Dual-Track PM Ladders

Product vs. managerial career paths

By Ken Norton

3 min read • Aug 31, 2016

Ken Norton

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This piece is from 2016. I built upon it and updated it in June 2021 with a more detailed proposal entitled, It’s Time to Fight for a Dual Product Management Career Path.


In an earlier newsletter, I wrote about product management career paths and why we should create opportunities for PMs who don’t necessarily want to become senior managers. I received a lot of feedback on that article, including a surprising number of you who, like me, prefer staying close to the product over ascending the executive ladder. This conversation might strike you as being strictly Big Company,” but it’s just as important to set career opportunities at a startup, even if the individual rungs on the ladder won’t be filled for years to come.

I mentioned dual-track career ladders where technical contributors are recognized and rewarded in parallel with managers. (For example, a principal software engineer receiving similar compensation to a director of software engineering.) They help retain strong technical contributors and help ensure that people become managers because they want to, not reluctantly.

Although this is common in engineering and design, it’s much rarer in product management. For some examples, Sachin Rekhi shared this overview of career ladders at eight top companies. As many of you told me, even when there’s a dual PM track, it’s often half-hearted: you cannot ascend as high or the managerial track compensation is more significant.

One the biggest arguments against dual PM ladders is one articulated by a Google executive to me, “it’s hard for a product manager to be an individual contributor since a lot of PM work at the senior level requires managing a team.” But positioning dual ladders as “individual contributor vs. manager” is a misnomer. Most senior technical contributors are also strong leaders (take a look at the careers of any Googler at the Fellow or Distinguished level.) So the dual engineering ladder is more accurately described as predominately technical vs. predominately managerial, defined by which responsibility takes the majority of your time.

A dual PM ladder shouldn’t draw a hard line between managing and direct product impact. More senior PMs might be expected to do both. If you’re happiest spending 80% on the product and no more than 20% managing, there should be an equally prestigious and lucrative path forward for you. Here’s an example of how it might work in practice:

Product Track Managerial Track
Distinguished PM VP of PM
Principal PM Director of PM
Group PM
(has managerial responsibilities)
Senior PM
(may have managerial responsibilities)
Product Manager
(multiple levels)
Associate PM  

In my example the track doesn’t fork until the Director/Principal-level. Group and Senior PMs might be expected to manage a small number of direct reports, but only at the Director-level would management comprise the majority of their responsibilities. At an early-stage startup the VP of Product role might look more like Group PM at a more established company when it comes to product vs. managerial duties.

What do you think? I’m curious to hear from you.

Good Reads

Management just happens, but technical track promotions are post hoc. Dan McKinley wrote a good piece about dual-track technical ladders. To ensure that management and technical tracks are truly parallel, you need to handle promotions equitably. Unfortunately, management tends to be driven by battlefield commissions (“crap, we need another manager!”) whereas technical promotions tend to be less urgent, and therefore slower and after the fact. That reinforces the assymmetry of the two paths, and continues to reinforce the notion that to advance, you still need to become a manager, even reluctantly. Dan offers some suggestions for fixing this.

Roofshots” are the consistent, short-term improvements, that drive the bulk of Google’s product innovation, according to Google Fellow Luiz André Barroso. Google talks a lot about the 10x “moonshot” leaps, but in The Roofshot Manifesto Barroso argues in favor of their lesser known 1.3-2x counterparts.

Big meetings can be better according to Intercom’s Paul Adams. But everyone needs to understand the purpose. In particular, “Big meetings are terrible when many people think their role is to debate.”

I’m fond of musical analogies for product management, and John Vars has delivered one: What Playing in a Rock Band Taught Me About Product Management. “Play ugly, play often, play different songs.”

The most interesting thing about being a product manager and scaling over time is you.” says Steven Sinofsky in this wide-ranging interview: Steven Sinofsky on Building Your Product Team.

What is the product? I enjoyed this edition of the Slate Money podcast with guest Paul Ford. The group examines three marquee products: Google search, the iPhone, and Amazon Prime, and along the way discusses what makes them good (and bad) and how product management plays a role.

Originally Published: August 31, 2016

Ken Norton is an executive coach who works with product leaders. He spent more than 14 years at Google where he built products used by more than 3 billion people.

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