If you’ve looked at LinkedIn lately, you’ve probably seen the following titles come up a few times:
- Platform Product Manager
- Product Manager, Platform Experience
- Product Manager, Application Services
- Product Manager, Developer Experience
- Technical Platform Product Manager
- Technical Product Manager, Platform
Sound familiar? In reading the job descriptions, you’ve likely come across phrases such as “has experience building foundational platform capabilities” or “has a high level of empathy for developers.” Perhaps even the classic “this role aims to break down internal silos.”
If you’ve spent the better part of your product management career working on customer-facing products, this might be a departure from your comfort zone of focusing mainly on external customer needs. However, what if I told you that one of the hottest roles in product management right now is one that treats the business as the customer and internal product development teams as the end users?
Introducing platform product management. Here’s how to tell whether it’s right for you.
What Is A Platform Strategy?
(and Why Are Companies Using It?)
Hold up. What is a “Platform” strategy anyway? Before we dive in, let’s take a step back and define platform strategy, which has also been coined “Platform Services,” “Application Services,” “Platform as a Service,” or “PaaS,” etc.
AJ Olson is a product leader and platform expert with experience at Cision, Valassis, and PayPal, among other companies. He describes platform strategy as building services that are reusable across many product teams to reduce duplication and increase efficiency.
This approach is well suited for companies with multiple products supported by many product delivery or project management teams.
For companies that have multiple products, each product team may be solving similar problems and building similar—sometimes even identical—services. Building common, reusable services avoids that duplication and inefficiency.- AJ Olson
Platform strategy is a growing trend among technology companies right now because many organizations have reached the point where they’ve become too large and siloed to scale their operations efficiently.
Platform services reduce this complexity—and more importantly, time-to-market—by allowing product teams to piece together ready-made solutions instead of reinventing the wheel.
“Ultimately, when executed well, all of this speeds up development and enables deeper focus on the features that differentiate your product,” Olson adds.
Some examples of platform services include APIs, integrations, operating systems, design systems, cloud services, storage, architecture, and other service-oriented solutions products. Many companies have successfully executed a platform strategy, including Amazon, Spotify, Ford, Adobe, Salesforce and Microsoft.
Amazon is probably the most prolific example, illustrated by the famous "API Mandate" issued by Jeff Bezos in 2002. This mandate meant that all teams had to expose their data and functionality exclusively through service interfaces.
This mandate essentially paved the way for Amazon Web Services and formed much of the modern best practices around APIs and microservices.
While Amazon is one of many companies that choose to monetize their product platforms, many companies opt to build and maintain product platforms specifically to improve user experience and time to market. Some of these include Adobe and Netflix.
Wait, should my company be pursuing a platform product strategy?
With the industry buzzing about product platforms, why wouldn’t every company in Silicon Valley want to jump on this trend? While some companies have much to gain from executing a platform strategy, it’s not for everyone.
Issues of complexity, efficiency, and redundancy become more pronounced as companies scale. Because of this, the platform approach is best suited to mature companies as opposed to small companies or startups.
As a guideline, Olson says companies should only consider a platform strategy if they meet one of three conditions:
- It has multiple products that rely on common underlying functionality.
- The growing complexity is becoming detrimental.
- The organization has a coherent and stable product strategy and is willing to invest for longer-term benefits.
Companies won't see immediate payoff; building platform and application services require time, effort, and coordination, but once in place, they enable all product teams to move more quickly and efficiently.
When deciding whether to pursue a product platform strategy, companies need to assess the benefits versus the drawbacks. For instance, small companies likely won’t benefit much from product platforms as their complexity is still limited, and their need to be first to market is great.
The need for a product platform increases as a company’s reach and complexity grow—whether by acquisition or by organic growth. Olson explains that, even in the most ideal circumstances, a product platform strategy is a commitment.
Even the most justified and thoughtful strategy will fail if it's not given the proper support and room to succeed.- aj olson
Companies must recognize that committing to a product platform is an investment and will take some time to bear fruit.
What Is Platform Product Management, and How Is It Different From Traditional Product Management?
