Product Management in London – a recruiter’s view


The spotlight shining on Product Management has never been brighter.  Meet-ups and conferences including MindTheProduct & ProductTank have done a fantastic job of bringing the discipline to centre stage – never before has best practice approach been shared more freely within a more supportive, committed community of people.

With this ever increasing appreciation comes greater opportunity for Product people looking to further their career. The rise of the CPO means that a product person can now graduate from engine-room to board-room and play a leading role in setting strategy and driving growth. The presence of a product person is a new addition to C-level and a statement of intent for the future.

It’s not just technology companies who are becoming more interested in product management. My clients tell me they are contacted by an increasing number of recruitment agencies looking to recruit product managers – understandably, given the increased focus in recent years. I’m told though, that candidates are suffering from working with recruiters who lack a basic understanding of the market and a result, aren’t receiving an informed, balanced view on potential opportunities. With this in mind, I wanted to offer my perspective on the options available to product managers today, and the factors that should be considered when weighing up their next move.

For Product Managers looking to strengthen their experience, 3 real career options await – to join a start-up, a digital transformation programme or an organisation who have historically demonstrated a product centric approach. Clearly there will be opportunities for which one or more of these traits will be present (as well as founding a company or going contracting) but these, broadly speaking, are the three main avenues to explore.


The Start-up Zeitgeist

The transition of the start-up tech scene from social periphery to mainstream culture has been well documented over the past decade. Buoyed through rapid technology innovation, increased PE/VC activity and governmental support, London has emerged as a technology hub to rival our friends in San Francisco. Who wouldn’t want to be part of building the next big thing?

This is where Product Managers should beware. As the competitive landscape increases, so to do the backgrounds of those leading the charge (and the strategies they employ to drive growth across their respective sectors). Start-up Founders/CEOs now come from a whole host of different backgrounds – industry, consulting, finance, top universities – and this will play a part in where Product fits into their plans.

It stands to reason that the more exposure the founder has to product management (directly or indirectly), the clearer an idea they will have in terms of managing product performance (MVP best practice), progress and most importantly – centricity, in the context of the wider organisation.

The point is this: too often Product Managers join start-ups having been wowed by the concept, the size of the addressable market or a charismatic founder. They have fallen head over heels for the potential, without questioning whether they will be able to contribute in a meaningful way. A worrying trend for example, is the founder who is unable to relinquish responsibility of the Product to the product specialist they have hired – suffocating best practice in the process. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working for a unicorn or a bootstrapped business – if product management isn’t taken seriously and treated as a priority within the business, it’s not going to be a fun experience.


Questions to ask yourself

With this in mind, it is so important to ask all the questions that you don’t want to hear the answer to. Is the founder comfortable with handing over the reins for Product Management? What is the balance between “research” and “release”? What release cycles do they work to? Who does the most senior product person report to? Have they heard the term HiPPO? What is the most frustrating thing about being a product person in the team? How could the performance of the product function be improved?

Start-ups can be the most exciting move you’ll ever make, but only if you are joining an environment which has set you up to succeed.

Digital Transformation

Paul Shetler (ex-CDO of Ministry of Justice) said “Government is the best digital start-up in London”. This sends an important message – that best practice principles can (and should) be applied to digital programmes, regardless of size or complexity. Of course, the benefit of joining a larger company is the opportunity to affect a larger number of customers/users, more quickly than in a start-up environment. However, joining a project like this is not without risk, particularly as a Product Manager.

By definition, a digital transformation programme will have significant legacy to contend with – both system and process – with some more embedded than others. It’s a case of winning over hearts and minds. Since around 2010, there are several case studies of high profile organisations who have embarked on significant digital transformation programmes, across sector, to varying levels of success.

There are fantastic opportunities within multichannel retailers who now face increasing competition from their younger, more innovative pure-play cousins. High street reputation now needs to be supported by digital innovation. It’s a similar story for the banks. Only now have they responded to the threat with a more comprehensive digital offering, to cater for a customer base with an ever increasing preference for digital interaction. The opportunity this creates for the product manager is enormous, but only if certain criteria are met.

