In large companies with multiple product managers, you need certain senior professionals to oversee the management team. But can the PM team receive individual, non-managerial contributions from the top? The answer is yes – and that’s where a principal product manager comes in.
In a nutshell, a principal PM is a full-time, senior product management role. But how does it differ from other top-level positions, such as the group product manager?
In this article, we’ll break down the principal product manager job title, discuss what it entails, and answer some frequently asked questions. Whether you’re a recruiter or a PM exploring career tracks, this article will give you a great insight.
Let’s get started.
Who is a Principal Product Manager?
A principal product manager (PPM) is a senior product manager who doesn’t have any people-management responsibilities. Instead, they work as the most significant individual contributors (ICs) to move the needle for the product management team and the company as a whole.
Principal product managers have years of experience and track records of successfully executing, overseeing, and owning various PM processes, such as:
- Creating product strategies
- Defining product roadmaps
- Aligning stakeholders
- Setting product vision
The position is not as common in new startups as it is in relatively larger companies where there are multiple product management positions with defined roles.
What Level is Principal Product Manager?
As mentioned above, a principal PM is a senior-level position (in almost every organization). The only thing that sets them apart from their peers is that they don’t go all-in on overseeing the day-to-day management that comes with seniority.
This may be a bit difficult to digest, given that the product manager role includes a lot of managerial functions. However, there are two tracks that a PM can pick later in their career, including:
- Individual Contributor Track – contribute towards achieving the organization’s goals directly without providing any management oversight.
- Management Track – have management responsibilities and don’t contribute directly towards achieving business goals.
Principal PMs are on the IC track.
Keep in mind that just because a PPM isn’t responsible for directly managing people on the product team, doesn’t mean that the role isn’t as significant or senior as other top-level positions.
What Does a Principal Product Manager Do?
As a senior individual contributor on the product team, the principal PM has a lot of critical responsibilities.
While the exact duties may vary from company to company, here is a generic job description:
1. Developing and Communicating the Product Strategy
First and foremost, a principal PM is responsible for devising, implementing, and overseeing the product strategy.
This entails defining/finalizing:
- Goals – specific things that the team wants to accomplish with the product. These goals should align with the business objectives of the company.
- Product Vision – the big picture or the end goal for which the product team should be working towards.
- Efforts – a detailed list of the specific internal efforts required to achieve the product vision.
In the end, a principal PM compresses everything into a detailed, high-level roadmap that is shared with the marketing, design, and engineering teams.
Of course, to create a working product strategy, the PPM takes input from their peers.
2. Aligning Stakeholders
Another major responsibility of a principal PM is to ensure that all the key stakeholders of the company are aligned with the product strategy.
For this purpose, they work together with product leaders, product marketing managers, and product development managers to create plans of action that align with the strategic objectives highlighted in the product strategy.
This entails close collaboration with relevant people in the product team, maintaining strong communication, and staying on top of everything.
However, to reiterate, it does not include directly managing people i.e. delegating tasks, overseeing day-to-day operations of the team, etc.
3. Representing the Voice of Customers
The principal product manager job entails contributing to all product areas, including marketing, UX, and business.
For that reason, in addition to everything else, a PPM has to become the voice of their customers in an organization.
- Working with the marketing and research teams to understand the customers.
- Developing an understanding of their specific pain points.
- Finding out about their preferences.
- Brainstorming solutions that align with the pain points, preferences, and goals of their customers.
The PPM then has to communicate all of these findings to the stakeholders to develop a positive user experience. After all, the product is for the customers, and by becoming their voice, the PPM plays a huge role in the overall success.
4. Extracting Insights from Performance Data
In addition, the principal product manager is also responsible for gauging the performance of the product management team. They take a data-driven approach towards problem-solving.
This entails looking at the metrics (set while creating a product strategy) to see if all the teams are hitting their goals.
Furthermore, analyzing that data can also reveal some useful insights about different product functions.
By leveraging their experience, they come up with potential fixes/solutions for any underlying issues. They then communicate those solutions to the stakeholders for implementation.
5. Leading Internal Discussions
Last but not least, the principal product manager is responsible for leading internal discussions.
This is a crucial part of aligning stakeholders. However, internal discussions can have different goals, and therefore deserve to be highlighted separately.
PPMs are expected to arrange and execute these discussions with different internal teams.
Furthermore, a PPM has to ensure that every discussion results in some tangible outcome – a new discovery, consensus, or initiative – which helps move things forward. For instance, if the discussion is regarding a bottleneck in the process, by the end of it, everyone involved should come up with a strategy on how they’re going to tackle it.
Depending on the organization, its policies, and culture, a PPM can lead these discussions either as stand-up meetings, zoom calls, or formal boardroom discussions.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Now that you know what a principal product manager is and what they do, let’s take a quick look at some frequently asked questions regarding this role (and other related areas):
What Does Principal Product Mean?
A principal product is any product that's considered to be the primary offering of a business. In technical terms, it may also refer to any product or service that accounts for more than 2% of the average gross sales of a product for a business (specifically a restaurant).
Keep in mind that a principal product manager has nothing to do with a principal product. The job title should not be taken literally. They’re called principal PMs because they work as individual contributors – the actual product(s) they work on is irrelevant.
What Level is Principal Product Manager at Amazon?
Amazon is a multi-billion dollar company with several products and an extensive product management hierarchy. Every position has a level, denoted by “Ln” (where n is a number representing a position). The principal product manager at Amazon is an L7 position – above PM1 (L4), PM2 (L5), and PM3/Senior PM (L6).
To give you some perspective, the highest level is L12, which is the CEO. Considering that, the principal product manager role is a relatively senior position at Amazon.
An Amazon PPM shares this level with the Senior Manager, Product Management. Both positions are directly underneath the director of product management (L8).
What Does a Group PM Do?
A group product manager (GPM) is a senior-level position that is responsible for managing and overseeing a team/group of product managers, who, in turn, manage different products. In addition to setting strategies, they're also tasked with managing people.
In terms of seniority, GPMs and principal PMs are at the same level.
The only difference between both is that the latter is an individual contributor, whereas GPMs are on the management track.
What is the Role of a Product Manager?
Product managers are responsible for setting the product vision, rallying the various product team to work towards a common goal, and creating and leading initiatives that move the needle for the company. The role is challenging, yet rewarding, and requires a mix of analytical skills, communication skills, and interpersonal skills.
A typical PM wears many hats. They’re expected to have ample marketing, business, and UX/engineering knowledge – just enough for them to effectively cross-collaborate and get work done. They don’t need to be experts in all three product areas.
Their responsibilities include managing the product lifecycle, creating strategies, defining user stories, and working on GTM strategies for new products, among others.
If you’re a PM who likes making a difference by contributing as an individual but don't enjoy managing people, the principal PM is just for you.
In case you already haven’t, talk to your employer about your goals and see if you can pursue the IC track in your company.