Product Pulse #4: Exclusive Interview with 'Don't be a Fool. Don't become a PM' Author
Plus: What makes a good Experiment Doc, why the job hunt stinks, thinking big from Sam Altman, and the end of TechCrunch+
👋 Hi, there. Aakash here. Product Pulse is the “news” column in Product Growth. It’s focused on commenting on the latest product and tech news. You can modify your subscriptions by column here. If you have a story or source, contact me.
Today’s Product Pulse:
“Don’t be a fool. Don’t become a PM”: A product leader with 10 years of engineering and 8 years of PM experience recommended folks don’t become PMs. But why? I share an exclusive interview with Mario Di Nucci.
What makes a great feature results writeup template: The experiment review template that Patreon used has been released. I examine what lessons it holds for to make our FRWs better.
Why the job hunt feels so terrible: PMs and product leaders continue to get laid off, while those who have a job are scared to look given how frozen the market seems. I examine some of the underrated factors in the situation.
Thinking big from Sam Altman: OpenAI faces a constraint, the circuitry to run its models, and so Sam is proposing to raise up to $7 trillion to remake the world of AI chips. I explore Sam’s reminder of bold thinking for product leaders.
The end of TechCrunch+: The traditional tech media industry continues to get rocked with a series of layoffs and changes. The latest news is the end of TechCrunch’s paid subscription. I examine what it says about the future of content.
1. Exclusive Interview with 'Don't be a Fool. Don't become a PM' Author
In December, a German product leader wrote ‘Don’t be a Fool. Don’t become a PM’ on Medium. It was definitely a contrarian take.
In the following weeks, the article went viral - not just on Medium but also X and LinkedIn.
I got in touch with the author, Mario Di Nucci, to secure you exclusive deeper insights. We’ll cover:
His story: how he came to develop this view on PM
His thoughts on PM: what ratio actually makes sense
His thoughts on engineering: where the field will go as AI develops
What’s next: for him as a PM
Part 1 - About Mario
Can you tell us the background of your career story? Why did you make the shift from Engineer to Product Manager to begin with?
I worked in Italy (my home country) as a SW Engineer in hospitals for around 5 years.
But after 2008, when the Economic crisis hit the market, I moved to Berlin to work as a Software Engineer for one of the many Rocket Internet startups.
After this experience, with a friend of mine we founded our own startup. It was a marketplace for musicians and party makers, more or less a digital booking agency. I eventually became CTO of this company, which entered in a Bulgarian accelerator and won the best pitch of that year.
This was the very first time I was on the frontline of product development. I was deeply involved in any discussion with every possible stakeholder (including VCs) and I loved it. I was turning users feedbacks into improvements and features with instant rewarding from our customers. It was great!
After selling our company, I decided to be an employee again to recover a bit from the overhead of being an entrepreneur. I joined Ebuero, a company which convinced me once and forever that I didn’t want to be a SW developer anymore.
We were just implementing a kind of Scrum. I was barely involved in any decision. I had to fight to have any interaction with our users.
This was my turning point. I resigned and joined Takeaway / Just Eat as product owner of 2 teams.
Since then, you’ve worked as a PM at several companies—including OLX, Tesla, and Mister Spex. Where were you laid off? What happened?
I quit Tesla. It was a really demanding job. One day off, and you were literally left behind.
After Tesla, I joined Tribe (a very small startup) right before it got acquired by Mister Spex. I became Product Lead of the Digital apps.
After few months with a poor strategy, Mister Spex decided to have multiple rounds of layoffs, affecting the whole former Tribe team - only 2 iOS developers are still there - and the product team, besides a few old team members.
After Mister Spex, I took a couple of months to job search. With 2 offers in hand, I took the wrong one. So, after one month and half, we made a common agreement to stop my contract.
Since May ‘23, I’ve been traveling the world. I’m doing interviews, but I don’t want to compromise on salary and career, so it’s taking a bit longer than expected.
Part 2 - About PM
In your piece, you explain 3 primary reasons why PMs in general are on the frontline for layoffs, alongside QA and recruiting:
1. Product is typically too layered
2. It’s challenging to quantify PM’s work
3. Most PMs are middlemen
Let’s talk about that first one. Why is product typically too layered? What is the ideal size for a product team as a ratio to engineering and design?
It depends on how the products are being developed.
With hybrid setups, or even fully remote jobs, I had the chance to work in companies which compensated the lack of control (or trust). There were multiple controllers, such as managers of managers of managers. I was in a Lead role, which consisted in Performance reviews, 1 to 1s and development plans, which were a way to quantify product managers jobs—so controlling them.
I would say smaller teams are much leaner, and with enough seniors one PM would be enough for a team of max 10 people. Trust is the key, so you cannot control what cannot be controlled. With proper OKRs system in place, you can synch teams across the company and making sure they are all performing (or maybe not) toward the same goals.
I would say with a CPO in place, you would need an head of product for every 4-5 PMs, just to keep the teams together and aligned, and providing proper personal development to the PMs.
Now let’s talk about the second reason. Why is it challenging to quantify a PM’s work? How do you better quantify a marketer or engineer’s work?
In response to my post, folks have proposed KPIs like conversion rate or user satisfaction to measure the work of a PM. According to my personal experience, these quantities are owned by multiple teams in the company, and maybe they are measurable successfully in the middle to long run. But, for sure, they cannot give the measure of what a single PM does.
In order to evaluate a PM, I was personally looking at the capacity of the person to manage stakeholders, prioritizing the team work, solving impediments, and being a fit into the company culture. How can you quantify this?
