Do product managers need domain expertise?
I say no
Cross-industry-pollination is a common theme in today’s multi-faceted world (eg. Uber striding into the autonomous-vehicle industry or Apple venturing into the energy domain) and even traditional one-side-track industries are trying to catch up with new innovations and disruptive technologies (eg. Banks taking note of blockchains or traditional retailers plowing their way into eCommerce).
I, on my part, spent the first 3 formative years of my career in a tech consulting company, graduated to a financial startup, jumped onto a publishing house working in their eCommerce division and am currently working in the data analytics/intelligence industry.
So do product managers need to have domain expertise or are quick wits sufficient to drive them to success?
For me, having worked in a variety of industries before my current role has shaped my current product management portfolio and I take pride in the lessons learned. Here’s why -
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, working across different industries provides a wider perspective on things. Today’s lean startup concepts have been inspired mostly from the manufacturing industry. Think Lean startup, Toyota’s 5 whys and Kanban approach (which was in turn, an idea borrowed from Supermarkets!)
Having specialized knowledge of one industry and honing your grasp in one subject will definitely help tremendously to make intelligent decisions based on the specific domain standards and niche processes. However, out-of-industry perspectives are necessary to drive innovative growth and keep cognitive biases in check.
Focussing on one jurisdiction may hamper your willingness to adjust your notions to new provoking information. Having a range of functional and cross-industry resourcefulness helps usher new fangled virginal ideas to the table and visualize a problem objectively.
Adaptability, quick learning and common sense
A product manager by nature has to be adaptable with an affinity to quick learning of a new product, technological trends or the entire industry in question. I say being a chameleon works wonders for a PM since he can talk the walk of engineers as well as the business stakeholders.
The evolution of tech is so rapid in modern times, with blockchain, AI, Machine learning, chatbots, flying cars all becoming a reality. A product manager, by default, needs to be hyperaware of the ambient advancements. And if it means, you have to learn or start from scratch with a totally unfamiliar industry, then so be it.
Everyone has to start somewhere and transitioning into a new industry or intersections of related industries can be accomplished through curiosity, a pro-active approach to learning, can-do attitude and some common sense.
Inherent PM skills irrespective of the industry
Bare-boned product management skills stay the same irrespective of the industry vertical or domain speciality. You still have to say no to stakeholders, define the product vision, set priorities, solve customer painpoints with the help of your team and peers.
These skills are so inherent to the PM, that without them you are not a product manager at all, let alone being an expert in the VR domain or the telecom industry.
Generalists and not specialists
A Renaissance Man is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. Similarly, the role of a PM is best suited for a generalist, who can take on a problem and think about it from varying frames of references even if the said perspectives do not adhere to the inherent beliefs of the PM.
Specialists, though amazing at their trade, are not meant to be jack of all trades. They can have their horse blinders sewed in, which makes it difficult for them to reign in different ideas, opinions, biases, thoughts from a mélange of personalities in a product ecosystem.
Generalists are trained to embrace uncertainty and deep dive into risky and uncomfortable situations, which are aplenty in product management! They need to have a brief understanding of the technology behind the product, certain engineering principals, be good with customer interactions, diplomatic with senior stakeholders and peers alike, understand the pithy strata of marketing, have an intuitive understanding of sales, profits, budgets and pricing and a multitude of other functions.
In short, a PM needs to be a Swiss army knife.
Having their octopi tentacles half-dipped in all these different functions within a product ecosystem, enhances their product management abilities. And that’s what an amazing product manager should be doing.
Domain expertise is coveted to me. I would love to be able to immerse myself in the technicalities of a domain for years on end. However, it is, more often than not, best suited for hard sciences (law, medicine, finance etc).
Product management on the other hand, needs to be nimble. It should be able to take inferences and learning from diverse experiences and adjust according to changing scenarios.
As Vikram Mansharamani succinctly put it in his essay,
Breadth of perspective trumps depth of knowledge
In summary, having a panorama of multi-functional experiences helps a PM look at the world from an astronaut’s point of view rather than an astronomer’s.