Product Managers vs. Process Managers

Published Feb 3, 2018

At a recent product-management-related meetup, I was asked about the difference between PMing in Silicon Valley (where I cut my teeth) vs. somewhere like Raleigh, NC, where I currently reside and work. The first and obvious answer is that product managers in Silicon Valley have a constant supply of tasty burritos to fuel them through the day. The second, less obvious difference is Product vs. Process.

Here on the East Coast, I’ve attended a fair number of product management meetups, as well as other product-related conferences and gatherings. The topics at these events are almost entirely about process: the tools people use, pros and cons of different flavors of agile, how people use roadmaps, and a litany of other process-related discussions. One might venture to call this role process management, rather than product management. This is valuable in established markets where a company is trying to make small innovations to win over customers and outpace competitors.

During my four years PMing in Silicon Valley, however, these topics were rarely, if ever, discussed. Conversations were almost always about problems, solutions, and products. These were the types of conversations I heard daily:

“Having to fill out expense reports sucks—there must be a better way”

“That’s really cool how Square completely changed how transactions work at farmers markets and food trucks, I wonder if we can do something similar for market X”

“Holy crap, have you seen the new Facebook app? That user interaction when you first sign in is super innovative.”

These folks don’t put nearly as much thought into the process. What is keeping them up at night is capital-P Product. What would that amazing next product be that they should build?

Why the Difference?

There are a lot of forces at play here, each of which could be their own blog post:

  • Silicon Valley tends to be more B2C, whereas the rest of the country tends to be weighted towards B2B.
  • Silicon Valley is home to some of the most well-known products in the world, from Apple products to Google Search, Facebook, Tesla and more. When your peers are launching kick-ass products, it’s what people who are not software engineers talk about at coffee shops and penthouse parties.
  • Silicon Valley companies tend to view product management as one of the most core roles in the company, whereas in many other places, it’s more of a support role for engineering and/or sales (yes, I know that is a hard pill to swallow).

Who’s Right?

It really depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you are looking to disrupt a market and build something truly innovative, you need product managers, not process managers. If you are looking to incrementally improve in a known market, then focusing on improved processes may be what you need to win.

The answer, as with many things, is probably a bit of both–and emphasizing the right approach based on the nature of your market. This begins with thoughtfully, intentionally considering whether your process vs. product orientation is correctly matched to your opportunity.