To observers of the start-up world, company founders are often seen as the lead singers of the band, drawing huge cheques on the basis of their ability to sell a vision of future riches. But behind the scenes, another group of disruptors is on the rise: product managers.
Top drawer heads of product are a prized asset. Good ones are paid exceptionally well, and have a surprising amount of power to influence what ideas get built into reality, and which end up on the cutting room floor.
These are the people who sit as the central point between an ambitious business goal, what a customer needs, and what the software developers and engineers say is actually possible.
Product chiefs have been the brains behind Uber's surge pricing, Airbnb's drag-the-map search algorithm, and emoji "reactions" to text comments on social media. But what they do and who they are remains largely unknown outside their own companies.
What is a product anyway?
Today, a "product" can be anything from a search bar in a piece of software to a new digital ad type on a website. And while a product manager working at a 169-year-old institution like The New York Times might have a very different set of objectives to their equivalent at a start-up like TikTok, both need to be multilingual, good leaders, and adept at bringing bright ideas to life.
Mina Radhakrishnan, co-founder of property management technology start-up :Different, cut her product management teeth at Google and later was head of product at Uber. She tells The Australian Financial Review a refrain often heard among product managers is "I fell into it".
"I didn't even really know this thing existed. My background was computer science, and I used to be a programmer. I was an engineer at Goldman Sachs, and that was my first job out of [university]," Radhakrishnan says.
"I realised that to be a great engineer I would have to spend a lot of time doing just one particular thing, and what I actually enjoy is thinking about how the thing I'm doing relates to all of these other things."
The Canadian calls product management a "renaissance role", and yes, it involves a lot of meetings. At Uber, she helped lead the introduction of surge pricing and different car types, thereby leading significant change.
"People use this term – mini CEO. But I don't think that's what it is. The product manager role at its heart is extremely collaborative," Radhakrishnan says.
"It's not about you coming up with the ideas, and then everybody else just following them through. Sometimes the ideas do come from you, but it's more that you are really the one thinking about being the glue and pulling it all together."
Sam Granleese, the head of product at augmented reality presentation maker JigSpace, supports this view.
"You're basically guiding everyone, trying to get consensus, and move things forward. But you're not the dictator of the product," he says.
"A bad product manager is someone who wants to come up with all of the ideas, doesn't take feedback well, works on things without getting any data back, and tries to perfect something before getting it into the hands of some users."
Granleese is now in his mid-30s, but says at 16 he wanted to be the aspiring teen music writer from the film Almost Famous. But as MagLand shrunk and TechWorld grew, falling into digital strategy and product development became a positive career move.
In a previous role Granleese helped overhaul Carsales.com.au's ads from more traditional digital display advertising style to a more integrated experience that was less obtrusive for people browsing the site.
He also helped introduce new car sales, whereas the site had previously just sold used cars.
JigSpace founder and chief executive Zac Duff says hiring Granleese a year ago to help grow his start-up was expensive, but that he brought with him valuable skills in commercialising ideas, data analytics and customer research methodologies.
Adrienne Tan, co-founder and chief executive of product manager training consultancy Brainmates, says a mid-level product manager could expect to earn a minimum of $120,000 a year. A range between $130,000 to $140,000 was more common, and a chief product manager in Australia could be taking home as much as $350,000 a year.
Product management demographics in Australia also appears to be more gender equal than other male heavy pockets of the technology industry.
Without breaking down how gender affected seniority or pay, a survey conducted by consulting firm Parity this year with a sample size of 2500 found the ratio of male product to female product managers is 60:40. In engineering, for comparison, 88 per cent are male.
The growth and changing nature of Tan's training business is a good proxy for the state of the overall profession in Australia. Since 2007, Brainmates has trained just over 3000 product managers, but things were slow to start with.
"Training grew extremely slowly between 2007 and 2014. Participant numbers were less than 100 each year. It started to take off in 2015, then from 2017 to 2020, training revenue increased by 200 per cent," Tan says.
"We started a product conference called Learning the Product in 2015. We had 250 people attend for our first conference, then in 2016, we had 450 people. In 2019, we had 1200 people attend. This year we had to run our event digitally, and we had 780 attendees."
According to a Brainmates analysis of LinkedIn, as at June 2020, just over 19,000 people in Australia had the title product manager, product owner or product marketer.
Radhakrishnan says that if Australia wants to improve its technology industry, the discipline of product management "needs to grow up a little bit".
"One thing I see that's quite rampant and is not a good thing is title inflation. There are a lot of people who are 'senior product managers' who have two or three years of experience. That's not a senior PM," she says.
"People just have no knowledge of what a product management hierarchy looks like. I would consider that person basically barely out of a junior product manager role."
She was also not a fan of a split between "product managers" and "product owners". The latter can be responsible for coming up with ideas, but is not necessarily responsible for making them happen.
"You're either a product manager, or you're not. If you're a product owner, that's a BS role, and I see a lot of that in Australia," Radhakrishnan says.
Nick Burton, head of consumer product at the Melbourne-founded online furniture store Brosa, wants others to see product management as a viable career option.
During high school, Burton wanted to be a pilot. A business degree at the University of Melbourne landed him in the world of consulting and finance instead, and it was not for him.
After going back to university to obtain a computer science degree, Burton entered the growing world of product management at Foursquare in New York and later at Uber in San Francisco.
He now wants to set up an associate product manager program at Brosa, akin to those at Uber or Google, as a way of showing graduates how his world works.
Burton says that compared to other white collar jobs, product managers enjoy a stronger sense that what they do all day on a computer screen actually has consequences out in the real world.
"I think there is this craftsmanship side of product management that has this really strong appeal. If you're able to build something that really neatly solves a customer problem, I find that to be really satisfying," Burton says.
"And if you're a consumer product manager, meaning you work on a piece of software used by friends and family, it makes it feel highly relevant. You can show them an idea, they get it, they can use it, and they can give you feedback."
According to Dovetail chief executive and founder Benjamin Humphrey, product managers are the hardest roles to hire for, but good ones are "worth their weight in gold".
Before starting his own software company, Humphrey joined Atlassian back in 2013 as a product designer, and worked there through its initial public offering on the NASDAQ in 2015.
According to various tech insiders from venture capitalists to engineers, Atlassian has become Australia's equivalent of Microsoft or Google in terms of pumping out good product managers.
But when it comes to separating the best from the worst of the product management world, Humphrey says it's all about having strong instincts for strategy.
"A bad product manager is basically just a project manager literally doing day-to-day project management while missing out on the bigger picture of the market, the design, what the customer wants," Humphrey says.
"They're just there helping getting projects done and shipping them out. A good company like Atlassian will weed those people out in the interview process by actually asking a candidate questions about strategy."