🔮 The Four PM Archetypes

Find the archetype that lets you have the most impact - and advance your career quickest.

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Summary: There are four archetypes of product managers — engineering-driven, data-driven, design-driven and business-driven. Find the PM archetype that best matches your skillset to have the most impact. If you’re in one of these roles, find ways to stretch yourself to become more well-rounded.

A huge privilege of entering product management as a Rotational Product Manager was the ability to PM several different teams. So far, I’ve been a PM on four different teams at Facebook.

Here’s the interesting part: my role in each team varied wildly.

I tried to understand why by thinking about the different axes on which the teams differed. I thought of a few:

  • Stage of the team: early bet, growth, mature, declining.

  • Tech stack: Backend, frontend,  infrastructure, ML.

  • Users: B2B, B2C, consumer.

  • Area: regulation, market positioning, stage of adoption. 

But none of these aptly described the differences. That is until I read Sachin Rekhi’s insightful piece on “Finding Product Culture Fit”. In the piece (which you should read), Sachin lists the four product cultures that dominate tech companies: engineering-driven, data-driven, design-driven, and sales-driven product cultures.

He gives some examples of how different cultures drive some companies:

These helped me understand how companies think of building products. But it also gave me the vocabulary to describe how the role of a PM differs across teams within a company.

I want to build on Sachin’s piece to share the four archetypes of a PM. These are the four different roles that I’ve observed product managers filling depending on the needs of their team.

Understanding PM archetypes has three distinct benefits:

  1. Find roles where your inclinations are valued: Not all PM roles are created equal. Find the ones that align with your strengths and interests to learn the most and move up quickly.

  2. Find stretch goals: If you’d like to develop outside of your archetype, seek out products that require skills from a different one. This can help you become more well-rounded (which is important for PMs).

  3. Humility: Appreciate the different strengths that other PMs have. You may be a rockstar in one area but you still have a lot to learn from others.

I’ll describe the archetypes, how to think of them as axes, and how to use them to build your PM skillset for the most success. Let’s jump in.

Engineering-Driven PMs

What they do: Identify where to apply technical knowledge for the highest impact. Roles like these often require a technical background because what your team is doing is not understandable by all. This role tends to exist in organizations with enough scale to specialize a team on just the tech stack powering other products.

These PMs rely on their engineering counterparts to help with items like feature definition and opportunity sizing. This is because the engineers know the problem space and potential solutions better than other product team members (ex. data science or design). Being able to communicate and earn the respect of senior engineers is a must-have for these PMs.

PMs can have the most impact by understanding the team's capabilities and deploying these against a clearly defined strategy. 

Teams with these types of PMs:

  • ML/AI (ex. YouTube Recommendation Engine)

  • Hardware (ex. Lidar Programming for Autonomous Vehicles)

  • Backend and Infrastructure (ex. Product infrastructure and scalability)

  • Technical Domains (ex. Stripe Payout Efficiency)

PM projects in this area:

  1. Researching tech trends and identifying how they may affect your roadmap

  2. Serve as a product evangelist and subject matter expert internally and externally.

  3. Understand hardware constraints on CPU, ML features or latency.

Common background: CS degree and/or domain-specific experience.

Companies with many engineering-driven PMs: Google, Stripe, Docker, Cruise.

Data-Driven PMs

What they do: Define success, uncover opportunities and lead fast execution. Roles like these require understanding basic statistics, experiment design and growth playbooks.

Data-driven PMs partner closely with data scientists and analysts to understand how users use the product at scale. This involves asking the right questions to tease out useful insights. When I was a PM on a video growth team, this involved understanding why first-time users were churning and what actions retained users actually took.

Data trumps product sense in these areas. An empirical case for launching a feature will likely win over gut feelings. This is where rapid experimentation becomes so important. These teams move fast to validate hypotheses and test new features.

Teams with these types of PMs:

  • Growth (ex. Growing adoption for Instagram in Egypt)

  • Monetization (ex. Amazon “Frequently Bought Together” product)

  • Optimization (ex. TikTok New User Onboarding

PM projects in this area:

Common backgrounds: Analysts, data scientists or growth marketers.

Companies with many data-driven PMs: Facebook, Wish, LinkedIn, Netflix, Booking.com.

