How important is industry?

Wondering how important it is the industry you working in as a PM?
There seems to be so many PM/ PO jobs in industries that I am not really interested in, e.g. banking, energy, gambling…

I would assume as a PM you really need to build lots of domain knowledge and with that, interest in that particular industry in my mind is the most important aspect of the job - but I’m hoping some of you guys could shed some light if that is the case?

Personally, I tend to love work if I’m interested, and dread it if I’m not.

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Since I work for a company that helps other companies establish their products as well as product organizations, I believe I may have some insight into this. But anyone is welcome to disagree.

TL; DR: your assumption is not wrong if you’re looking at a “narrow” type of specialist and stick to a single industry. Your assumption, however, is not supported by real-world observations and experience, in the case of a “wide” type of product manager who has experience across multiple verticals.

Elaboration:

There are still, widely speaking, two distinct types of product managers out there in the wild.

One is a “narrow” specialist, that knows a specific industry, and is really good inside that industry. They could sidestep some of the product methodologies, or may not know the most popular approaches or frameworks, etc. I’ve seen people lacking basic product management knowledge and still working as product managers within their specific domain - because they know “how things work”. These are valuable people and, in fact, SMEs of their respective domains. Eventually, when they figure out there are better ways to build products, than what they currently do, they then become really strong product leaders. And, with a lot of domain-specific knowledge, they become really good at building really good products.

The other ones are “wide” specialists, that may not have a lot of in-depth knowledge about one specific industry. Instead, they have a good command of approaches, frameworks, and overall product mindset that helps them navigate any domain they end up working in. Unless they only spend a month or two within it, they do get a decent level of understanding of the domain. Additionally, by having been exposed to various domains and various kinds of “how things work” across multiple domains, they bring the so-called “out of the box” view almost every time they look at a new problem.

There are others, which are mostly variations of these two in some shape or form. The first one is highly sought after when that one specific industry is on the rise but they can be found wanting during the slump. The second is much more marketable, i.e. it’s usually easier to find a job if you can demonstrate you can build successful products across different industries. The situation is reminiscent of the old saying: “A knowledge of certain principles easily compensates for the lack of knowledge of certain facts”.

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That’s an excellent explanation, thank you!

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I once heard industry/specialized knowledge illustrated with an hour-glass shape (see #5 on this list). It’s a consulting metaphor, but it plays here:

Think of your career like an hourglass; it is very broad and stable at the bottom, narrows in the middle, and then broadens again at the top. As a junior your reputation for being consistent, coachable, and smart is priceless. As you get the middle of your career, expertise in a specific area is very very valuable. Towards the peak of your career, being smart, consistent and flexible (a more broad skillset) becomes more valuable (again).

Industry also matters a lot for Work/Life Balance. Some industries (such as supply chain/logistics) are ‘mission critical’ - meaning that every feature or bug (eg; down time) can be tied to a dollar made or lost. These are the industries where you get woken up at 2am to fix something.

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@Juan, Excellent analogy! Great point about work/life, I hadn’t really though much about it but it is something very important to me, it was a breaking point in previous roles so definitely need to keep that in mind

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I think it is a very important question and the opinions may differ.

I would even go as far as saying industry experience is more important than PM experience especially as PM is generally not well defined or understood. This is the case for B2B and industries not yet well versed in PM.

I decided to focus back on a specific industry as just being a PM did not really advance my career enough as I wished and as you I found workings on product outside of areas I care were uninteresting to me. In my town PM-led or tech-only companies are rare. So check your goals and situation…

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@RohitKumar, For an entry level PM job I think that’s okay. And for some industries “learning how to product” will be easier than gaining domain knowledge. But for group product managers and product leadership they must have extensive product experience or you end up with failure. Someone has to ensure that modern product theory is being applied.

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@PaulineFrancis, That really depends on industry. Many have not even a Group Product Manager role or Head of Product. And I have had multiple interviews here and I can say one company was looking for a Head of PM for more than a year as they wanted somebody with specific industry knowledge. So the must-have was both on product and industry knowledge, if you don’t bring both (there will be slight tradeoffs) no chance to get the job…. Really depends but I agree that most startups and tech companies rather look for Product Experience.

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@RohitKumar, I think too often companies discount what a product manager really does, and just promote an SME into a product role. So yes, if there is no more senior product person that knows how to “Do product” then the PM will have to know both. But unicorns are hard to find, so in that case it may be easier to find a Solid PM with no domain knowledge and assign them a BA or SME that can supply the industry expertise.

