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How To Navigate Product Management Specializations

In the first article (The Growing Specialization of Product Management) of this series, we talked about the specialization of Product Management:

"In the tech world, the Design, Engineering, Marketing, and Sales functions have each had specialties for years. For example:

  • Design → Product Design, Brand Design, UI/UX, Research, Interaction Design, Service Design
  • Engineering → Frontend, Backend, Mobile (iOS/Android), Web, Full Stack, Payments
  • Marketing → Brand, Content, Performance Marketing, SEO, CRM/Lifecycle, Marketing Ops, PR
  • Sales → Inbound, Outbound, SDR/BDR, AE, Technical Sales, CSM

But, Product Management has not yet defined specialties. This leads people to think a Product Manager (PM) is a PM — meaning we hastily assume all PM roles are created equal and the best PMs are those who know everything across different types of product work/stages. That's simply not the reality of the situation since product specializations are emerging informally as a mess. There's little understanding of what these PM roles mean and how each is unique, but needed at different types of organizations."

We laid out the definition of four Product Management specializations:

  1. Core PMs focus on solving for a customer pain point or need and focused on feature work.
  2. Growth PMs focus on the customer's journey, through the lens of improving business metrics.
  3. Platform PMs focus on helping the business scale efficiently and effectively and focused on scaling work.
  4. Innovation PMs focus on identifying new opportunities to expand product-market fit.

About the Authors

Adam Fishman

Adam Fishman

As a Product and Growth Executive, Adam Fishman has built some of the fastest-growing B2C and B2B2C companies of the past decade like Patreon and Lyft. He is the author of the FishmanAF Newsletter and the creator and host of the Startup Dad Podcast. He lives in SF Bay Area with his wife, two kids, and retriever Baxter.

Keya Patel

Keya Patel

Keya Patel is a former Operator in Residence at Reforge. Previously, she was the Director of Product Growth at Headspace and a PM focused on Growth & Monetization at Dropbox.

With contributions by Ravi Mehta (Reforge Partner/EIR, former CPO at Tinder, former VP Prod at Tripadvisor, former Product Dir at Facebook) and Adam Greiner (VP Marketing at MasterClass, former Reforge Partner/EIR, former VP Product/Growth at Lambda School, former Head of Marketing at Uber.)

Specialization helps in a lot of ways. But it also creates a lot of questions about navigating a product career.

  • The most successful PMs proactively choose where they go deep and where/when they go broad to progress in their careers.
  • We are still in the midst of specializations being formalized and well known across the industry. But, it is up to each individual to understand them so they can make the best career decisions for themselves.

Some of the most common questions we get from Reforge Members consist of some variation of:

🤔 I fall into more than one specialization. Is that good or bad?

🧭 I'm exploring being a PM. How can I figure out a specialty to start with?

🔀 I want to switch from Core PM to Growth PM. How do I make the change?

🎯 What does long-term career growth look like? I want to be a VP of Product one day, but don't know enough about other PM specialties.

🔬 How can I grow my specialty knowledge without necessarily having to manage people?

🤼 Do PM specialties apply to teams? What PM composition should a scaling org have?

In this piece, we'll dive deep on these key questions:

  • What's your PM specialty? >> identify where you specialize when you might have more than one specialty, and how to pivot into a specialty with a non-product background
  • So, you want to switch specialties? >> pivot from one area to another and position yourself for that change
  • What does career progression look like, when you have a specialty? >> plan what you need for professional growth, whether that's moving into management or being super-specialized
  • What should specialization look like on teams? >> think about your specialty in the context of a product team and how to hire accordingly

What's your Product Management specialty?

Understanding what specialization you align with most today is the starting point. You need to know where you are before you can answer questions about where to go next.

In this section, we will:

(1) teach you how to identify and evaluate your PM specialty

(2) address situations where you might have more than one specialty

(3) show you how to pivot into a PM specialty, if you're just getting started in Product

Mapping your current PM type

To understand which specialty you are most aligned with, start by asking these questions:

  • What type of product work are you focused on day-to-day?
  • What areas are you most intellectually curious about?
  • What unique product management skills do you have, and how do they align best to the different types of product work?
  • Who do you spend the most time talking with each week, outside of your team?
  • What stage is your org/product at (pre-PMF fit, feature work, growth work, scaling work, PMF expansion)?

