There’s a rather annoying trend that’s been showing up within both job postings and resumes that’s just crawled under my skin in a way similar to the “ninja” and “rockstar” appellations that developers have adopted. The description that I’m talking about is that of the “full stack” product manager. Now, i totally get where this comes from — in the world of development, there are clear distinctions between developers who focus on the backend systems, the middle tier of integration and business logic, and the actual customer-facing user experience. This is because the skillsets for each of these isn’t necessarily directly transferable to another area — especially with a junior developer who generally excels at one of the three areas, and isn’t quite as competent at the other two. Now, it’s entirely natural for a developer to grow in those lackluster areas over the course of their career, to the point where they might legitimately be called a “full stack” developer. But the same just isn’t true for Product Managers — primarily because we don’t really have anything close to a clearly defined “stack” that we can master. Let’s take a look at what this means for us…
Defining the “Stack”
The first problem with claiming to be or looking for a “full stack” Product Manager is that there’s not a clearly-defined “stack” that exists for us. It seems silly to think that Product Managers should fall into the same stacks as developers, because it just doesn’t work that a PM would excel at backend, middle-tier, or front-end work — rather, our jobs require that we know and understand all three parts of this development work in order to actually deliver the solutions that we need for the problems that we identify. So if it’s not the same “stack” as developers, what might it look like? Well, if we look at how the “stacks” might compare, rather than directly relate, we might say that the “full stack” Product Manager is the one who can take an idea from beginning ideation and discovery through to delivery and maintenance — must like a “full stack” developer takes a solution from back-end design into middle-tier rules, through to the end-user facing interface. So, maybe the “full stack” developer is someone who can execute the broad spectrum of Product Management capabilities — from discovery through to definition and confirmation on to requirements, and through to release and beyond.
Generalism v. Specialization
The problem that I have with this is the same problem that I have with many younger full-stack developers — the problem of generality versus specialization. I think there are very few Product Managers out there who can legitimately claim to be great at the entire “stack” of Product Management capabilities — we all have strengths and weaknesses. And anyone who tries to generalize across the “stack” is inevitably going to build a skill set that bears less resemblance to the “t-shaped” skillset that we expect of a Product Management candidate, and more like a “mile wide, inch deep” skillset. And while this might appear to be attractive, any company building a Product team out of “mile wide, inch deep” Product Managers is going to quickly find out that that lack of specialization in one or more of the typical Product Management skills is going to hurt them severely. I’d much rather see a Product team built from Product Managers with a “t-shaped” skill set whose “deep cut” capabilities compliment each other. That way, when you need to go deep on Discovery, or Release Management, you have someone available to you who actually knows what the hell they’re doing, and not just someone with a rose-colored glasses outlook on how things “should” work. Specialization is, in my book, one of the hallmarks of a good Product Manager — and while you might be able to go deep on two skills, or possibly three…there’s no way you’re going to be deep enough across the broad spectrum of skills we expect from a Product Manager to come anywhere near earning the “full stack” designation.