To me for a developer is a bit easier. You can see how many tickets are getting solved, reopened and so on. You can check the number of merging requests and so on. There are plenty of ways to measure the cleaning of the written code.
For marketers I can image is about budgets, turning money into customers.
For PMs I cannot find anything like these.
And finally the third reason. Why are PM middle-men? In an empowered environment where PMs drive the discovery and choice of solution, are they adding enough value?
Yes, when you are fully empowered to solely drive discovery, and choose the solution (the WHAT), PMs are not middle-men.
But I personally found my self spending a great deal of time with other people to get enough resources to respect even a rough deadline.
Here’s what happens: In order to have a proper roadmap, engineering managers had to provide me team capacity, estimations. But these were always unreliable, because people turn over, or there is technical debt which occurs right in the middle of the quarter.
Same for stakeholders. You make a plan for the upcoming quarter, everybody agrees, and suddenly after the first week in to the quarter, someone comes to you with the highest priority item on Earth. You say NO, but then you become the serial complainer of the company. Thing are getting escalated. So, screw the plan—making the developers very upset.
I’m exaggerating here. But I hope you get my point. I believe many (if not all) PMs can relate to this story.
You mentioned in the piece that this normally only happens at product-focused companies. For you, those were 1 out of 10. What do you think broadly that ratio is? And what are the signs someone can use before joining a company to see if it is that way?
When the product team is run by CEOs, CTOs or even COOs, it’s already a sign that maybe the company doesn’t have a broader view on product management. Most probably, these are managers who were never in any product management role. So again it will be hard to let them understand what is our role about.
Personally I worked only in one company where PMs were really empowered to say no, making their point in any discussion with key stakeholders, budget plannings and OKRs. This was only because of one director of product who really fought to embrace this product culture in to the company.
Part 3 - About Engineering
On your LinkedIn post, a former colleague commented that you felt the same way about engineering in 2015 (that it is on the precipice of becoming replacable). What has changed about engineering now?
Before, as software developers we were in a position where we were just getting tickets and try to solve them. We almost couldn’t ask why we were doing something. It was when Scrum was not really a thing in these companies.
Now though, engineers are deeply involved in any aspect of the planning. They have to ask WHY—even if a good PM should always start with the WHY—even before the WHAT.
And what do you think is the future of engineering? How many engineers will work at software companies of the future, where they are about 30% of staff?
I guess the biggest question here is how AI will affect software development.
With no code tools and AI empowered IDE, I’m not sure what can happen.
But I’m pretty sure for other 10 years engineers will be still key roles in software products companies.
Part 4 - What’s Next for Mario
You’re back on the market. What types of roles are you looking for? How do you think about the role security of PM and Engineering?
That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer since October, when I started sending my applications to companies, and being in interviews which are really upsetting (to say the least).
Salaries really dropped (in Berlin) while the life cost almost doubled in last 2-3 years.
Many job ads are there just to show to the outside world that the company is apparently doing well since it is hiring. But reality is much different.
So, I guess investing some time in learning AI/ML at the moment is the best investment you can make to secure your job in one of these companies which are in the AI domain, now that AI is a buzzword everywhere.
Amazing. Well thank you so much for being here. How can readers help you?
Thank you. Any constructive feedback or advise would be much appreciated. I have sometimes strong opinions, but I’m always happy to change my mind!
And what about Aakash’s thoughts?
I find Mario's story so relatable, and his concerns about PM quite persuasive.
It's fairly hard to argue with most of his three points. Indeed…
Many executives seemed to have agreed that product orgs were too layered: that’s why we’ve seen so many layoffs this year
PM's work products are indeed far less visible than designers or engineers: I’ve been saying that for years
PMs do tend to be middlemen when they're not empowered. We both clearly agree on that
It's kind of an existential question for PMs who are thinking on the 25-year scale of, "will this still be my job?" All three of these things look more bleak over time.
As the GPT of 2031ish is likely to achieve ASI, engineers and designers will be more empowered than ever. PMs will become even more middlemen-like.
Where does this mean we land?
The future of PM is in flux. But the most important element to happiness and success in work is not: You need to like your work.
So, if you don't like creating consensus, influence, and writing, you won't like the future of PM.
But if you’re up for that challenge, it can still be a very rewarding career.
2. What makes a great feature results writeup template
As a product leader, feature results writeup’s were always my favorite documents to read. They were the quickest way for me to be able to uncover new insights to share with my peers.led product and growth at Patreon for 4 years. In his newsletter, he released their experiment doc template. It’s very thoughtful.
So I put together this Miro to analyze it:
There are a couple lessons for PMs and product leaders putting together their own templates here:
A great experiment document isn’t just filled out by the PM. It’s a cross-functional document that has clear ownership points from data science and engineering as well.
Create stages in the document. The first 1.5 pages justifies the experiment and requires sign-off from the respective experiment owners in PM, engineering, data science (DS) and design. Then only do you move on to the next stage of filling out the rest.
Make it hard to mess up experimentation. There’s so many pitfalls to bad experimentation. And the problem with them is: you end up learning the wrong things, which impede your long-term process. Adding in the clear steps for engineering, for the team to justify why there’s an experiment, and for the team to pre-calculate time to significance ends up paying dividends over the long-run.
The one nit pick I shared with the document is that the problem it aimed to solve was purely a metrics experiment. A great experiment, typically, in my experience, also solves a user problem.
This document is a best fit for Medium-Large companies because in situations smaller than that, you may not have a dedicated DS or PMM resource. In that case, this document would likely be overkill for already busy PMs.