Another way to approach this exercise is:

  • Save the chart below
  • Highlight the areas, skills, and collaborators you are involved with
  • After going through each box, you'll likely notice one row that highlights your expertise area more than the others. This is the specialization you currently over-index on.

Do you have more than one specialty?

Most people have experience in more than one area. Our experience and skills are more like Venn diagrams than they are discrete buckets. A lot of roles, especially those in early-stage companies, require you to balance several different types of work.

But a misconception is that just because you've "worn many hats" in a certain role, means you have deep specialization in everything.

Having deep specialization in everything is impossible. It would require multiple lifetimes and careers to develop that. Developing the depth behind a specialty takes many years. This is partly why it is important to understand and identify what area you want to focus on to build career leverage.

Pivoting into a PM specialty, when you're not already in the product world

If you are thinking about switching into Product Management from a tech/non-tech field, you may have noticed that it's gotten increasingly competitive to land a PM job. One way to reposition yourself is to consider what specialty is underserved at an organization or within an industry and how to use that as a wedge.

Below we matched roles to specific PM specialties. We organized these by what skills and past experience can more easily transfer over. To be clear, this is not an exhaustive list but serves to provide some common examples of how people have shifted into PM roles from external fields.

Career Path To Core Product Manager

  • From tech fields = user research, design, support, marketing/PR, chief of staff, content/community moderation, partnerships
  • From non-tech fields = consulting, educators, VC, social worker/psychologists, military, sociology, brand management

Career Path To Growth Product Manager

  • From tech fields = data, finance, sales, performance marketing/SEO, biz ops
  • From non-tech fields = academic researchers, stats/math/logic heavy backgrounds, behavioral psychologists, analysts, roles with quick decision making in critical situations, strategy consulting

Career Path To Platform Product Manager

  • From tech fields = data, engineering, legal, security
  • From non-tech fields = engineering, systems/infrastructure roles, operations, logistics, manufacturing, librarian/information science, writers/documentation lovers

Career Path To Innovation Product Manager

  • From tech fields = founder, first 5-10 employees at a past startup, chief of staff, biz ops, executives, user research
  • From non-tech fields = research, design, R&D roles, entrepreneurs, people who love to tinker in their spare time and build up/test/prove out ideas

So, you want to switch specialties?

In this section, we'll talk about when it makes sense to switch specialties and then lay out what it takes to switch from one specialty to another and how to position yourself to make that change.

When does it make sense to switch specialties?

There are a few common scenarios where it might make sense to switch specialties. The common thread between all of these are situations that can accelerate your career and get you to the next level.

  1. Realigning to Your Natural Skillsets and InterestsA lot of product managers do what it takes to get into product management, or they might even end up there by accident. The type of product work you start your career with doesn't mean that is the optimal alignment with your natural skillsets or interests.After spending some time in product and getting exposed to a variety of product problems, you may find yourself gravitating to specific types of product problems. Aligning yourself to your natural desires and skillsets can be an accelerant for your career. It can take years in the profession to discover that alignment.
  2. Gaining Breadth After Achieving Some DepthThere is value in gaining some breadth as your product career grows, but only after achieving some depth. The challenge is that it is easy to underestimate what depth looks like, and focusing on breadth too soon can lead to being ok at a lot of things, but great at nothing. If you feel like you've achieved some level of mastery in your current specialty and have outcomes that validate it, it could be the right time to switch. You should feel a sense of accomplishment with initiatives you've led, have results that prove their effectiveness, and have some track record built up internally within your organization.
  3. Taking a Bet on an Emerging SpecialtyIn part 1 of this series, we discussed some emerging specialties. One way to accelerate your career is to position yourself where there is a low supply and high demand in the industry. One way to do that is to be great at one core specialization. Another way to do that is to take a bet on an emerging specialty. If the need for that specialty grows, you will be ahead of the game and receive opportunities you might not in other areas where the supply of people is larger. Three to five years ago, that area would have been Product Growth. These can be high-risk bets though, as it isn't clear early in the game how the demand for the new area might grow.

