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The history that makes me excited for product ops’ future

Product management took 85 years to come into its own. How long will it take us?

When I first heard about product management, I knew it wasn’t for me. I had no technical background, didn’t want to work at a giant company, and wanted to practice human-centered design. 

This might sound confusing since product managers don’t need to be technical, do exist at companies big and small, and are supposed to constantly practice human-centered design. 

(puts on old-timey voice) Back in my day, there wasn’t this sort of consensus about what a product manager should be. Coming out of my MBA program, Google and Amazon were hiring the most PMs, they required engineering backgrounds, and were not talking about user research. 

There were tons of other companies at that time doing product management, but the role still felt niche. As a result, there were so many misconceptions. Fast forward to today and there’s clarity on what the role of a PM is, how to do it well, and what kind of person should be in the role.

What product management’s history can tell us about the future of product ops

I’ve been part of several private conversations recently where others have expressed concern about the lack of alignment in product ops. They have expressed a few concerns:

  • If we practice product ops poorly, those organizations will not want it anymore and we’ll kill the discipline
  • The people defining product ops incorrectly will end up leading the conversation, and the role will end up in a place we don’t like
  • All this disagreement makes the product ops community look disorganized and will deter adoption

My advice: instead of worrying that some people are wrong on the internet and sending product ops down a path where it will be doomed for failure, accept the fact that we are early in this journey. 

[Cueball is typing on a computer.]
Voice outside frame: Are you coming to bed?
Cueball: I can't. This is important.
Voice: What?
Cueball: Someone is WRONG on the Internet.
“Duty Calls”, xkcd 386

Product ops today reminds me of product management back when I was starting out. We don’t have alignment on what the role is, what the work looks like, or who should do it. 

And that’s okay. We’re going to get there. 

There are some lessons from product management’s journey that I think can help preview the future of product ops. There will be a lot more disagreement before we get to alignment.

It took decades for any standardization to emerge

In the beginning, product management looked very different than today. It started as a marketing role and was about understanding the customer to craft the right message and shaping product direction. Due to the influence of the Toyota Production System and manufacturing, this eventually evolved into building what the customer wanted. (This is part of why delivery management has been considered part of the role in so many companies. Martin Erikson’s history is truly excellent if you want to dive deeper.)

It wasn’t until the Agile Manifesto that the core tenets of product management got well-articulated in one place. Even so, the Agile Manifesto doesn’t even use the word “product”. And until quite recently, as Aaksash Gupta puts it, “the ‘primary job’ of a product manager was considered to be writing product requirements documents (PRD).”

There was no “proper” product management role at the beginning and it took decades for standardization and specialization to become part of the role. Be patient. The product operations role is still evolving.

Spirited debates were critical to creating consensus

If you read any content on product management from the mid-aughts to the mid-teens, it was filled with debates about what product management actually is or should be. People debated if the PM is the CEO of the product, if PMs need to know how to code, if there should be dual track career paths, and the debate continues to this day on whether PMs are necessary at all.

The fact that there were enough people to participate in those debates and hold strong opinions was a sign that product management was coming into its own. If people were willing to argue, they really cared. These debates were critical in driving consensus. Many of the arguments have quieted down because people started coming to an agreement on an answer. 

We are going to have a lot of debates in product ops for a long time. Do we need it or not? What is it? Should you have a product management background? What does the career path look like? These debates are a good thing. Lean into them. It helps us learn. And eventually, by having lots of these debates, out in the open, we’ll become more and more aligned on the nature of product ops.

Companies created product management hiring programs at scale

Aakash’s history of product management highlights how the companies that created large-scale product management programs also made product management ubiquitous. Product management didn’t come into its own exclusively because people were talking about it; it took several respected, large companies to hire and train a lot of people into those roles.

The alumni from Intuit, Google, and HP went elsewhere after their first PM jobs and brought the discipline with them. As Aakash points out:

In addition, where it was practiced, it was not uniform. Companies like Microsoft built out their Program Management functions. These were product managers who were expected to do some technical program management. It was their own twist.

Those companies succeeded, and others started looking to emulate their practices. The product manager role finally found momentum.

We’re seeing companies start to build out product ops programs. But there are only a few companies that we can point to right now as “lighthouse” organizations (e.g. Uber and Pendo). We aren’t yet seeing a high volume of product ops people graduating from these companies and going elsewhere to start programs. As product ops sets deep roots in some high-profile companies, their graduates will start spreading the gospel (and the consistency of their training) elsewhere.

Training and education provided common language and framework

Training and education have played a massive part in creating consistency around product management. Marty Cagan’s seminal book Inspired came out in 2008 and was the first book exclusively about product management. Product Operations from Melissa Perri and Denise Tilles just came out a few weeks ago and is the first of its kind. It’s too early to tell if their book will become foundational like Marty’s.

Formal training in product management and communities were other ways that the role got codified. Product Tank (2010) and Mind the Product (2011) created the first formal path for product managers to share what they learned and feel like they were part of something bigger. Product School (2014) and Reforge (2016) created formal training programs that allowed people to both break into the discipline and level up their capabilities. Product ops has some communities forming, such as Product Led Alliance (added ProdOps in 2021) and ProductOps HQ (2022). Trainings are currently infrequent, smaller programs, and organizations like Reforge haven’t (yet) introduced product ops training.

A healthy training (and, for better and for worse, certification) ecosystem is critical to establishing product ops as a standard role. Right now, the trainings will have to talk about the disagreements around the role. Some trainings will be great, some will be mediocre. But they’ll move the use of common frameworks forward and add more legitimacy to the space.

How we get to agreement in product ops’ future

If we want product ops to establish itself, there are a few things we can do:

  • Continue having open, healthy debate about what product ops is and should be, and welcome disagreement.
  • Figure out what the specializations should be in the role and begin shaping those.
  • Celebrate every new company that establishes a product ops function.
  • Embrace more trainings and community-building opportunities.
  • Remove normative language from how you talk about product ops. There aren’t “better” or “worse” ways to do it – we’re all experimenting together in it. Different circumstances will require different approaches. In the end, the results will speak for themselves.

It’s hard being in an emerging field. It takes the phrase “being comfortable with ambiguity” to a whole new level. But success will come from navigating that ambiguity as a community. Just as I had been exposed to a flavor of product management that no longer exists, many product ops roles today will be considered antiquated sometime in the future.

The first product managers started at P&G in 1931. It took about 85 years for product management to gain mainstream acceptance. Sales ops took about 40 years for mainstream acceptance. One of the first product ops roles started in 2011. It hopefully won’t take decades for product ops to hit mainstream. But it will take time. Until then, be proud that we are pioneers in the space and embrace the challenges that come with that.

Thank you to Kevin von Gillern (#openToWork), Anna Peterson, and Joshua McLaughlin for their marvelous edits and comments.