Will Product Go The Way Of Marketing?

High-impact professions attract seekers of success, but is this always a good thing?

I'm not too crazy about marketing people. It's not that I dislike marketing as a concept... on the contrary, I have nothing but respect for the concept of subtly manipulating the human mind. Thus it is naturally frustrating to watch the concept of marketing move away from calculated campaigns, and more into the realm of Mailchimp and Social Media junkies. If the ability to use Facebook tops your list of tangible skills, chances are I wouldn't trust you to define my company's voice.

I'm assuming that undergrad marketing programs consist of more than introductory Instagram classes. Where then, are these concepts being applied? From the outside looking in, a case can be made that marketing is the discipline of deploying microsites and unapologetic sales messaging.

I can only imagine how CMOs who meticulously shaped brands feel about a workforce striving for a bare-minimum understanding of their field. Yet I can imagine, because this sounds a lot like the visible trend of Product Management.

How The Unmighty Have Risen

Power

When I turned to product management 8 years ago, I thought I was taking on a thankless job. Lacking the skills of a true developer, it felt like a gift to be amongst the world's best talent, even at the cost of extra work. I considered product management to be a spot on the roster, with perhaps the eventual potential for impact.

While plenty of PMs actively work to define the profession, there seems to be an equal and opposite contingency of those who skipped this step in the process. As opposed to defining a growing profession, the promise of product management seems to speak to personalities seeking a mandate of power. In fact, it seems that the success of the former only spawns more of the latter. Is it destiny then, that all rising professions are to destroy themselves with a thirst for the the very things they promise?

What Happened to Marketing?

Marketing is Dead

I remember the first time I witnessed a marketing person get fired. She had done the unthinkable: she did not spend the entirety of her quarterly budget.

Wait, what?

Many companies operate under a blind faith in marketing; it is routine for marketing budgets to be set upfront without setting concrete goals prior. Not goals like email open rates, but goals like resonating with human beings. That's not really as important as making sure you dump tens of thousands of dollars into Google AdWords before the end of the quarter.

The only explanation I can think of is that at some point, the concept of marketing was so lucrative that it had become obvious. Obvious enough to, say, throw money at it and look away. Besides, good marketing is intangible, right? Why else do companies spend millions of dollars on Superbowl ads? It's nearly impossible to measure the impact those have, and measuring takes work. It's best to just know you've done something significant.

Unless of course, you haven't.

Intangible Skills vs. No Skills

No Skills

What makes marketing and product management similar is the notion of a high-impact role requiring entirely intangible skills.

Intangible skills are elusive: to an individual, it is comforting to know that one's value is not quantifiable, hiding behind the guise of all powerful 'people skills.' Similarly, employers are comfortable knowing that they've locked immeasurable (thus irreplaceable?) talent with a certain je ne sais quoi. This two-way speculation creates aggressive overvaluation, similar to how a financial bubbles occur.

If an organization recognizes that certain skillsets are vital yet impossible to measure, there is good chance they won't waste their time attempting to gauge said skill. The result is a perfect opportunity for candidates looking to claim the fruits of labor... without the labor. Who wouldn't jump at the opportunity to accept praise unchecked? Can we blame human beings for acting on their inherent needs for reassurance, while dodging risks to survival? If employers are opening these floodgates, humanity is only running its course.

Next-generation Product Management

At the risk of generalization, up-and-coming PM talent has a tendency to shy away from technical ability, data analysis, and true problem solving. The most common trait that younger PMs share is a thirst for consuming new products. While this curiosity is important, the ability to browse Product Hunt for shiny new toys is hardly a skill.

This is worrisome, as the same phenomena has already occurred in nearly all other organizational departments without tangible skillsets. Marketing and PR are only a couple examples where strategy is second fiddle to proficiency of tools. Contrast this to product management where the reverse is becoming true: skill proficiency is shifting from a prequisite to a nice-to-have. Skills simply aren't as sexy as an entertaining personality.

If history is any indicator, there is good reason to be pessimistic. Adding the context of political climate, the concept of consumerism and counter-intellect entering the product scene seems to make all too much sense. This is a trend as old as time.

The competent are not those who should worry. Despite what comes of product management as a profession or a title, individuals with the ability to contribute will always have their presence remain painfully obvious. Perhaps the only thing to subject to change is what we will someday refer to those with original ideas.

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Todd Birchard

Todd Birchard

Application Architect

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