It took Hunter Walk 15 years to realize he didn’t have to be a director of product to be a product leader.
After his time on the early Linden Lab team which built the legendary virtual world of “Second Life,” leading one of the most successful YouTube product teams, and performing nearly every product role, Hunter realized that a successful career in product didn’t have to include an exec-or-bust route.
“At Google, you’d see designers and engineers transition into product because they wanted to have more ‘impact,’” Hunter said. “What needed to be made clear is that seniority and title –or who you managed – doesn’t necessarily translate into immediate impact on the product.”
Now a seed stage investor and co-founder of Homebrew, Hunter recognized that there’s a myth about moving up the metaphorical corporate ladder. In today’s workplace, where everything, including your resume, needs to look like it’s going “up and to the right,” people in product should rethink the notion that “progress” is synonymous with people management or titles.
“When I inhabited these roles like ‘director of product management’ at YouTube, I managed resources and helped individual contributors flourish,” he said. “I wasn’t making the same type of creative decisions like I did as a classic product manager. And that’s what people get wrong about leading a product team and having ‘impact’ on the product.”
Looking back on the earlier years of his career in product, Hunter recognized that every product manager will eventually reach a crossroads. It might seem as though the “right” path to take is to become a manager of product managers. But maybe the biggest impact you can make at a company is constantly getting better at the thing you enjoy doing the most.
Lessons learned from YouTube
From 2007 to 2011, YouTube video views grew by 40x and Hunter grew the product team from three to 30+ people. That’s some amazing success. And yet he doesn’t believe he was an amazing product leader. Is this a humblebrag or a more subtle acknowledgment of how the world of product gives its practitioners few options to progress their careers?
“When I was at YouTube, there was only a handful of people in the tech industry during that time who had like similar roles to mine,” Hunter said. “We were a top five internet property growing at at a fast rate. Looking back, I tremble when I think about the opportunity I had – it was amazing! I still get chills when I see somebody in a café or an airport using YouTube. But if I am being very honest with myself, looking back I’d say I was only an okay PM leader. An amazing team grew YouTube by 40x, and I had a chance to try to help that product move forward.
“I became a director of product management at YouTube because I was originally a good product manager, as an individual contributor,” he continued. “However, I don’t necessarily agree that your skill as a PM directly translates into being a good product leader at a large company. I was a much better product manager, and a much better coach or mentor to product managers than a product lead. The large company politics, the managing upwards – those really weren’t my strengths.”
Hunter points out a nuanced difference. A manager is not necessarily a mentor. While some may take on both roles, managing a team of product managers requires an entirely different skill set from the type of guidance sought from mentorship.
What Hunter enjoyed most was the creative and interdisciplinary process of building a product. In doing so, he saw himself succeed at helping others learn new skills and refine the craft. Though in retrospect, the responsibilities he took on as manager wasn’t what he imagined for himself.
As director of product management, Hunter was forced to step out of the weeds and look at YouTube’s product organization from a 30,000 ft. view. From this new vantage point, he assessed each PM holistically, grokking at what kept them uniquely motivated, all the while evaluating how their process and results rolled up into a larger mission and annual KPIs. This was not the same type of work at all.
Being a manager of product managers is no easy task. Neither is being an individual contributor. However, what’s important to understand about “progress” is that both an individual contributor and a director can achieve “progress.” Progress isn’t just given to one type of role.
A crucial element to creating runway for your own success is understanding what it is you want to do and going after it willingly, instead of having it happen to you.
“Ultimately, if Google had created a product track that gave me a chance to influence the product’s future direction, without necessarily having to be responsible for three dozen people and the politics associated, maybe I would have moved into that role as opposed to leaving.”
Despite the training and rotational programs at companies like Google, and Facebook (and now Mixpanel), PMs are often left to their own devices when trying to figure out what the next right step should be. While it’s a problem, it’s also an opportunity for companies to take on in order to retain the best talent in tech.
Exploring more options
It’s difficult to grasp how to advance within the field of product management because the discipline itself is actually very loosely defined. What it is is often determined by who is doing it and who is leading by example.
Given that the discipline remains ill-defined in the tech industry (compared to, say, engineering) companies have yet to develop and invest in personalized or specialized tracks for senior product managers. Product management at Facebook is not quite the same as product management at Google or at Slack.
“The science of careers and product management is still evolving,” Hunter said. “Product management means so many different things in different companies. And the senior practitioners, the documentation, and the thinking and writing about being a PM has exponentially blossomed in the past five to ten years since I started my career.
“I wish I had had a little bit more guidance or understanding about what I should have doubled down on,” Hunter said.
Through his self-reflection, he recognizes that tech companies need to build a bridge for product managers so they can grow and specialize, without necessarily having to manage people.
Many tech companies, like Google, have already built a successful model for this type of career development for engineers.
“Throughout Google’s history, there have been debates from time to time about whether product teams should do the same. But there’s only a singular path of succession. If you are a good product manager, as in ‘seems to work well with engineers and designers and builds products that are successful,’ you will eventually be given people to manage.”
But as startups and scaling tech companies have seen time and time again, not everyone is meant to be a manager, nor is everyone meant to be an individual contributor. That decision is up to the professional.
