The Curse of the Platform Product Manager

On a group bike ride yesterday, a fellow rider shared an interesting perspective. He has spent the last several years at a well-known technology company and was recently promoted to VP of Product Management for Mobile Platforms. He shared with me how difficult the transition has been adjusting to life as a platform PM. After hearing his story, I realized this may be one of the most challenging roles in product management.

Platform product managers are vital to the health of a technology company. Everyone depends on them, but no one seems to love what they do.

In 2005, Marty Cagan wrote about these challenges for the Silicon Valley Product Group. Ten years later, little has changed. The bar for platform PMs remains high because they are a critical dependency for every product they support. They must consistently support multiple products and hit a moving target — and there is no room for error.

I have experienced this firsthand running product and strategy in six software companies and being the CEO of three, including now at Aha! (visual roadmap software). Working with several software products and services built upon a common platform is no easy feat.

If you are a platform product manager you know the role can be challenging for the following reasons:

Distant customers
Platform PMs are not typically responsible for setting the roadmap for the functionality that customers use. This means that control over user experience is limited, and can make the product planning stage frustrating. It can feel like their colleagues need them, but don’t always respect their ideas because they do not “know” csutomers.

Many masters
Platform PMs serve many outstanding product managers and engineers, each with their own set of priorities. Matrix management is a great skill to have — it teaches you to interact with diverse teams and stakeholders. But the constant need to please everyone can get overwhelming. Poor prioritization is the number one downfall of platform PMs. Those who feel the need to please everyone do not succeed.

Irreconcilable dependencies
Other product managers demand what they need from them after they prioritize the functionality that their products will deliver. They do not think of any other product, except their own. Platform PMs might feel like their input gets lost in the shuffle even though they see the larger, cross-product picture. This creates the feeling that they provide value without receiving any in return.

Don’t get me wrong, platform product management can also be extremely rewarding for the right individual. They can have a major impact across different product lines. Whatever they build will typically be used by many teams and customers, and they get to work with lots of different groups.

So, like any job it has its challenges and opportunities. But happy platform PMs tend to work well across groups, serve the higher purpose the business, say “No” gracefully, and deflect praise to others.

What do you see as the most difficult part of being a platform product manager?

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap and marketing planning software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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