Now that we’ve defined platform/application strategy and identified when it should be used, let’s dive into platform product management.
According to Product Plan, “a Platform Product Manager (PM) is…responsible for prioritizing and supporting the work of multiple consumer-facing products and providing a cohesive vision across the organization.”
Product Plan adds that “Whatever platform PMs build will typically be used by many teams and customers.”
In summary, a platform product manager works across many stakeholder groups to build services that benefit many parts of a business. But, how does this differ from traditional product management?
While typical product management organizes itself around one, often user-facing product, platform product management organizes itself around the needs of multiple product delivery teams to improve efficiency and time to market. Therefore, use cases for the services delivered by platform product managers are often written with developers in mind.
Platform product managers will have internal “customers” of their services as opposed to external customers or end users. These internal customers are most often the product delivery teams that support various customer-facing products. For this reason, the platform product manager must play a highly collaborative role.
Furthermore, as platform product managers tend to support highly technical, internal products, more technical savvy may be required. However, the most critical skill aspiring platform product managers should hone is a systems thinking mindset. This allows platform product managers to manage the big picture, as opposed to just one product at a time.
Due to the complexity and difficulty of the position, platform product managers are usually senior team members within an organization.
Perhaps the most critical [skill] is the ability to think systemically across multiple products and be exceptional at identifying common patterns; this allows for core needs to be identified, prioritized, and implemented effectively.aj olson
This approach will often require a reversal of traditional product management thinking. A traditional, agile product manager will determine feature prioritization by evaluating the business value of each proposed feature—meaning that the features that offer quick wins are often deemed the highest priority.
However, as building a platform is a long-term investment in scalability and efficiency, a platform product manager should prioritize work that serves the strategic vision instead of regularly opting for quick wins.
Is Platform Product Management Right For Me?
If you have a few years of experience in a product management role, you’re on the right track to transitioning into managing product platforms. Other professionals who might find their experience helpful include backend engineers and solutions architects.
While many skills required for traditional product management (such as backlog management, feature prioritization, and stakeholder management) also apply to platform products, there are also many differences. Here's a summary of the key differences, as well as some suggestions for how you can up-skill.
- A shift away from customer-centricity to big-picture thinking: As mentioned above, platform product management is earmarked by a shift away from regular interaction with end-users and towards “big picture” thinking. This often means prioritizing scalability over quick wins and the strategic product vision over short-term trade-offs.
- A greater understanding of technical concepts: As platform product managers are often tasked with overseeing highly technical products, it’s important to be well-versed in technical concepts. If you’re looking to up-skill, courses on APIs, infrastructure, service architecture, and scaling.
Here are some examples of courses you can take if you’re looking to make the move into a platform product management role:
- Managing Product Platforms: Delivering Variety and Realizing Synergies. – MIT Sloan ($$$)
- Real World Cloud Product Management Specialization – Coursera ($$)
- API Product Management 101 – Udemy ($)
- Stakeholder and dependency management: As platform product management is a highly collaborative role, great product platform managers should be even more in tune with the needs of various internal stakeholders so they can effectively work across product lines.
Furthermore, managing a product platform means that many teams are dependent on you in order to complete their product roadmaps. This leads to juggling many dependencies across a number of cross-functional teams and keeping many stakeholder groups in the loop on your team’s progress.
- Measurement: Metrics may not seem as important when working on a product platform team. However, it’s even more important to quantify the impact of the initiatives you deliver because of the lack of visibility of the product platform.
While metrics remain critical, your methods for collecting and analyzing them might differ from those of a traditional product management role. Setting up internal feedback loops and regular usability testing are valuable tools in your arsenal to help you measure impact. In addition, you can also look to your partners within your product ecosystem to determine how efficiency and time to market have improved for the teams using your services.
Lastly, it can be easy to forget about product design, usability, and customer experience when managing a product platform, but building great product experiences remains just as important.
Above all, having just as much empathy for internal team members who will be accessing the services you drive as you would have for external customers will be the number one determinant of success in this new role. Good luck!
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out our newsletter for industry-leading product management content!