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@Pauline,But do companies (especially BigCo and very specialized ones) know what it means to “Do Product”. I don’t think so. That’s why most will look for domain expertise and promote Experts. I grew tired of this, because in your example a good PM would be paired with an SME. In reality you will have the SME liase with management and the PM becomes more of project manager to “deliver an IT solution”. Even worse is when a Product Manager is like an entry level role in certain companies and a Project or Delivery or Solution Lead is above.

I might have become too disappointed but I personally only believe to rather focus on becoming this unicorn that does both and/or only work for companies that will clearly give you the strategy and decision making part.

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@Pauline, Agreed that most companies usually do it wrong, discount the science of product development, and suffer as a result.

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@RohitKumar, Interesting take that you went back to an industry you had domain knowledge. From what I gathered in all the various responses is that aside from all theory and frameworks, it kind of depends on the person, I feel I really do need to be interested in something to find the energy. But others may not care, a PM job is a PM job to them regardless :thinking:

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@PriyaVarma, I am very similar but on top of that with the years I lacked a certain identity of switching industries. I missed to use my knowledge and so I went back to an industry I worked for 10years and feel way more at home now. The product I need to manage sucks, so I need to do some changes in the next years but at least I know where I belong and where I want to build up a network.

Also the part of being that unicorn is not to be underestimated - companies will put a lot of money or flexibility (I received a remote job that wasn’t a remote job in the first place) because of being a high value unicorn…

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TL;DR: I think the product is more important than the industry.

I’d assume it depends on the person. I started my career in consulting, then did outsource web-development, so I had a looot of clients from a big range of different industries. Gotta say I found it one of the most interesting aspects of the job - getting to know different weird industries that I had no deep understanding of.

When I got my first PM job it was in an industry you’d never think of and would assume it’s boring - translation… IT WAS NOT. Had a couple other jobs after that and I’d say that every industry is interesting or at least challenging in a fun way. For me, the product is more important… how complex it is, how much space for innovation, how different than the competitors, etc.

I’d say the most boring job I had was in the most fun industry of entertainment / streaming… great company, growing industry (esp. during Covid), but there was little I could do there in terms of innovation, so I was bored out of mind and also stressed AF.

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It’s very likely that the industry also lends itself to a certain type of work as well. For example, banking tends to involve large and well established financial companies. Usually companies of this size have bloated bureaucracies that make it very difficult to drive real change as a PM. However, there are still young companies in the space that will be doing “cool” things to try to take on the big guys. You’ll have to ask yourself if it’s the size/type of company that is also causing you to not want to be in a certain industry.

I say all this, as I am currently in the position of trying to figure out if my lack of motivation for my pm job I moved to a couple of months ago is due to industry, the product I’m working on, or company size/life stage. At my previous job I was employee 20 and left at employee 60, and now at my new job I’m employee 300ish. Its just different, and I’m thinking that I need to go back to early stage startups again. Something about collaborating directly with the executive team and/or the founder gets me excited.

Best of luck :slightly_smiling_face:

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@Nathan, That’s an interesting view, guess I got pretty different responses on here but very interesting that you found the entertainment/ streaming role boring. Do you think it was because of your interests (maybe you are not a user of this product or don’t really stream much)? Or was it the day to day job itself?

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@AnaRodriguez, No, I am actually a heavy user. It’s just that I’m always looking to innovate, do some things differently. For that product 1) there’s not much you can innovate, as people just want to watch content and not much more and 2) because of the scale, you are very much dependent on the other teams in charge of micro-services or the streaming service that even if you come up with something interesting it will take a lot of effort to put it on the map and a lottttt of time to get it implemented.

It was surprising that the most fun I got was working on a product I personally never had the need to use.

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Unless you’re from FAANG or their equivalents, I think specialty will help you climb up faster compared to being a generalist.

Most Product SVPs and CPOs that I’ve seen / met that did not come from FAANG or their equivalents are specialists in their sector. Exception: starting your own company.

Now if we just want to talk about marketability and job security - especially if you want full remote - it’s always easier to find another job as a generalist if you’re applying at Sr / Lead / Principal level.

The problem for the higher level roles is that you may clear the first 2 - 4 rounds but may not make the final cut because there’s a specialist that will be the preferred candidate over you.

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That makes sense, I guess the deeper/ more experienced you get the more domain knowledge the whole company and market would expect you to have.