Why Product Managers Should not Report to the CTO

BY Simon Cast ON NOVEMBER 5, 2018

Product managers often end up reporting to the CTO, and some will argue that this is a good thing. While this might have been the case in the early days of product management, it’s not anymore.

Why Shouldn’t a CTO be the Boss?

Martin Eriksson’s seminal post on being a product manager shows that they sit in the centre of tech, business, and user (customer). So if they report to the CTO it creates the impression of bias against the business and user. Whether the bias exists or not – and it does in some companies – the perception that it’s there undermines a product manager’s ability to manage all three aspects of product effectively.

Even five years ago, there was little by way of an established body of knowledge in product management. Today, however, product management has a body of knowledge, indeed a fast-growing and evolving body of knowledge. Where we used just to have to rely on Marty Cagan’s book Inspired, we now have books on a diverse range of product management topics, from product leadership to roadmapping.

Today product management is a global community, with many established conferences and training programmes to support it. There is no way a CTO can keep up with this distinct body of knowledge in order to provide guidance to the product managers they manage.

Being a product manager is no longer being a developer by another name. Few CTOs are therefore able to provide the effective career counselling or day-to-day management that product managers now require.

Tools which can help product managers to be more effective have appeared as the role has matured. But CTOs prioritise the purchase of developer tools (they are CTOs after all), either leaving product managers without the tools to make them more effective, or, even worse, forcing product managers to “do” product management with developer tools (please don’t do that).

How can CTOs Help?

If you’re a CTO, what can you do to help your product managers?

  • First and foremost advocate for a peer-level CPO to take over the product function.
  • While you are doing that, don’t treat your product managers as second-class citizens.
  • Budget to send them on training courses, buy relevant books and attend relevant conferences (sending them to developer conferences is nice but they’ll get more out of a dedicated product management one).
  • Budget to allow them to purchase their own dedicated product management tools and work with them to see that the tools are adopted properly across the organisation.

Without the support from CTO-peer level, the product managers will be fighting an uphill battle to use their tools. This includes push back from your developers (yet another tool? but JIRA can do this – let me show you how…three weeks pass…see, simple with JIRA).

If you’re a CTO and you don’t think that your product managers complain about reporting into technology, you’re mistaken. It’s a lament I hear all the time, one that’s only tempered by thankfulness from product managers that they don’t have to report to the CMO or CRO.

Technology is ubiquitous and on its own is no longer a competitive advantage: product management, however, is a force multiplier for business. If you’re a CTO who manages product managers, then it is incumbent on you to push for them to have their own reporting line.

About

Simon Cast

Co-founder of ProdPad and Mind the Product who run ProductTank, ProductCamp London and Mind the Product conferences in London and San Francisco. Blogs about Product Management at MindTheProduct.com & ProdPad.com. Simon began his career in Space Engineering, where he developed a Fortran realtime program to automate satellite operations. He then traveled around the world before a stint in the Australian Army.

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