As for the company, its job is to develop the product manager, to encourage her talent and her chosen direction. Otherwise, the company risks losing her to competition that is doing a better job of creating options for their PMs. Understanding all of the options outside the traditional “director of product” role can be the source of a product manager’s greatest accomplishments.
The power of the individual contributor
“The advice that I would have wanted in my earlier days as a product manager would have been mostly about staging the right runway for my career. How can I set up the most impact? And deciding that it’s also okay to not aspire to people management,” Hunter said.
What Hunter made clear is that a traditional promotion into upper management doesn’t necessarily mean you’re about to make a “great impact.”
Making an impact can happen at any stage of your career, and it’s not a zero sum game.
“Is trading in for title and seniority better? Maybe not. Being at the top of the food chain at a crappy startup may not outweigh leading one product (out of many) at a large, established company,” Hunter explained. “If someone is trying to evaluate the right ‘next step’ in her career, considering the type of exposure and the type of problem they’re solving can be a good measure of success or incentive.”
Hunter encourages product managers to figure that answer out for themselves. When you ask yourself what type of impact or scope you want to have in your career, therein lies the direction you should take.
To manage or not to manage? That is the question.
The good news is there is no wrong answer. So give up on the Hamletian dilemma.
In fact, there are many prominent leaders in tech, not just Hunter Walk, who tout the power of being individual contributor, even when they were once the CEO of their own company.
Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz, the SEO and marketing company, was always heavily entrenched in building its products. Moz grew 100% year-over-year for five years consecutively. Then the company’s growth rate cleaved in half. What exactly changed?
In the name of transparency, one of Moz’s highest held values, Rand admitted his own struggles with people-managing. So, for the sake of company growth and doing what he loved most, Rand actually stepped down from his executive role. This was no outsing; rather, it was an honest realization that the greatest impact he could make on his own company was to focus on building the products and staying in the weeds. Plus, that was Rand’s favorite type of work.
“Having been very hands off in a leadership role with a product that really tanked for us years ago, now I’m at the weekly meetings,” he told The Signal in a recent interview. “I’m in Slack watching all the conversations. I’m approving every design and UX element. I’m testing every data source in a backend dev environment. It makes a big, big difference.”
Individual contributors are often the greatest heroes when assessing the growth of a product or year-end metric. So when trading in the credentials of an I.C. for management, you may want to stop and ask – why?
Why you’re doing it
If you decide to specialize and progress as an individual contributor in product, you have to understand what that role really requires, so that you’re not fooling yourself into a fictional career path. Just because you’re in product, doesn’t mean you call all the shots.
“In those cross-functional teams, you are serving at the behest of the engineers and designers,” said Hunter. “And in the best organizations, you’re increasing the quality and the speed of the product development. If you’re not, you should.”
“Being a good PM is working in service of the product and in service of the people building that product.”
“If you think of it as, ‘this is the role I should inhabit because I get to make decisions,’ or ‘I get to tell people what to do,’ or ‘I control resources,’ then you’re misinterpreting what it really means to be a PM,” said Hunter. “When you’re a product manager, you have to come in with the mindset of – I’m responsible for a collaborative but not consensus project. Some decisions are mine, but a lot of those decisions aren’t. A big part of doing the work of a PM is about crediting the people who have made the decision, and giving them the space to discover it.”
“Whereas, when you’re in a director role, you’re not as close to the product as you think. You manage the people who are doing the product type of work.”
“The biggest challenges I ran into and my biggest failures in leading product at YouTube were the times where I thought ‘just work harder’ was the answer,” he said. “Now, I look back and know I should’ve been a bit more self-critical of all the moving pieces. I should’ve answered other questions like – What am I doing that I shouldn’t be doing? What’s my role in how this organization can change and evolve in order to solve a greater problem? How can I use my talents to make the greatest impact?”
When you shed a layer of egoism, and take inventory over your skills and role, you’ll understand where you are most valued, and how you can harness and progress your skill set.
The career hunt
Now, as co-founder and seed stage investor of Homebrew, Hunter Walk is working with a portfolio of early stage founders who are building products they are fanatical about. After years of being a manager of product managers, as well as a PM, he’s sculpted a perfect role for what he believes he’s best at: helping founders, often the first product people at startups, build the best versions of what they have inside their heads.
Hunter looks back on his times at Linden Labs and YouTube with clarity and perspective.
When building a career in product, it’s not just about building the product; it’s also about constructing a philosophy around how you want to approach problem solving, and figuring out where your ideas can be most helpful.
Discovering your unique abilities and how you are an integral part to an cohesive team may take time. Taking opportunities and being patient with your own experimentation can be guideposts to finding the right path.
“I got lucky,” Hunter said, “Because during the three years I was at Second Life I was the only non-engineer and non-designer, so I was just doing everything. When I left, I had to think – what title should I put on my resume? Product and marketing seemed like the most accurate name to put to what I was doing. Though, I wasn’t trained and brought up in some school. I just slipped in. When I moved to Google, I started on the business side for a year, and then got pulled into the product organization. Eventually I realized, oh, I guess I’m a product manager now.”
As a product manager begins to wonder where his career may take him, the question to ask is not simply “to manage, or not to manage?” Instead, similar to Hunter’s philosophy around starting a “mature” company, figuring out the right coordinates for your developing career in product begins by asking a more complex question – What satisfies you most?