Linear’s CEO, Karri Saarinen, was recently interviewed about the inner workings of the much-loved company. They famously do not have product managers (only a head of product). This revived some of the debate on the usefulness of product managers.
How @Linear builds product:— Lenny Rachitsky (@lennysan) September 26, 2023
1. No product managers, just a head of product. PM duties are distributed across engineering and design.
2. No durable cross-functional teams. Teams assemble around a project and disperse once the project is done.
3. No metrics-based goals. Just a…
As with many things in life, this is an “it depends” scenario. The critical insight into why Linear does not need product managers is that the product is one that most tech and tech-adjacent professions have knowledge about. It is significantly easier to remove product managers and make product a function of a team when that team understands its customers and the domain in which the product exists. It is possible with Linear (and other developer tools for that matter) because the people building the product have all used similar products before and they are building it for people like themselves (i.e tech and tech-adjacent professionals). It is a great property of their business. It is also not that common.
My previous employer, Aerobotics, builds tools for the agriculture industry, mainly farmers. Unless you’ve done industrial farming, it is difficult to reason about the product and how to evolve it to best fit your customers. If our teams were left to handle product, we would have had to spend a substantial portion of our time doing product work instead of engineering or designing. We’d need to understand our domain, agriculture, as well as Linear’s team understands product management and we’d have the disadvantage of not being active participants of that domain. As someone who does not do any farming, keeping up and understanding the agricultural industry would have eaten a huge amount of my time. Now, one can argue that we should know our domain that well and invest the time and you’re not wrong but, as mentioned earlier, it’s a trade-off. You can only dedicate that huge amount of time at the expense of doing the job you were hired for. Of course, you can see where this is going: hire product managers.
In this context, product managers make perfect sense. They bridge the gap between engineers and designers and the customers. They can focus all of their energy into better understanding customers and how the product should evolve to serve them better. They’re translating that understanding into our world, giving teams the direction they need to provide value.