In an interview with Free Agency, George Perantatos (@zorbadgreek) reflected on what it takes to succeed in product management, how PMs can move up the ladder, and why it’s a lot easier to be a PM today than it was 20 years ago. George currently leads the Rentals team at Redfin, and was previously in product and program management at Amazon (Fire Phone, apps, services) and Microsoft (Office Labs and Xbox on Windows).
Companies should let PMs skip people management
A lot of ambitious product managers believe that the surest path toward greater impact and higher compensation is through the people management track. While this might be true due to the structure of product organizations today, Perantatos believes it’s a dangerous misconception that this is the only possibility.
“You can have leveraged impact by having a large team and managing it well, but you can also have that same result by being an expert in a certain area and being very productive and delivering great results,” he said.
Ambitious talent is pushed in a direction that they may not be passionate about. You might see an A+ individual contributor (IC) become a C- manager. It also devalues the sizable impact that talented individual contributors can have on an organization, according to Perantatos, who has served as both a principal IC and people manager over his career.
Of course, given that managers do typically top organizational charts, it’s not surprising why so many people feel the pull of management. Perantatos believes this is why more companies need to structure their organizations and career tracks so that both ICs and people managers can make an impact. While only the “10x engineer” has become a popular phrase, Perantatos believes there exist similar 10x individual contributors at the product level.
“Companies define what they want based on their ladder levels and titles, so if a company cares about really senior principal-level individual contributors, they should have those roles,” Perantatos said. “If a company draws an artificial barrier between these groups, I would question that.”
What you don’t know is key to product management
When George Perantatos first joined Redfin as a product lead in 2015, he was far from an expert on the $163.7 billion real estate industry.
There was a lot of movement afoot: New entrants like Redfin had begun successfully targeting inefficiencies in the ecosystem, battling with the industry’s many incumbents over real estate’s future. Proptech, or property (real estate) technology, was hard to grasp as change was constant and being ahead of it was essential.
This is a common situation for product managers. More often than not, a new job means entering industries and competitive dynamics that are unfamiliar. Perantatos was coming from a career working on Xbox, Microsoft Office, and Amazon’s Fire Phone. He knew that he had to spend a lot of time talking to experts in order to really understand how proptech operated -- in this case, that meant talking to the real estate agents on the ground.
To that end, Perantatos spent the first month at Redfin speaking with dozens of agents, shadowing them to see how they interacted with customers and handled the minutiae of their day-to-day. He thinks this is the essential first step of any new job for product managers and makes new team members go through the ritual.
For Perantatos, this approach helps him better answer questions that are critical to being an effective product manager. “You go from not knowing what you don’t know to knowing what you don’t know,” said Perantatos, who has made this approach a guiding principle of his career.
Great product managers are constantly asking questions about their product, their users, and their businesses. “I haven't seen many PMs, if any, be successful without that curiosity,” Perantatos said.
It’s a lot easier to be a PM today
Perantatos, who has been a product manager for two decades, has watched the profession grow in both size and complexity. Today, the product manager role has been joined by an ever-increasing number of variants, including the “growth PM,” the “technical PM”, and the “data PM.”
Still, despite that increased specialization, being a PM is a lot easier today than it was when Perantatos was building Sharepoint at Microsoft in 2001. This is partly because the industry itself has gotten collectively smarter and more collaborative. More books have been written, more product schools have sprung up, and more Medium posts (and Substacks) have been published. The first modern PMs are now VPs and CPOs, whereas product used to report into other divisions (engineering or marketing) at most companies.
Moreover, as PMs have moved around the industry, they’ve brought their best practices with them, helping standardize and elevate product management overall. Tooling has gotten more popular and more effective. Sites like UserTesting help PMs get user feedback at scale, tools like Airtable make it easier to track and test projects, and Figma helps teams collaborate on design in real-time. Processes that used to require manual engineering effort, like A/B testing, are now achieved through simple SaaS products.
“From where I started to now, the discipline has definitely matured in part because of those patterns and in part because of the tools to support those patterns. It’s easier to do the job now because there are so many more tools and so many established ways of doing things,” Perantatos said.