Is Product Manager the most replaceable member of the company?

As startups are starting to lay off people, I am seeing this emerging trend of PMs being laid off first. In fact, although the demand for PMs is high right now in developed countries, the supply is equally present, unlike software engineering, designers, and data scientists. Additionally, most PM roles don’t have a pre-requisite degree, so any function can apply for a Product role, and many bankers, marketers, and designers also come into the field. I wanted to confirm this conjecture with other PMs as well - do you feel like you are easily replaceable?

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I think this sub trends younger and hipper than the product population overall.

If you’re in a junior role in a large, trendy company…yeah you’re probably sweating a bit more.

But in a lot of boring organizations the PM (from what I’ve seen) holds so much legacy knowledge they become a difficult asset to replace based on pure numbers/talent competition.

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Yep, PMs at my company are seen as the people who literally keep the business running. We know the customer, we know the product, and we know the history of decision making. If the most senior product people were let go, the company would quickly struggle to get anything done. If you’re part of a huge team, maybe you’re not as valuable as PMs working at smaller businesses. Marketing is usually first to go, then AMs and Sales, not Product.

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A big company recently had a large layoff and the logic there was to take a bigger chunk out of marketing (they were going to decrease ad spend) so that they could retain more PMs and SW engineers. Generally speaking PMs and engineers take a while to get up and running before they’re adding value.

Source: My mate is an exec and was in charge of layoffs for their department

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I’ll be honest, there’s just a flood of people that have no business being PMs out there right now. PM is seen, on this very sub even, as a career path to go from business/mba degree to tech engineer salary, and there’s no shortage of people who have absolutely no business being PMs in tech trying to be ones.

So, are they the most replaceable member? Hardly. Sales, support, marketing are all getting the axe right now as well. It’s entirely dependent on how your company planned to grow over the next 2-3 years and how that plan has changed based on the economy and VC landscape. If your company was planning on investing in R+D and now they’re not? That’s when PMs are laid off (and other expendable engineering/managers, designers/design managers, etc.). But if your company is now over-staffed in sales or marketing, that’s who’s going to go.

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I agree. I have a marketing background and it’s an easy place to cut headcount without completely derailing the minimum necessary output. Sales is also seen as fairly replaceable in a lot of companies - just cut the bottom performers (which is straight forward to track) and hope the next slew is better.

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Agreed, if you want longevity in the PM space, learning how to code at least basic apps helps tremendously. This gives you a leg up on 90% of PMs. It is a steep learning curve for non technical folks though and can take many years to produce something worth while. Combine this with an MBA or other business type master’s degree and you’re golden. I have 12 years as a PM and 5 years as a software engineer, and I spend half my day helping non technical PMs avoid catastrophe. Sorry but it’s a hard pill to swallow and I think what your comment is getting at. The engineering team and leadership respect my judgement much more because of this.

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My observation is similar, and it does not bode well for any field to have such low barriers to entry in my humble opinion.

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Hi @All, Curious question, who “has the business” to become PMs?

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@CathrynCui, The PM role has been defined by the Venn diagram of UX, Tech and Business for about 15 years. But in the last 5 years I’ve noticed people, on this subreddit and in other places like LinkedIn and Twitter, starting to argue that PM isn’t that. It’s actually business people who figure out how to solve “customer problems”. That you don’t need to know UX. That you don’t need to know any tech.

There was a post on here, I think last week, that literally asked “Do I need to know what an API is to be PM?” and the top answer could be reduced to “no”. With all due respect to everyone involved there, I completely disagree and I don’t think those folks belong in product management in tech companies.

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@NaomiNwosu, You’re technically right, but prior to Marissa Mayer changing things up at Google (including by starting the APM program in 2002), PMs were mostly MBAs and business leaders.

Google reducing hires of MBAs and experienced PMs from places like Microsoft and starting to focus on training technical employees to assume PM roles is how that change happened in the valley.

So, it’s not like MBAs are suddenly coming in on technical turf. This used to be a job for business-oriented people, engineers stepped in about 15-20 years ago, and now that digital products are out of their infancy there’s more clarity on the processes to building and managing digital products and the role is open to various backgrounds.

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I don’t disagree with you but flag that it is hard to find the appropriate level of knowledge at which point someone is technical though. There is knowing what an API is, what the different types of APIs are and eventually knowing how to build them.

More knowledge is always better but the trade offs you make to get that knowledge is important: was it worth not learning other things to learn that thing to that level of depth.

I recently signed up for code academy because i want to become a decent dev. I was a data analyst / scientist before and could code but want to be able to build a simple web app from scratch on my own. I won’t spend hours each day in it but if chip away at it slowly, I’ll eventually get there.

I think it’s unreasonable to expect most PMs who were never engineers to do this but the idea that a PM should know none of this seems off too.

What level of UX, business and tech expertise should a PM have? Keen to get your take

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Novice proficiency. That’s it, that’s what you should have.

I’m not saying you should have an MBA, be a UX designer and be a “10x” developer. But you should know some basics about all three. You should probably be able to make a basic web page, a pivot table and sketch out an user flow.

In my mind, the entire role of PM, is doing the work to actually understand the problem and then leading a team to develop solutions. The only way to be effective at both of those things is, circling back to the Venn Diagram, is to be able to contribute in all of those areas (and more!).

Disagree! People need to understand this stuff!

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@DonovanOkang, Good to hear my efforts in learning more about software engineering will be respected.

Totally with you. Some PMs with limited exposure to the technical and UX side of product often try to leave it with their engineering and design counterparts, rather than drive the triad to find the best solution.

Totally agree that this is not a PM doing their job well.

Basic proficiency in the different areas and a willingness to learn is key.

So, it’s not gatekeeping if we only ask that people try to fill these gaps.

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I really think it depends on the type of PM and product. UX isn’t a big thing for some fields e.g. cloud computing

Also another question, why should PMs be able to spin up a basic web page? (And not just know how that works) I remember a PM in my previous role who had the know-how but pissed off the tech lead because it’s the tech leads job to solution, not PM? They just determine the what and why we should build it?

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@Amy, You are very right that different technical areas will be important depending on the field. I’m a PM on a cloud product where i should ideally know about front end, backend and database engineering.

I don’t think every PM needs to know how to do these things but knowing what is involved is useful. But obviously the idea isn’t to try to be the engineer on the team. It’s more for things like:

One: Knowing how to explain the complexity of the work (basically why it’s so big) when engineers aren’t present.

Two: Being able to figure out if the approach will later impose technical limitations on figure directions.

Three: To figure out whether the approach is getting the right balance between speed of delivery and building a scalable application etc.

I would do this only to be a better partner and advocate to the tech lead, rather than wanting to take the lead from them.

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Thanks I think you articulate it well. It’s the knowledge that gives weight to strategic decisions and delivery directions.

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Startups are laying off to preserve runway. Thus, they are going to cut from the areas that are most expensive. That tends to be Engineering, Sales, and Marketing which tend to have more linear unit economics (e.g. to get more revenue, need more sales people). Product orgs in general are much smaller relatively to other orgs. They are not immune from cuts, but made mainly on a performance basis as opposed to fix number.

So, underperforming PMs are cut. Who are they? Either junior PMs with lots of talent, but require a lot of investment or senior PMs that are not ramping up quickly enough.

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Insightful. The general overview I am getting from other answers as well is that Junior PMs are in a more precarious position compared to their more experienced counterparts.