...and when should you NOT switch specialties?

There are also some common reasons we see PMs switch that don't lead to accelerating their career.

  1. Shiny Object SyndromeIn Impact = Environment X Skills: How To Make Career Decisions, Bangaly Kaba (ex-Reforge EIR, Head of Growth at Instagram) wrote about the shiny object syndrome:"When I asked the Rotational Product Managers what they were going to choose for their placement, one answer I would hear time and time again was some version of, "I think it would be cool to work on xyz visible project." Just because a project seems "cool" or "visible" within the org does not mean it is the best move to grow your career.People assume that the cool shiny thing will get them visibility, have the resources it needs, or be reputable to put on the resume. But none of that matters if your manager doesn't give you the space to work well, or your team isn't the right team to solve that problem. You still have to evaluate all the components rather than take them as givens otherwise you overestimate the value of working on something shiny vs. what you actually need in order to grow your career." - Bangaly Kaba - Head of Platform Growth at PopShop Live, ex-EIR at Reforge, Head of Growth at Instagram
  2. Creating Impact is Getting HarderAs you go deeper into a specialty, the scope of the problems get bigger and more complicated. This can often create a feeling that it is more difficult to create impact leading to jump to a new area. But oftentimes this is the exact time when you should lean in. Learning how to solve the larger and more complicated problems is what unlocks depth in a specialty and breaks you away from average.

Making the switch happen

At this point, if you've decided to go forward with switching specialties, here are a few tips to make the transition as smooth as possible.

First, try to take on a project in the new area while still maintaining your existing work. It's a good way to see if you like the new area and to challenge yourself. It also allows you to test the waters beforehand, especially if it's a big lift for the organization to help you make the move.

As you're working on the project or wrapping it up, be sure to reflect on longer-term goals and why this specialty switch would help you to reach that goal. For example, if you're currently a Platform PM at a B2B company and want to eventually be a B2C Core PM for a product/brand everyone recognizes, then a switch from Platform PM at a B2B company to a Core PM at a B2B company might get you one step closer to your professional goal.

Then, If You're Planning To Make The Specialty Switch + Stay At Your Org:

  • Have conversations with your manager, lead, or mentors about how to realistically make this change and a timeline for making it happen. If you're a Core PM, you could lead with a first conversation explaining how you've been working on a project that is a bit more on the Growth PM side and you've enjoyed that experience. Then, in another conversation, you could ask if it's ok to proceed with applying Growth tactics to a core feature you're working on or partnering with those more familiar with Growth for the next project. From there, you can more formally ask questions about if others have made the switch, what the path could look like to transfer, and what a timeline looks like.
  • Ask for additional opportunities in that specialty, like another project or two to show you're committed to making this specialty change. For example, you could take the initiative yourself to apply Innovation PM thinking to a Core PM role by also looking at market research and thinking more broadly about peripheral new product ideas to practice how an Innovation PM would approach the situation.
  • Shadow others who are closer to that specialty to understand their day-to-day role. You could explain this as you're interested in learning about their role to see if you can apply any learnings into your specialty, or you can just be honest that you're exploring a potential switch and seeing what gaps you have.

Or, If You're Looking To Make The Specialty Change + Move To A New Org:

  • Practice explaining how your projects in the new specialty can translate to the role you're applying for and be able to articulate the value you'll provide with your background in a different specialty. You could practice with a PM already in this new specialty area to see if they find your reasoning compelling and they could give you tips as well.
  • Show your commitment to learning about the new specialty by doing a small side project. This could be an audit or analysis of the specialty area in the new org and subsequent recommendations.
  • Gain more knowledge about the specialty area by looking at a product you use and explore questions related to the specialty you are interested in. For example, think about how to increase the number of people who sign up for the product (if you Growth PM interest) or look into API development (if Platform PM interest).
  • Note = switching specialties and orgs at the same time is usually a harder jump to make compared to staying at your org and switching PM focus areas. Usually, when people successfully make the org and specialty change, they (1) have connections or a pre-existing relationship to the new org, (2) the org is willing to take a risk on someone with less specialty experience, or (3) the org is unaware of different types of Product roles and their org needs.

