Why Atlassian has dual track product management career paths, and how we did it

Sherif Mansour
Atlassian Product Craft Blog
5 min readMar 4, 2022

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To progress in your product career, you need to manage people… right?

This is certainly something I’ve experienced in my time in product management, and as I’ve got to share my story with other product managers, I’ve found this to be a popular misconception.

You know we all start out in our career, take on a small area of a product, maybe then multiple areas, maybe whole products… Eventually taking on larger and bigger initiatives… and then at at some stage of all our careers we hit this fork in the road.

I’m sure all of you will hit this cross-road where you feel like you need to make a decision if you should start managing product managers or not.

It might seem as though the “right path” to take is to become a manager of product managers. But maybe, the biggest impact you can make for your career and at your company is constantly getting better at the thing you enjoy doing the most.

But the desire to manage might come from several motivations or triggers…

  1. Maybe you’re being asked by a manager to “step up” into a management role. (Interesting by the way, how we call that a “step up”)…
  2. Maybe you feel like it’s a layer in your org chart that makes the significant or strategic decisions and you’re not part of that…
  3. Or maybe you just feel like it’s the only way to be promoted and you’ve done what you can as an individual contributor…

None of those motivations are necessarily bad, but how do you go about answering if you should manage or not?

Hunter Walk lead product at YouTube for years and he shares the negative impact of not addressing this in his story. He shares that if there was a way for him to keep involved in the strategic things without having to manage a team he probably would have stuck around.

So what do we do about this?

The “How Google Works” book, Jonathan Rosenberg popularised an exercise asking the members on his team to write their CV in ten years.

I remember the first time I read this years ago, I tried the exercise and I just wrote.. well to be frank, job titles…

“senior product manager, group product manager.. ooo head of PM (that sounds great!)... and eventually VP of product.. Ahh there — my career path.

…Can I just say after working with our Chief Product Officer (sorry boss, Joff Redfern), that’s a role I’m not jumping at right now! It’s a tough craft, which flexes quite a different muscle and doesn’t necessarily play to my strengths.

I focused on the wrong thing. We think title progression = career path.

A better angle is to focus on what experiences you want to have gained, skills you want to have learned. E.g.: Launching a new product, building a stellar PM team, growth optimisation, scaling revenue for a product etc.

The how

You see, most traditional product management career paths look like this:

Start at bottom, then work your way “up” into management. No wonder why sometimes people say “step up” into management.

But has anybody stopped and asked why?

At Atlassian we separated the tracks: the craft of an individual contributor and the craft of a manager (after learning, the hard way!). Now, a move into management isn’t seen as a “step up the ladder”, but rather a a lateral move.

The move takes you from concentrating on product problems into concentrating on people problems. Your people are now your product. Both the individual contributor and the manager impact the direction of the product but they both come at it from different directions.

People should do the type of work that is most fulfilling to them and most valuable to the company.

By the way, those of you looking closely are probably thinking “hang on, is it possible for someone who is an individual contributor to get paid more than their manager?” Yes, it’s possible, and happens a bit!

Growth profiles

Another thing you should consider doing is articulating a growth profile for each of the tracks to help folks know what’s expected. For example, here is an outline of our individual contributor product track.

For each role, we try to describe it in one word — which is a great forcing function. We then describe what they should be doing at a glance. These list of expectations (leads & inspires, great communicator…) are specific to our culture — how work gets done at Atlassian. You should think about what it’s like for product managers to move work forward in your culture and share that with your team.

Side-notes:

  • If you’re going to do this, it’s important to remember that not every PM is the same when you look at your career paths.
  • Create these paths only when someone codifies one, and grows into it. Don’t pre-create these things.
  • Visit these paths and iterate on them, just like you do with your products. Someone pioneering a new kind of PM or PM work? have a look at how you can shape the paths for others to follow rather than telling someone they don’t fit the mould. Play to each individuals strengths.

Progressing as a PM definitely does not involve having to become a people manager. Discover what you are passionate about. I use the word discover, because it’s just like you do product discovery. There are lots of things you can do to discover this: try both roles if you can or try to write your resume in 5–10 years: write activities/experiences you would like to do, not the job titles you want to be good at!

More on this topic:

🎥 Watch: The talk version of this blog: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0YnJG9pnfo&t=1099s

🎥 Watch: Deep-dive interview on this topic on the Product Uncensored podcast with Colin Pal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlJjOkL1piQ

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