As I’ve moved through various product roles over the last 10 years, I’ve come to realize that there are two types of product people – builders and optimizers.
I fall very naturally and easily into one of these types and have found that it can be helpful to think about my own skills and career progression through the lens of theses two types for the following reasons:
- Confidence – identifying your inborn talents and strengths helps to build confidence
- Career choices – if you know what you’re naturally good at it’s easier to focus and be intentional with your career choices
- Areas for growth – identifying your strengths also pulls your growth areas into focus
The Builder Product Manager
I’m a builder. By builder I mean product people who are skilled at building products that don’t yet exist. I realized I’m a builder because all of the projects that I’ve gone absolutely wild for were projects that started from nothing.
My earliest job in tech was building an app for a government agency that hadn’t yet launched. Then I went onto being a consultant where I was starting something new every three to six months. After that I went freelance where I could start with new clients often and, most recently, I leapt at the chance to build Mind the Product’s new training program.
A builder comes into a greenfield environment and gets things moving from zero to 10. If you’re just starting out as a product manager, that might not seem like a big deal, but having the energy, focus and drive to get teams moving when they are completely still is very, very difficult. It takes a certain type of person with lots of energy and a keen intuition for spotting an opportunity worthy of their energy. They are very comfortable with alignment, systems thinking, mapping, research, lean testing, and driving things forward when 99% of it is uncertain. They are very good at grasping existing systems and envisaging infinite scenarios, they have exceptional empathy and can get behind the eyes of customers to spot patterns, derive friction and opportunities. They have strong creative courage, facilitation skills, and the ability to switch context.
The main characteristic of builders is that they have the energy to build and then move a whole team from stand-still, with a lot of uncertainty and almost no constraints. It’s not for everyone, but it’s gold to builders.
Builder product managers are quite common, and are often found in agencies, where they get to start something new for clients. Or they may be freelancers because they enjoy digging into new environments.
Builder product managers can also be found in startups, which is where I found myself, after being a consultant and a freelancer. But at some point in a product’s or an organization’s development there will come a time where the builder’s energy isn’t well suited to the work that needs to be done. At this point an optimizer product manager is needed.
The Optimizer Product Manager
I’ve watched optimizer product managers my whole career with a sense of awe. They’re very comfortable inheriting products and taking them from one to one million. Optimizers can make lean testing sing, they can recall complex ecosystems of quantitative analytics, are adept at combing operations, logistics and product effortlessly, and are elegant prioritizers.
The main characteristic of optimizers is their dogged pursuit of tiny changes that could have a huge impact. It might seem like finding a needle in a haystack to us builder product managers, but they live for it.
Optimizers cultivate deep trust with technical resources and are excellent at distilling difficult ideas into well-framed questions. They are skilled in the art of ongoing-updates and constantly shifting landscapes of data. They are happiest when they are deep in the finer details, and understand the subtle nuances of multivariate testing. You’ll find the great optimizers at larger evidence-driven companies, like Booking.com, Netflix, and Spotify.
Balance and Growth
There’s a lot of overlap in skills between builders and optimizers, but what really pushes the differentiation between them is what lights the types up, as well as what burns them out. I am never as excited as when someone says “this doesn’t exist yet”, but optimizers get really excited when they hear “we have a massive problem to unpick”.
Optimizers and builders have many skills that cross pollinate, but again determining which type you are can come down what burns you out. I’ve learned so much when I’ve pushed myself into optimizer roles, but after six months or so, I tend to feel like I’m running out of gas. I know optimizers who report that their brains are often completely exhausted by the end of the day when they’re in early stages of building something from scratch.
Why is this important? Because if you don’t have clarity, you might not understand why a role does or doesn’t work for you. I’ve really enjoyed elements of the optimizer role, but I’ve always found my head was turned by builder gigs. I’ve seen optimizers in discovery struggle with the wide-open nature of the jobs, and be unable to move things ahead effectively. These skills can be developed and improved, but you have to be intentional about it.
If you think you’re a builder and want to lean into refining these skills, Mind the Product Training offers a workshop that will level up your skills, Communication & Alignment. This deep dives into strategic communication, evaluating opportunities, and how to collaborate towards alignment.
If you think you’re an Optimizer then our Product Metrics class takes an in-depth look at the role that product managers play in measurement, and how it is our responsibility to facilitate a balanced perspective and check inherent bias towards certain solutions.
If you want to be a balanced product manager, or aren’t sure how you want to lean, then our Product Mapping course is a perfect way to hone a skill that is essential for both specializations. For either Discovery or Optimization, mapping is an essential skill, and our Mapping course takes an agnostic approach to mapping, helping you break any system down into its components parts.