Design-Driven PMs

What they do: Understand user problems and partner with design to build the right solution. PMs on these teams need to navigate considerable ambiguity because they build upon product sense or tackle pre-product-market-fit problems. Data is helpful, but it often doesn’t capture the challenges you’re looking to solve.

A canonical example is of a design-driven PM is Steve Jobs. Rather than rely on in-market data points, Steve needed to understand the root problems users had in various categories - music playing, phones, creative software. These user insights formed the basis of the product roadmap.

Where you’ll find them:

  • Consumer teams (ex. Strava social features)

  • Pre Product-Market-Fit (ex. building the first version of Clubhouse)

  • New Markets (ex. launching new AR Glasses)

PM projects in this area:

  • User research, usability tests and customer interviews

  • Design critiques and joint wireframing new ideas

  • Aligning user experience with user expectations

Common backgrounds: Startup founders, former designers or subject matter experts (ex. pro athletes making wearable sports bands).

Companies with many design-driven PMs: Apple, Airbnb, Asana, Instagram, Spotify.

Business-Driven PMs

What they do: Responsible for ensuring the product succeeds in the market. This involves building partnerships, determining pricing and leading go-to-market. These people are the closest to the “CEO of the product” trope because they need to consider the non-product aspects of success.

These PMs exist because the most value they can create for their product team is to help them navigate the external world successfully. This was my experience working in the payments space where translating regulations and go-to-market plans to technical requirements was key.

Teams with these types of PMs:

  • Enterprise/B2B (ex. Affirm partnering with Adyen to improve checkout)

  • Highly Regulated Spaces (ex. Launching WhatsApp Payments in Brazil)

  • SaaS (ex. pricing for G-Suite to compete with Microsoft Office)

PM projects in this area:

  • Drive alignment with external partners on a joint product roadmap

  • Work with finance, sales and product marketing on pricing decisions

  • Navigate changes to data usage due to iOS 14.5

Common backgrounds: Operations, MBAs, analysts or subject matter experts (ex. bankers building financial services).

Companies with many business-driven PMs: Amazon, Salesforce, Palantir, Microsoft, DocuSign.

Archetypes as Axes

Think of these four archetypes as ends of a spectrum. Given the wide range of PM responsibilities, it’s natural that you’ll fit multiple archetypes. Here are four of my PM experiences mapped on a radar chart:

Try positioning yourself along these axes. This will give you a good benchmark of what skills you’re developing. With this benchmark established, you’ll be able to more easily describe what type of PM you’re becoming, what roles you’re qualified to take on and where you need to invest in becoming a more well-rounded PM.

Bonus: 10-30-50 PMs

(This concept can be a whole deep dive. I want to briefly introduce it here so you can think about the right ways to develop your skills for future success).

Shreyas Doshi, PM lead at Stripe, has an excellent thread on the surest path to PM leadership. He calls it becoming a 10-30-50 PM. This means you’re in the top 10% of one key dimension of product management, top 30% of another and top 50% of a third.

Positioning yourself on the four archetype axis may give you insight into where you’re developing your 10% and 30%. Continue to invest in these to get even better at your craft. Look at the other two dimensions to see where you can become top 50%. This is counterintuitive because we’re often told to focus on our strengths. But PMs can’t do this — they need to be well-rounded.

Summary

Use the four PM archetypes to describe the skillsets you’re developing. Use this knowledge to find new areas to grow into and what roles you may be qualified to tackle.

  • The four archetypes of PMs are engineering-driven, data-driven, design-driven and business-driven. Each has unique skills, responsibilities and projects they tackle.

  • Find companies that align with your product inclinations using Sachin’s original article.

  • Benchmark yourself on a radar chart. Looking at your strengths and areas for improvement gives you a good map towards becoming a 10-30-50 PM.


🖼 Internet Things I’m Enjoying This Week

Why does everyone want to do strategy? by Linda Zhang: A great reminder to us PMs that strategic thinking originates from people and execution.

Will researcher diversity make AI algorithms more just? by Tobi Ogunnaike: a thought-provoking read on the need (but shortfalls nonetheless) of having more diverse AI researchers.

Miami Tech Week: The Start of Startup Cities by Balaji Srinivasan: Balaji has made many successful predictions in the past. Is the “Startup City” the next one?


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See you next week,

Will

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