What does career progression look like, when you have a specialty?

In the previous section, we alluded to the fact that it might make sense to get exposure to new specialties to grow your career. In this section, we'll talk about that more, in addition to highlighting how to think about career progress in other ways:

  • We'll start by building off of Crossing the Canyon: Product Manager to Product Leader to describe how to expand the breadth of work and experience in your portfolio to set yourself up to managing multi-specialty teams.
  • Then, we'll talk about the approach you can take if you want to advance as a specialist, and not follow a managerial path.

Depth → Breadth, to progress as a PM

We've written about traditional PM progression in the Crossing the Canyon blog piece. The article highlights four transitions you need to make as you move from a Product Manager (APM, PM, Sr PM) to a Product Leader (Lead PM, Group PM, Director PM, VP Product, CPO).

  • Depth in one type of product work → Breadth across multiple types of product work
  • Being good at your job → Training others to be good at theirs
  • Solving with resources you have → Solving by allocating resources and influencing others
  • Gaining more personal scope → Creating more scope for the organization

When we consider PM specializations, the first transition of Depth → Breadth is particularly important in the jump to product leadership.

"The best feedback I received as a manager, was someone told me they valued but didn't understand how I could walk in a room with 30% of the context and identify what's wrong and help course correct. But this is the essence of the Product Lead role. Your job is to understand what is going on, what the outcomes should be, and quickly figure out how you can help course correct.”

- Bangaly Kaba - Head of Platform Growth at PopShop Live, ex-EIR at Reforge, Head of Growth at Instagram

This transition from breadth to depth exists across most functions — Design, Engineering, Marketing — to grow into leadership roles. A VP of Marketing who has a specialization in performance marketing needs to know how to allocate investment across product marketing and brand marketing in addition to performance marketing.

"When I started at Patreon in 2016, I led the Product Growth and Marketing functions. My product specialization was clearly Growth, from my background in leading Growth at Lyft and Wyzant. I was asked to step into the VP Product role which required me to gain more context into Patreon's core product and platform investments, as well as more innovation opportunities.

Over time we added a new creator experience, creator revenue, merchandising, and international teams which I was able to stand up or manage. I still think of Growth as a solid, strong base I can always rely on, but I've been able to develop skills in core product, platform, and innovation which has helped me step into more senior roles like CPO.”

- Adam Fishman (EIR at Reforge, Former CPO at Imperfect Foods, Former VP Product at Patreon, Former Head of Growth at Lyft)

What PM are you today vs. in the future?

If today, you're largely an Innovation PM who has focused on developing new products from scratch, you will very likely rely on the same approach (that you're familiar with and an expert at) to resolve a feature problem or a scaling problem. The Crossing the Canyon blog piece echoes this sentiment:

"Many product professionals don't recognize that there are fundamentally different types of product work. This leads to a hammer/nail problem, where you over-rely on the tool that you are familiar with. To be successful as a Product Leader, you need to have knowledge of all the different types of product problems and lead your team to work on the right ones at the right time without getting into the weeds of the work itself."

As you think about future PM career progression, it's important to start to build knowledge across different types of PM work, without necessarily specializing or going too deep in more than 1-2 areas. You'll need to think deeply about the overall portfolio of work that your team(s) are handling and how they contribute to user and business objectives. It's no longer about your own product interests and successes, but more about progress and connections across different product initiatives. This is one of the areas the Reforge Product Strategy program focuses on for developing product leaders.

