Product management is such a broad field, with opportunities in companies of all shapes and sizes. I recently came across an excellent post about PMing at startups vs. PMing at large companies, and I wanted to share my own perspective, based on the points mentioned, on PMing at a large company.
Product Management at Large Companies
I think it’s very fair to say that larger companies, especially public companies, tend to focus on growing what is already successful. When there are quarterly targets, investor pressure, and lots of eyes from supporters and competitors alike, there’s little room for error, and these companies will very naturally minimize risk and continue going after tried and true approaches.
However, there’s an ideal balance to this – large companies still need to focus on the long term and continue to innovate, and as a result, a good large will focus on scalable processes, employee growth, and new technologies.
Large companies definitely look for team players. In my experience as a PM at a large company, I’ve seen the absolute importance of prioritizing the success of the team over what someone individually wants. This makes a lot of sense because as the size of the team gets bigger, the total contribution of the team is much more than the contributions of a single person.
Large companies also look for specialists so that there are talented and disciplined professionals in every role. At my company, there are much more specifically defined roles – for example, the UX Researcher conducts customer interviews, the UX Designer creates the wireframes, and the Creative Designer delivers the final comps. Every person is an expert in a particular role, which leads to the best possible output for each step of the project.
I think one of the most important skills a PM can have at a large company is strong communication. By strong I don’t mean forceful – the best PMs I’ve seen at my company have been clear communicators who are good at aligning and connecting different groups, visions, and ideas. Having mental toughness and flexibility goes a long way to delivering the final product when there are 20 differing viewpoints and voices.
While extensive experience helps develop these skills, PMs also need to get some product management certifications to formalize their product management skills.
2. The Goods
It’s very satisfying to know that the products you deliver will impact millions of people and the manpower you have can go a long way in achieving big ideas and missions. For example, our company runs a donation campaign every year, and even without the full participation, we’re able to raise tens of thousands of dollars. It’s pretty easy to think of many other initiatives large companies can achieve due to their size and resources.
As a PM, I especially appreciated the structured training and mentorship opportunities at a large company. During my first six months as a product manager, I enrolled in many helpful training classes at work and had regular check-ins with my supervisor to discuss my progress and future career goals. While any regardless of size can offer these, larger companies have plenty of resources to invest specifically in career growth.
I’ve also observed many PMs moving around to try different projects, not just for different devices but even for entirely different domains. There are dozens of teams and funded projects during the year, so it’s definitely very possible to try new things and switch things up without even having to change floors.
3. The Not-So-Goods
One of the more frustrating aspects of PMing at a large company is the sheer of people involved in decision-making. For any given project, blockers tend to happen because there are so many people owning different parts that there’s inevitable delay and gaps in communication. A good PM will be able to work around this by being proactive in communicating and constantly following up, but it’s a lot of extra effort for things that shouldn’t be that difficult to do.
It’s also more difficult to have the full context of everything happening in the company. Many issues stem from one team changing something and another team not picking up on the changes. As a PM it’s very important to stay as connected as possible to all the projects that may be related to your own project – there’s always the possibility that at some point the two projects will see some overlaps or interaction.
As a result of this missing context and the huge number of people working on a given project, it’s harder to feel a stronger connection to the totality of what your is shipping. There are enough things to worry about for your own project, for which you may only have a small portion of ownership, let alone the twenty other funded projects.
Product Management at Large Companies Vs. Small Companies
Product management at large companies usually involves more people and more processes than at small companies. For example, at big companies like Google, there are different groups that support a product manager’s efforts. The engineers creating the actual product and services will often want to create their own roadmap or deviate from the product owner’s version of what is “best” for users.
The QA team should be involved in testing releases at all stages and may be ready with feedback before the release is even ready, which may conflict with the product owner’s timeline. There are usually finance people that want to be consulted for pricing information and forecasting, as well as marketing people who want to weigh in on branding efforts. All of these groups can add value or at least have valuable input, but they also take more time due to larger numbers of people involved.
Another major difference is that at a large company, there are usually multiple teams working on different products or features of the same product. This means that the team must work to understand what other teams are doing and how their own efforts will affect others’. They need to schedule these other teams’ releases so they don’t conflict and set up dependencies.
On the other hand, at a small company, the product manager will likely be involved in just one team. The product manager usually has more degrees of freedom to change and move around features and releases since they aren’t coordinating as many teams.
Based on my experience at both large and small companies, I’d say the main difference between product management roles is outlined above. But there are many other differences that apply to specific roles or companies, and there will be exceptions to the general rules I’ve outlined here.
Don’t confuse the size of a company with product management maturity. I’ve observed more mature products at small companies than large ones. As an example, a small company can easily run end-to-end test automation whereas a large company might have a single test automation framework but not run it at all.
In closing, there are always benefits and drawbacks to PMing at a large company, just as there are benefits and drawbacks to PMing at a startup. They’re certainly not mutually exclusive, and the best way to understand what works for you is to give them both a try.
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