In her engaging keynote at #mtpcon London 2023, Susana Lopes, Director of Product at Abatable, shared tangible insights on the track career ladder framework, a tool to ensure all product IC professionals have the room to learn, explore, and grow.
Watch the video in full, or read on for highlights from her actionable talk.
- When comparing IC levels with Manager levels, equally tall ladders must become the norm. It would ensure that ICs won’t feel they’re going to hit a ceiling.
- For ICs to grow in their careers, we have to create opportunities for those who don’t manage others, to have an impact beyond building products and strategy.
- When looking at your career, figure out what gives you energy and drains you.
- A dual career ladder gives people room to try things out. It’s up to product people to make it a standard in our profession.
Susana looks back on her career, explaining how she felt stuck on her product leadership journey. To avoid being stuck climbing someone else’s ladder, she offers a new career framework for organisations to consider so that we can be guided by curiosity and what feels interesting, rather than following a single linear path.
Key principles for any dual-track ladder
For ICs especially to be successful, Susana recommends carving out a separate area on the career ladder alongside a management one. She shares six key principles for anyone looking to build a dual-track ladder to follow:
- Principle 1: No pay difference for roles at the same level: “This enables ICs to actually be motivated by what they’re good at, and what they want to become better at, rather than trying to pursue that extra pay cheque.
- Principle 2: To be a manager, first master product. Having this principle ensures that junior product managers solely focus on their craft before looking to support and manage others.
Principle 3: You can always change your mind: this encourages people to experiment with what they actually want to do, Susana explains.
- Principle 4: Equally tall tracks must become the norm: this will enable ICs to progress in their careers, and not feel like they’re going to hit the ceiling at some point.
- Principle 5: Unique titles per level are imperative: “Give people titles they can celebrate throughout their careers,” Susana adds.
- Principle 6: Unique titles per track: Instilling this will make it easy to distinguish who is currently looking to improve their management vs product craft.
There are several examples of effective dual-track models for product positions. Crowdsourced by Lenny Rachitsky, Susana shares examples from Meta and LinkedIn:
Regarding the experience and scope required at every level on the IC ladder, Susana breaks down what she recommends:
- Senior: min 3 years
- Scope: Taking on large, highly scrutinised products.
- Staff: 5-8 years
- Scope: Expected to manage the most complex product at the level of the domain.
- Principal 10+ years
- Scope: Expected to change the trajectory of the entire company with their product impact.
- Distinguished: Veteran
- Scope: Should be expected to change the impact.
Player Coach vs Pure IC model
Based on her experience, Susana shares two IC models: Player Coach and Pure IC.
The Player Coach model
Susana explains how, in essence, The Player Coach model is an extension of the Group Product Manager role. To progress in this model, you take on more complex products, instead of managing more product professionals.
The Player Coach model is perfect for 0 to 1 products. However, it isn’t a common model for ICs. “The one that is more common is the Pure IC track,” she says, “instead of owning strategy, you contribute to it at a collaborative level, working with the people leads,” The purpose of having this separate track is to enable ICs to solve difficult problems and grow without managing anybody.
Despite which model you decide on, Susana explains that ICs are expected to have more of an impact as they climb up the career ladder beyond building products and influencing the product strategy.
She draws upon Github as an example, where principal ICs have to build product, do strategy, and coach ICs. While at the next level, the expectation is to build product and strategy, coach ICs, and begin to showcase leadership qualities such as evangelism.
Susana shares four archetypes to aid ICs in crafting their journey beyond building products and strategy.
- Creates and successfully launches new products within established organisations.
- Impact beyond building and strategy: Coaching teams and improving the product launch process.
- Tends to move around every 6 – 24 months after the product has launched from 0 to 1.
- Diagnoses and fixes dying products or organisations.
- Impact beyond building and strategy: Leading team projects and improving org-wide product practices.
- Like the hatcher, the fixer tends to move on once the product is launched.
The industry moulder
- Has deep relationships and influence within the product management industry.
- Impact beyond building and strategy: Company evangelism and shaping the industry’s future.
- Stable long-term IC position.
The practice lead
- Elevates how the org and wider community do product.
- Impact beyond building and strategy: Coaching, product practice evangelism, and upgrading the product toolkit.
- Stable long-term IC position.
Susana adds that these archetypes are in no way set in stone. ICs can discover and forge their path and create new types of IC product leaders.
Are you climbing someone else’s ladder?
Closing out the talk, Susana urges us to ask ourselves what gives us energy and what drains it—she recommends making a list and reflecting upon it.
The dual-track career ladder is focused on giving people the room to try things out and ensure that they’re not stuck in their roles. “It’s about enabling people to explore multiple avenues in their organisations,”
It’s up to us to make the dual-track ladder a norm in our profession. “Let’s ensure no product manager feels stuck climbing someone else’s ladder again,” she closes.