The Age of the Product Manager

Marissa Mayer’s “flaws” are part of what makes her a new, better kind of CEO.

Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer speaks at the opening of the Microsoft Center Berlin on Nov. 7, 2013. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer speaks at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit on Oct. 17, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Ballmer by Adam Berry/Getty Images; Photo of Mayer by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Fortune

A new Vanity Fair profile of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer describes someone who is not a manager of people so much as a manager of ideas. As a Google product manager and later executive, Mayer was credited with enforcing a rigid vision across Google’s user-facing properties; she became the linchpin of integration between products, and she kept tabs on every engineer and designer, high and low. She is also accused of being stubbornly single-minded, ignoring others’ opinions, disrespecting seniority and prestige, and being more focused on vision than on necessary compromises or Yahoo’s quarterly earnings.

Mayer is far from perfect, but you will never find a great product manager with all those strengths and none of those weaknesses. In the case of someone like Mayer or Steve Jobs—who was accused of many of the same flaws—those strengths and weaknesses make for far better results than the executive alternative, whether it’s a corporate hatchet woman like HP’s Carly Fiorina, an overpaid functionary like Citi’s Vikram Pandit, or an unrepentant economy wrecker like Lehman’s Dick Fuld, not to mention undistinguished wheel tillers like Apple’s John Sculley and his current reincarnation, Tim Cook. Whatever Mayer does with Yahoo, she at least has a fighting chance to revive the company, something that could never have been said of her predecessors.

Mayer’s approach is not so different from that of Jobs. Though a CEO, Jobs had a far greater involvement in the creative side of Apple than his counterparts did, and Apple’s boom came with Jobs combining a high-level vision with concrete ideas about user experience and design. Jobs had excellent programmers, excellent designers, and excellent raw technology. But unless you can coordinate and reconcile many individual visions, large-scale projects will drown in competing agendas and the incompatible ideas of people on different teams. Many sources have stressed how intimately involved Mayer has been in the details of the user experience both at Google and Yahoo, which often frustrated individual contributors. In his own profile of Mayer, Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson saw this style of comprehensive product management as a defect, but the truth is quite the opposite. Her confidence and meticulousness are far more valuable than the business connections of the overentitled, macho executives she replaced.

Jobs and Mayer are exceptionally visible figures and not representative of a typical high-quality PM, but I want to draw attention to how their most valuable skills have very little to do with the traditional values people associate with an executive. Their skills came from working in the trenches, not in boardrooms.

In fact, Google has acted as an incubator for many product managers who have gone on to be major forces in the tech world—not just Mayer, but Bret Taylor (Google Maps co-creator and later CTO of Facebook), Paul Buchheit (a lead developer of Gmail and Google AdSense, and now a partner at Y Combinator), and Emily White (incoming COO of Snapchat). And Mayer was integral in nurturing that talent as founder of Google’s Associate Product Manager program, which Wired called “an incubation system for tech rock stars”—including Taylor, who was one of Google’s early APMs.

The product manager ideally does not take credit for the deep skills of the people with whom she works. Instead, she works as a peer to draw the necessary connections between them and keep them in sync. She pays attention to the existing self-organization of small groups of smart people and sympathetically exerts soft power to try to leverage their skills on a larger scale, without wrecking what they already do well. She does not build from the ground up, but helps fit pieces together—horizontally. (This less dominant, more agile approach—call it “peer-to-peer managing”—may be part of why teams with more women seem to have higher collective intelligence.)

The good PM provides a forum for talented engineers to do the right work in the right way. Without it, individuals literally cannot do quality work, and you end up with something like  

A product manager is not a manager in the traditional executive sense. Traditional corporate culture is tremendously vertical. Since the 1980s, business culture has celebrated the CEO, the manager of a company who knows how to delegate and set a grand vision that the people under him then execute. After the Great Recession and George W. Bush’s “CEO presidency,” delegation and vision no longer seem like enough. The big top-down visions extolled in the vertical corporate model are cheap—the devil is in the details, as the last 10 years of Steve Ballmer’s mission statements should prove.

In the case of bad product management, you still see the problems of underbaked vision. Take the head of game studio 22cans, Peter Molyneux, who’s a bit of a Barnum-esque figure in gaming. I was reading up on his latest project, the Kickstarter-funded “god game” Godus, when I saw a conversation in a Godus beta update video that sent shivers down my spine: Molyneux asks one of his programmers for an update, the programmer starts to talk about the work there is to do, but Molyneux cuts him off, and then suggests that the programmers race each other to completion. The programmer seems adrift; Molyneux seems clueless and imperious. (For contrast, the affable PM-engineer interaction in this Prison Architect alpha update video bespeaks a team that’s honest with each other about things both good and bad.)

Pretty much every new Microsoft product of the last 10 years fell prey to lousy execution of a half-baked vision, from the Kin to the Surface to Windows 8. But you can see difficulties of product management affecting other companies as well. Facebook’s user experience is simply a mess, still not offering any significant search capabilities and now driven by a desperate need to make amends for its disappointing IPO and subsequent share price flat-lining. Google’s user experience seems to be splitting in two, with its traditionally austere search properties bearing little resemblance to the more gaudy presentation of Google Plus, with Gmail and YouTube seemingly caught in the middle.

Google’s technological acumen is second to none, but when it comes to coherent product design, Apple is the one to beat. Google’s purchase of Motorola Mobility hints at its recognition that it would never be able to coordinate closely enough with another company to make the ideal hardware for the Android OS. With user interfaces now several orders of magnitude more complicated than any pre-1980s electronic device, the details are now the vision.

Another way that the vertical corporate model misleads is by creating the impression that executives control the people below them. It’s not President Obama’s fault that contractors made such a hash of, but it is his fault for not ensuring that there was a qualified person supervising the project end to end—the role Jeffrey Zients has now belatedly taken on. The legacy of Henry Ford is to think of people as cogs in a machine, each cog more or less capable of being switched out at will. In this model, low-level workers are interchangeable, only becoming critical as they rise up the corporate ladder. Far from the case in reality, this is especially untrue in high-innovation sectors, where skills vary so wildly that one programmer can sometimes do the work of 10 others, and the departure of a single key programmer can be far more destructive than the loss of half a dozen managers.

Recognizing that people management is not superior to product management, many startups have separated the two disciplines. Because performance reviews, HR headaches, and recruitment slogging are distractions from actual innovation, these startups—including Google—created dedicated people management positions. Meanwhile, they made product managers into individual contributors or supervisors of small teams defined not by organizational structure but by deliverables.

Because a PM has a disproportionate impact on setting strategy and deciding what work actually gets done, she is the key to success or failure. She can singlehandedly ruin a project. I remember, none too fondly, a PM for whom “soft power” was an oxymoron; he led by yelling, bullying, and backstabbing those who got in his way. He was eventually forced out of the group after the toxic synergy of his personal and professional defects forced an exodus of talent. This goes to show that traditional managerial politics do not produce innovation. The Vanity Fair article makes the telling point that Mayer tended to be more generous to her talented juniors than to other executives—precisely the opposite of the executive back-scratching mentality. To be a great PM, you don’t have to be especially nice to your co-workers. But you do have to value them.