countless hours into coaching these promising product leaders, and the program has produced some exceptional talent. Many of these people are behind Google's best products and services, and others have moved on to lead their own startups.
I consider the APM program Marissa's most important legacy at Google, and I hope she establishes the same concept now that she is leading Yahoo (by the way, how awesome is it that Yahoo is now being led by such an exceptional product leader? For the first time in too many years I find myself encouraging strong people to consider joining Yahoo).
In the same spirit, I'm most proud of the product people that I recruited and coached over the years, and I love that they are now all across our industry and leading many of the best product organizations in the world. I was taught that as a people manager and leader, our most critical job is to develop our people.
All of this is a long way of saying that the real purpose of this note is to encourage the executive teams of product companies to establish their own apprenticeship program for future product leaders. There's no single way to set up these programs, but there are some principles I'd like to share:
First, set a very high bar for acceptance into this program. Only accept people that are recognized as among your best minds and highest potential. The type of person that brings value to every conversation. The type of person that is driven to make things happen and get results (see www.svpg.com/recruiting-product-managers).
Second, for everyone in this program, do a thorough assessment to identify the necessary areas of skills development (see www.svpg.com/developing-strong-product-owners). Update this assessment throughout the year.
Third, put an individualized coaching plan in place to help these people reach their potential. This should include ongoing mentoring from at least one of your senior executives (such as your CEO or VP Product).
Of course the main way we learn how to create great products is by jumping in and defining, designing and building products, so be sure to put these people right in the thick of it as product owner of a key product team.
There are dimensions to this program that you will want to set up in a way that is consistent with your company's culture and values, such as how visible and widely promoted the program is, and the expectations you set with the members. I generally prefer to keep things low key. Let the people earn the respect of their peers. Keep this about merit and not politics.
The key is to realize that every tech product company needs strong product people, and the leaders of the company must constantly seek them out and work hard to develop our most promising people to reach their full potential.