During my career, I’ve worked my way from a product manager to a PMM and eventually where I am today as a VP of PMM at OneSpan.
In this article, I want to share some learnings from my career, discuss how as a profession PMMs have got to where we are today - somewhere very positive and in a position of increasing clarity - and how we can continue to prosper and demonstrate our value in order to progress further.
My name's Rahim Kaba, I’m the VP of Product Marketing at OneSpan. In this article, I'll be talking about product marketing's paths to the V-suite.
This isn't only about progressing to a VP level role, I recognize that growing your career as a product marketer is tough. This article is all about how to move up wherever you are in your career path today, whether you're PMM, a senior PMM, Director level, or even higher.
Without further ado, let's kick this off.
The agenda is pretty straightforward. I'll start off by discussing how we got here as a profession and how we've made huge progress in bringing clarity to the role of PMM.
I'll discuss ways to demonstrate value and pave the path so that you can grow into your next product marketing role, whether that's at your current company, or perhaps elsewhere.
Then I'll talk about my personal journey and the lessons I learned along the way. I'm all about sharing experiences and learnings and that's what I'll plan to do in that section of the article.
The career mobility of PMM
I wanted to start off by reviewing some research that the PMA conducted with executives about Career Mobility for PMM.
What's really interesting here is that execs were divided on the question of where product marketers will advance in the future.
Basically, the jury is still out on the career progression of product marketing in the long term. Many said that product marketing is a generalist function that acts as a general manager of the product. As a result, it kind of lends itself to a broader leadership function in the future, whether that's in the C suite or the V suite.
In the end, your career progression will likely depend on the organization and the politics within it but the initial insights from this study are really promising for PMMs.
Explaining (and re-explaining) product marketing
We've all seen or maybe even use this type of diagram to explain what PMM is to our peers, that we sit at the junction between marketing, sales, product, and of course, where PMM is at the center of all things, we always like to think that.
If you try to explain it this way, it probably results in a bunch of people scratching their heads trying to figure out what that really meant.
That's no fault of your peers, to be honest, because they were likely never exposed to or never worked with product marketing and just don't know where we fit in the org and ultimately how we deliver value.
They've likely seen similar PMM responsibilities delegated to content marketers, marketing strategists, and even product managers. That's part of the problem - product marketing is often different at different companies.
Depending on your organization and geography, product marketing may be a relatively new profession. It's certainly newer than other more established functions such as product management, for example.
You might have worked at companies where the role was more mature and well defined and others where the scope was ambiguous and sometimes objectives and goals for the role weren't clearly set out.
From confusion to clarity
The good news is that this is changing as we speak, and we're starting to see a level of standardization in our profession that we haven't seen in years past.
This step towards standardization is a huge benefit to organizations that are investing in PMM and also gives companies that may be closer to the left side of the spectrum visibility into how and where PMM can deliver value and impact the bottom line.
Product marketing’s hype cycle
Now, let's just rewind the clock a little bit to see how we got here today as a profession.
If you're in the tech sector, you know all about Gartner's famous hype cycle so I thought I'd use it as an analogy here for the journey we've been on for the last several years.
If we start on the left, there was probably some point in time where someone in your org said, "Hey, we need product marketing, go hire someone", which is great because this means the organization has grown to a size that can justify a PMM headcount and the company is really serious about having a more structured approach to go to market.
After PMM is brought on board, they're likely handed a mishmash of projects that no one really wanted to begin with, and that that product marketer is also being asked to drive all the types of product launches that are coming up in the cycle.
But without a lot of context on how that product came to be, who the buyer is, what problems we're trying to solve with the product, and so on and so forth. We all know the story.
The result if you follow this curve is disappointment in the end, and everyone really asking themselves what happened? And why aren't we seeing the results that we set out to see?
The good news
The good news is that over time, the role of PMM has matured and with the help of organizations like the PMA, others like Pragmatic Marketing, as a profession, we've really been given the tools needed to be successful.
This involves getting exposed to customers and having a true understanding of the market and buyers. So being on this slope of enlightenment, if you will, is really a great place to be for our profession, it showcases that PMM has really come a long way in the last decade or so.
Product marketing’s purpose
For the record, unlike that cryptic Venn diagram that many of us probably have used in the past, this is my definition of product marketing, you've likely seen variations of this, I've just tweaked it a little bit.
But the way that I define it is, we are the glue that binds our product strategy to the tactics we need to drive sales and marketing success. In all honesty, I think a lot of the confusion in the past in our profession, stems from the word product being in our titles, that's a little bizarre.
I think every PMM should know their product very well, that's a given. But we aren't really supposed to be product experts, per se, I think there's this misconception out there that "Oh, you're a product marketing person, you should be a product expert".
Yeah, we definitely need to know our product, but the way that I see this and the way that I explain this to my peers and others in my network is that we are experts in three very specific areas.
Number one, we're the experts on our buyers, we need to know who they are, what their key pain points are, and how they find, try, and buy our solutions.
Number two, we have to be experts on the competition, we need to know who they are and what they do today and what they plan to do in the future.