One way to think about this at the personal level is by visualizing a tree:

  • Trunk = The trunk of the tree is the base/foundation of what you have specialized in as a PM. This is the area you could easily jump into and operate in if needed. Early in your career you're almost exclusively focused on strengthening the trunk of the tree.
  • Large Branches = From the trunk, there are larger branches that are areas you've dabbled in or have picked up on when necessary. But, you need to rely on others to define and execute these product areas. Your contributions as a product leader are more about having a vision about how these larger branches and the trunk fit into the product strategy and company growth.
  • Small Branches = Above the larger branches are smaller ones that are still growing. These are usually product areas where you are aware of their importance and how to prioritize them, but really do not understand the details of execution. You have to hire others and rely on their expertise in these areas to be successful.

If we go back to the example that today you're an Innovation PM, you can think of:

  • Trunk = developing a product to reach initial PMF (Innovation PM)
  • Large branches could potentially include...
    • feature work on the product (Core PM)
    • developing new use cases and products to expand PMF (Innovation PM)
    • doing rounds of price tests to price new products (Growth PM)
  • Smaller branches might look like...
    • building out the experimentation tool to run price tests (Platform PM)
    • optimizing/maintaining a product feature as new user feedback is surfaced (Core PM)
    • understanding how dashboarding and metric definitions are set by data (Platform PM)
    • security steps needed to adequately store user data within the product (Platform PM)
    • facilitating tools so support can easily handle product issues or resets (Platform PM)
    • deciding to build payments infrastructure in house, instead of an out of box solution (Platform PM)

Is it a trap to be a specialized PM?

One of the common fears around specializing is "getting trapped" in that specialty and limiting your career. But this is incorrect.

Specializing Is How You Become Great

It is 100% ok to stay specialized through your entire career. That is how you become the top few percent within a specific area and position yourself in a low-supply, high-demand situation. There is one thing to be aware of though. Later career IC specializations such as Staff/Principal/Distinguished PM or VP/C level specialists like a VP Product Growth do exist, but typically only at large companies.

Seeking Breadth Is About Timing

If you want to take the non-specialist VP or C-level track in product, at some point you have to seek out breadth. Seeking out breadth is a matter of timing though. The most common mistake is to seek out breadth too early in your career before you've had the opportunity to go deep in one area and take on larger scope and more complicated problems.

How do specialties on product teams evolve?

So far in this article, we've talked a lot about how to think about navigating the PM specializations from the individual perspective, but how does specialization evolve from the organization's perspective?

As a company grows, the product team needs to take on a broader portfolio of product work across feature, growth, scaling, and product-market fit expansion.

Many product teams get stuck in doing too much of one type of work and as a result, the product hits a growth ceiling.

The rough evolution of a product team looks something like the below (but will vary per company).

How To Navigate Product Management Specializations -PM Team Spectrum

Product Management Teams At Each Stage Of The Spectrum

1. Generalist PM Team (The Multi-sport Athlete)

  • Earlier stage (pre-seed, seed, Series A) orgs with 1-3 PMs
  • Teams that need a LOT of flexibility in their specializations and ability to adapt, because strategy or product changes often
  • These PMs normally have some experience (even limited) operating across different PM specialties, at early stage orgs
  • The people who make up this team can be equated to multi-sport athletes. They can perform at a high level across different disciplines (ex: triathlon, modern pentathlon) although they might favor one area.

2. Varied PM Team (the single-sport athlete)

  • Usually the safest way for a scaling org (Series B, Series C) to operate, where most PMs have a specialty but can pivot into sub-specialty areas when flexibility is needed
  • Still have very specialized, or sub-specialized, PMs for critical product areas (security, enterprise, etc)
  • Another way to think about this is to define and hire for people who are in one of the product feature buckets: feature strategy (Core PM), growth strategy (Growth PM), scaling work (Platform PM), and PMF expansion strategy (Innovation PM) — it's likely they will be able to initially understand, scope, and execute on initiatives across their specialization area, or raise a flag when there needs to be a more specialized PM hired.
  • The people who make up this team are similar to single-sport athletes. For example, they are decent to really good at different types of running events (100m, 200m, 400m, team relays), but can't easily switch out of their discipline to an altogether different specialization.