Almost without exception, you can track the successful programmes to three (conditional) factors: 1) the calibre of the digital flag bearer(s), 2) the degree of autonomy they are afforded and 3) the level they are operating at within the organisation.

Without a digital sponsor at C-Level, or on the main board, you can pretty much wave goodbye to a successful programme. Therefore companies often profess to wanting change but without adequately empowering their digital sponsor. The result? A half-hearted, “scratch-the-surface” programme which doesn’t address any of the key issues.

There are countless factors which contribute to a reticence for change: historic relationship with consulting partner, offshore development teams, senior execs with conflicting demands, embedded Waterfall processes, lack of belief in digital investment etc. The list goes on and on (and the challenge made more complex with publicly listed companies who have shareholders and the city to satisfy). All of these will impact Product Management.

The inherent complexity of a large-scale organisation can also make it harder to attribute value to the Product function. Unless it is a stand-alone product, you will likely be contributing to a divisional P&L which already exists. To whom then does product performance belong? There have been instances of Product (and digital) teams being axed because the performance parameters weren’t agreed at the outset. Something which a Product Manager will again have no control over.

Questions to ask yourself

As a product person going into these environments, it is so important to manage your own expectations. You’ll likely be working for a well-known brand with great people and even greater ambitions – but will you be shipping product as quickly as you’d like? How frustrating will this be? Will all the other experience gained make up for it? Does the executive team really appreciate how disruptive a true digital change programme is? What is their appetite for risk? Is the development team onsite or offshored? What is the current relationship between the product team, and wider stakeholders? Are you comfortable working in politically charged environments? Is the product function in control of its performance?

Panoramic image of the Financial districts of London

Product-centric companies

There are a number of technology companies in London who are well known for their long standing commitment towards Product Management. Typically pure-play companies (within Travel, Gaming, Ecommerce and latterly publishing), they have Product pedigree – they take Product Management seriously.

The benefit of joining such a company is clear. Unlike a digital change programme or start-up company, product management is already in the DNA of the business, and they promote best practice approach as a result. Many of these are well known businesses which also look good on your CV – another plus.

It’s clear that London’s burgeoning appreciation for Product Management is in part supported by teachings from our friends across the Atlantic, with some of the biggest brands in technology – eBay, Facebook, LinkedIn, AOL, Expedia, Yahoo! and Google – all being born stateside.

The fact that these are all software companies is significant as, by definition, they live and die by the strength of their product offering and its features. This underpins the Product function as a central business unit from which strategy derives.

In San Francisco, Product Managers are seen more as Mini-CEO’s. They are empowered to “scale Products as businesses”, with a focus on robust engineering and cutting-edge innovation. In contrast, some argue that London based Product Managers have traditionally been more closely aligned to UX and Cx than their engineering-led SF counterparts. This is a debate for another day…

While there are now many more home-grown product-centric tech companies, many of the most attractive opportunities in London remain to work for a big branded, US led organisation. The truth is, in some cases the product management experience will be rich; in others, you will be little more than a glorified localisation manager. The further removed you are from the company HQ, the deeper you need to dig with regards to the real impact you can make.

Questions to ask yourself

How much autonomy do the local offices have in driving the Product roadmap? What is the reporting line of the local GM, CPO, UK MD etc. into the US? Is there a risk of only being able to make incremental changes to an already well-defined roadmap? Do the responsibilities sound more delivery focused? Does strategy dictate that personalisation is more a priority than feature development? What is the sign-off process for feature changes? Will big-brand experience counter-balance the potential negatives?

I want to be clear – the Product Management market in London is incredibly exciting, with some fantastic opportunities for those looking to enter or further themselves in the industry. With a more buoyant market comes more choice, and it is so important that candidates are informed with regards to the choices available to them.

As a London based Product person taught me recently, “Product Management is all about compromise”. Apply this same principle to your job search, and you won’t go far wrong.