And then number three, taking our knowledge of the market, buyers, and competition and really crafting compelling differentiated value propositions to empower both sales and marketing teams.
That's really important for me, and that's the way that I typically describe who we are and what we do.
Now that we're on this path to clarity, which is great for our profession and we're more indexed on the right side of the spectrum that I showed earlier, where the role is starting to get better defined and better understood in the organization - what's the next wave?
What's the next big thing that we need to do to advance the profession and our individual career paths with respect to our respective organizations?
How to demonstrate value and move up
In other words, how can we demonstrate value and ROI to the leaders in our organizations that are responsible for structuring departments and functions within the organization? That's a big part of what I'm going to be talking about next.
I'd like to highlight three areas that may help you demonstrate value and pave the path to the next level in your organization.
None of these are revolutionary ideas. But when executed together, I think can really enable you to elevate product marketing in your organization and as a byproduct, elevate how you're perceived by leaders in the organization.
Understand what your org needs
The first one, my first piece of advice here is to understand what your organization needs. There are likely a number of areas where your organization consistently falls short.
Maybe it's how you bring a solution to market. Maybe it's earlier in the product lifecycle when you need to determine the personas and the use cases you're going after. Whatever those set of challenges are, there's likely a gap that no one is filling in right now.
Don't get me wrong product marketing can't and shouldn't fix every problem in the organization. But if it's an area that PMM can and should directly impact, it's important to acknowledge that it's a gap and start building a plan on how to effectively fill it.
Execute. Execute. Execute.
You're going to hear this actually a couple of times in this article. If you're trying to position yourself for that next stage in your PMM career, leaders in your org need to see that you can not only develop plans and strategies, but that you're able to bring people together, gain consensus, and execute on those plans.
This is even more important in organizations that are more top-heavy, that need people that have skills to execute. This is so critical in PMM in my opinion, whether you're a director level or VP level, or even higher than that, you need to be able to get things done.
When I personally hire for director level or even PMM level this is a must-have for me. Product marketing is a core go-to-market function that requires both strategy and tactics to move the dial.
If you're strong in one area and not the other, I recommend you spending time to beef up your skills in that area.
Track, measure, and optimize
This one's a little bit tricky. It's really hard to measure the impact of product marketing - I've personally struggled with this.
There's no perfect formula or KPI that will work for all organizations. This goes back to my first point about understanding your organization's needs. If your company is struggling to increase its win rate, for example, then figure out ways to demonstrate value by improving the win rate in your organization, I know that sounds straightforward.
I get it, growing your career as a PMM is tough. There are likely a bunch of circumstances that are unique to you and unique to your organization.
To be honest, and I want to be straightforward here, there may not be an optimal path at your current organization. That's something that you'll need to assess and determine if that next jump in your career is with another organization.
My personal journey
The last segment of my article is sharing my personal journey with you and the lessons I've learned along the way.
Just note though, that every journey will be different my journey and the path and decisions I took may not work for you and your specific situation. The goal here is to share my learnings in hopes that there may be things here that inspire you or things that you may want to try and see if they work in your context and in your situation.
No career path is linear
If you're early in your career, it's important to note that no career path will be perfectly linear and no path will be exactly the same for different people.
Most people jump around in their careers, some start in marketing, while others come from other functions like product and sales. We advance in our careers, we retract, we go on tangents.
There's a whole slew of things that happen during your career path. There's a whole host of reasons why things happen the way they are and for myself, I started my career about 20 years ago, not knowing exactly what I wanted to do and to be honest, I owe a lot of where I've landed today to luck. I think a lot of people will probably say that as well.
The university I attended here in Canada had an internship program tied to it. Essentially, it was a five-year bachelor's degree program where I accumulated close to two years of paid work experience.
It was really a fantastic opportunity to try out a bunch of things before committing to that first stage of my career. When I look back at the two most memorable internships that I had, they were both marketing related.
At the time, these positions were called Marketing Writer, and Technical Marketing Specialist. I did things like write product briefs and write datasheets, I did competitive analyses and I built sales decks.
If those positions existed today, they would probably be under the PMM umbrella and called something different. I knew though I liked all things product related so I decided to continue down this path.
Project manager, product manager, PMM
I eventually became a project manager for a technology company then a product manager for a short stint, and quickly realized that product marketing was more aligned with my skill set.
I simply enjoyed the external go-to-market side of the business and working more with sales and marketing versus defining the product and getting it built behind the scenes.
But I owe most of my career progression to one span which is my current employer - we're a SaaS company that delivers digital identity and anti-fraud solutions. That's where finding the right employer is so key in this journey, in your journey in particular.
There will be circumstances and opportunities that arise in some companies, but not all, so it's important for you that when you go down this path, and if moving up in your career is something that's important to you, you'll want to ensure that the organization that you're working for is willing to and able to help you get to that next level in your career.
If not, well, you have to have that honest conversation with yourself and determine if you need to find an organization that may be better suited to the journey that you're on.
