What is a full-stack product manager?

Well, I think we should start by breaking down both terms. Full-stack, in the tech sense, describes someone who is a jack-of-all-trades, but (generally) a master of none. You usually see this term on engineering teams, where job descriptions ask for “full-stack” candidates by requiring skills that are critical for both front-end and back-end work. The expectation is that this individual can fit into any project and drive results.

Companies generally hire product managers (PMs) to foster and strength alignment between teams, and also to mitigate risk. When the product team is effective, they end up being a force multiplier for all of your resources. When they’re struggling, they become roadblocks to those teams that are creating value for the company. There are several types of PMs, and in this article, we’ll focus on the main three: the product-delivery-focused PM, the growth PM, and the strategist PM. 

A full-stack PM would combine all three of these types to make the ultimate “full-stack” product manager. Let’s explore these three types and the skills that are most important to each. 

The product-delivery-focused PM

This type of PM is responsible for delivery. They often work with engineers often and are judged by the value of the features they ship. When product delivery is going well, it helps teams move forward. But when it isn’t, the team gets stuck in red tape and loses focus on the value of the products the team is putting into market.  

The product-delivery-focused PM needs to have solid project management skills to keep everything moving on schedule. They also need to be fairly comfortable with the internals of a product, since they are going to be partnered with the engineering team to understand technical debt and feature value. In most places, the “typical” PM is this type. 

The growth PM

This type of PM is focused on the business. They work frequently with sales and business analysts and are evaluated by metrics like virality and nominal pricing. When a company is growing, the business is moving toward its goals and increasing its market share. When growth is stagnant or even decreasing, the team ends up trying to balance disparate objectives and KPIs lose their meaning.

The growth PM needs to be comfortable in sales, marketing, and pricing to keep growth moving up and to the right. In addition, they need to be comfortable with the sales process (whether it is B2B or B2C) because they will be making changes often. Andrew Chen is known as the originator of this position and has written a ton about it here

The strategist PM

This type of PM is focused on the market. They work with designers and marketing teams and are judged by the alignment of the portfolio. Often, they are also trusted to handle new ideas. When this PM is doing his or her job well, the business is aware/protected from new players entering the market and has some idea of some adjacent markets to explore. When it isn’t, the team is caught off-guard. 

The strategist PM needs to be a mix of marketer and UX’er and be ready and willing to spend a lot of time with customers and other stakeholders. In general, they end up being the connective tissue of your strategy, tying together intuition and metrics like retention to tell a story. Plenty of companies utilize them when they feel comfortable in a specific market.  

So, how do you merge all three?

Alright, let’s be truthful. All of that sounds impossible because it is. The term full-stack is a symptom of teams trying to maximize “efficiency” when it comes to labor costs, without fixing the core issues of the company. If you find the term “full-stack product manager” on a company’s careers page, you should run away, far and fast.

If your team puts a job description up, it’s worth asking a few questions, such as:

  • What problem does this hire solve for us?
  • How will they integrate with the company?
  • How will this hire position us for the future? What bet(s) are we making by bringing this person in?

If they cannot answer those questions, then your leadership team is fulfilling headcount just to do so. It might be time for you to save yourself and find a team that is clearer about what they’re looking for in a new PM hire. 

About the Author

Adam Thomas is a product leader, founder, and researcher with over ten years of experience at the intersection of tech, creative, and Big Data. Feel free to tweet him at @thehonorableAT :-).