3. Specialized PM Team (the specialized athlete)

  • Larger stage orgs (Series D+) with established departments
  • 1-5 year company/team strategy that doesn't change drastically
  • Need for niche knowledge and resources. This is the stage where you start to see Directors of each specialty like a Dir, Product Growth, and Dir of Core Product.
  • Organization scaling is typically completed and YoY growth is stable/forecastable
  • The people who make up this team are like specialized athletes. They are really good and trained for one area and usually don't switch out of the category easily. Think of long jumpers or marathoners, who are really focused on their expertise and building their skillset/niche to optimize their performance.

Should you hire externally or internally for a specialized Product Manager?

Given the spectrum above, hiring managers often have questions around:

  • Should I ask for a headcount for this Innovation PM (or other specialized PM)?
  • Is it too early for me to bring on a Head of Growth (or other specialized PM) to the team?
  • I really need a Platform PM (or other specialized PM). Do I hire externally or transition someone over from the existing team?

To address these questions around hiring for a specialized PM, it's crucial to first understand:

  1. Do you need that expertise now / yesterday?
  2. Do you, or a member of the existing team, have interest or time to coach someone?
  3. Is there someone on the team personally excited about the role/area?

1. Do You Need That Expertise Now / Yesterday?

  • If yes → you should look to hire that specialized PM. This is often the case for situations that are critical to the organization or have some sort of serious implication (for example bringing on a sub-specialized security PM to help with HIPAA, HITRUST, and critical security issues facing the company).
  • If no → and you need that expertise in the future, it would make sense to internally post that you're curious if anyone has experience in [specialized area] to get a sense of whether anyone interested would be able to help with that product/feature initiative.

2. Do You, Or A Member Of The Existing Team, Have Interest Or Time To Coach Someone?

  • If yes → it would likely be a safer bet to select someone internally who has context on the company and past historical decisions. This is especially the case if it's an area of specialization where there will naturally be other (mid/later career) mentors.
  • If no → and you have limited time to coach or no other specialized PM experts, then it would make sense to hire externally to gain that knowledge internally and have that hire train others on that PM topic area as well.

3. Is There Someone On The Team Personally Excited About The Role/Area?

If yes → evaluate how much intrinsic motivation they have to learn this area themselves, especially if it's a foreign specialty or requires entirely new skills with little org support.

    • Ask them what they would do when they hit a wall. Do they think of creative solutions (asking to connect with a peer PM at another org, reviewing industry articles, willing to track down every piece of historical documentation the org has on this area, etc)
    • Also, understand how much time they would feasibly put into learning and investigating this area themselves and evaluate that against when you'll need this person in their prime to support the org's initiatives - are they still going to split their old PM role? will they need to be in meetings all day?
  • If no → similar to the previous point, it would make sense to hire externally to gain that knowledge internally and have that hire train others on that PM topic area as well.

Note that for sub-specialized PM roles (like the ones in bullets below, which we outlined in part 1 of this series), you very likely could start with an internal candidate or an existing PM at your organization. You will very likely reach a point where it's necessary to bring in a specialized PM. This point will take place as the project develops, gets more complex, or gets proven out and greenlit as a new team/initiative.

How To Navigate Product Management Specializations -Sub-Specialization Examples

Now, it's up to you to navigate the PM specialties

🧭 Start by mapping out where you specialize (or where you want to specialize)

🔀 Then, think about when you might switch specialties and the conditions that make switching easier vs. harder

🎯 From there, consider what career progression looks like in relation to specialties. We've seen through specialization in Marketing, Design, and Engineering that growing your career means gaining some breadth of experience and that's no different in Product. But, if you want to stay specialized that's definitely an option if you're not as keen on managing others or being as involved in politics at the leadership level.

🤼 Finally, review what specialization looks like on teams and how this changes as an organization scales from pre-seed to Series D+. This can impact how you hire (internal transfer or external hire?) for specialized PM roles.

Join Reforge Today ↗

Adam FishmanKeya Patel