When I joined the company in 2014, we were a VC backed startup at the time and then eventually got acquired by OneSpan. So we were a smaller company and got acquired many years down the road.
Product marketing, when we were a startup was a new function. I had the opportunity to help define what that looked like, I was the first PMM hire for the company. I loved it, I had a blank canvas and earned the right to develop what that function really looked like and how that looks even today.
If we go back to how I demonstrated value, it's going back to the tips that I provided earlier. The gap in the organization at the time was all around improving sales productivity and sales win rates.
Set a path
I set a path for myself that included attending as many sales calls as I could to understand the objections that the sales team faced and the traps that were laid by competitors. As a result, I decided to develop a sales enablement program to ensure that the sales team had the tools and the knowledge of the market and buyers to be successful.
I eventually got the budget to hire additional PMMs because the team was more successful, productivity rates were up, win rates were up as well. That moved me into a director-level role for my particular product portfolio.
In later years after the acquisition and as a larger organization with multi-tiered product management and product marketing orgs, there was naturally challenges that we faced as we continued to grow as an organization.
That then helped me demonstrate the value of having a VP level PMM role in the organization. But this wasn't an overnight journey. It took a couple of years to prove my value, to showcase that I could scale this function consistently across the organization and there's still a lot of work to do even today.
One of the ways that I demonstrated value to get to this role was through an understanding of the gaps in the organization and I pinpointed two specific areas that I wanted to address and elevate to the senior leadership team.
PM vs. PMM confusion
Number one was there was ongoing confusion between product management and product marketing. That probably sounds familiar to many of you reading. It was something that I was determined to bring clarity to.
Number two, there was inconsistency in how we were going to market across product lines and I saw that as an opportunity to standardize the PMM function across the organization.
I set out to work with my director level counterparts at the time and PM and PMM to better define roles and responsibilities, I recommended a RACI approach.
We spent a full day mapping out all of the responsibilities and assigned owners, where there was clashing, where there was a blurring of lines.
By the way, this is by no means a be all and end all representation of how PM and PMM should work together. But the approach works for our organization and something that we've adopted and continually improve on.
This was also a great way to help standardize how PMMs across the org operated, it was something that got noticed by our executive team. They saw PMM as a critical go-to-market function and this eventually helped me make the case for the VP level role in product marketing that oversaw all PMM functions across the org to ensure that consistency in how we go to market.
Again, this isn't a recipe that will work for all companies and I encourage you to really pinpoint the areas where your organization needs most help.
What's your path look like?
I think the opportunities are endless for product marketing. You might have a path in mind that looks something like this.
Moving from PMM to director level to VP level and maybe finally a CMO role. Who knows, there's a lot of opportunities out there. But the path, in reality, might look very different.
One of my perspectives and mottos that I think about a lot is every day is a school day. It's important to learn, have an open mind, and understand what truly excites you.
For example, you might not really like managing people, and you might see yourself more as a doer, and that's totally fine. Don't force yourself into a box or predetermined path. Figure out what makes you happy, what challenges you, and whether that path really fits your lifestyle as well.
So many different opportunities, so many different paths, no one specific path is the right path.
But I think product marketing has a lot to give, I think there's a lot of different opportunities in the organization depending on your interest and how your organization is structured. Having said that, if you have a goal in sight, go for it.
My journey took years of hard work, but also years of good luck, as I mentioned before.
To end off my article here, I wanted to share some final thoughts on what helped me get to where I am today.
Say yes to stretch projects
Number one, I always recommend saying yes to stretch projects, especially projects that again, address those gaps in your organization. Challenge yourself, take on responsibility, you might not always have the answers and might not always be ready to take on that additional responsibility but go figure it out and learn.
For example, if you have the opportunity to take on bigger, broader launches, if that's available, go for it. Learn about other product lines in your organization, take the opportunity to learn about the business and growth areas in your business, and so on.
Number two share learnings and how and why they impacted your decisions. As I said before, every day is a school day, learn, gather insights from the market, and use those insights to make well-informed decisions.
Number three, execute, I told you I'd come back to that one. As PMMs we're often in the driver’s seat and it's our responsibility as PMMs to bring momentum to any project that we lead.
Really get good at executing and you'll draw lots of attention in your organization.
Make your boss successful!
Lastly, and I think often we forget or underestimate this one, but make your boss successful.
Anything that you can do to make your boss shine will definitely go a long way in how you're perceived in your organization.
A final word here to close off my article, I think the outlook for PMM as a profession is excellent. We are truly architects of growth in our respective organizations and it's so core and so fundamental to the business.
I'll even go on the record to say that I think it's one of the most exciting and critically important functions in business today. That's because organizations as we all know, continue to invest their money in building great products, that's what defines a lot of businesses, and building products that are competitive in the marketplace.
But if you don't know who your buyers are, if you don't know how they make decisions, and if you don't know what matters to those buyers, all of the investment that a business puts upfront in R&D and engineering, in my opinion really goes down the drain.
This is why it's such a critical, critical function.
I wish you all the best in how you progress in your careers. Thank you.