Australia needs more product managers.
In fact we need another 200,000 tech workers across the board in the next five years, according to the Australian Computer Society (ACS) and Deloitte. New research from StartupAUS suggests that digital product management has one of the fastest growing skills gaps in the country. All of which is excellent news for people considering a change of career.
“Like many roles in digital, the demand for product managers outstrips the supply and will continue to do so for some time,” says Stewart Boon, Founder at AuctionFox and ex-Product Director at Envato. “The demand for the skills is growing faster than the pipeline of product managers is being created.”
But why do these tech knowledge gaps exist? And what’s the best way to plug them?
“Product Managers are now in high demand, and have been touted the new frontier of tech,” says RMIT’s Program Manager of the Graduate Certificate of Product Management (Online), Kevin Argus.
“As a role, Product Management is really exciting because it’s where growth is coming for organisations. Getting innovation and design right, is absolutely critical to business success and this role is now highly valued in the workplace.”
The exciting thing about product management, from a career pathway perspective, is that you don’t need to be an expert Python or Java coder to get started. It’s one of the more tech-friendly roles in the digital sector, relying on a shrewd mix of project management, design thinking and cutting-edge marketing techniques. Many companies are now turning to internal teams like UX, IT and Marketing and offering the chance for employees to pivot into something new. This is great for people looking to upskill, but it does present some challenges for the industry; the big one being that most companies still don’t understand exactly what a product manager does.
“Most clients do it internally,” says Naomi Schofield from product consultancy Tigerspike.
“They pick people from their business teams and they say, ‘Okay you’ve got a new job now, you’re the product owner for X’. But there’s no training and no help and no time in their day-to-day job to actually manage that product. A lot of companies know that they need product management, but they don’t invest in it properly.”
The gap between workforce skills and what Australia’s tech sector actually needs is widening. Best estimates put the number of ICT graduates at about 5,000 per year – miles off the 100,000 additional workers the ACS estimates is necessary. Partly this is down to the nature of IT (and product management in particular): they’re relatively new fields whose infrastructure and potential are yet un-mapped. ‘Product Management’ wasn’t even a job description 10 or 15 years ago. There’s a lag between industry demand and educational supply. And that demand is growing rapidly.
“PM jobs started in digital businesses like SEEK, REA and Atlassian,” Stewart says, “but digital channels continue to gain more and more importance with more traditional businesses. For example, companies like Coles, Bunnings and the big banks are increasingly reliant on digital channels to interact with their customers, but they’re also being rebuilt to run more efficiently based on new systems and technology. All of these changes create jobs for PMs who can help define what products or project to work on.”
Traditionally, the tech industry hasn’t worked closely with tertiary educators to identify knowledge gaps and proactively to fill them. Programs like RMIT Online’s Graduate Certificate in Product Management, and their Product Management short course, developed in partnership with industry leaders like Tigerspike and REA, are a good start, but there’s still a long way to go. Diversity plays a part too. A 2016 Deloitte report revealed that women make up just 28% of ICT workers in Australia, and mature-age workers only 11%. Increasing opportunities for online training and upskilling within organisations will help address some of these imbalances, but as usual, it relies on industry acknowledging there’s a problem in the first place.
Naomi says it’s an exciting time for product managers nevertheless. “This career didn’t really exist 10 years ago. It’s gone from nothing to an actual job. Now everyone’s looking at it – they’re slicing their business up in a slightly different way. For product managers, it’s great. Your background doesn’t really matter, what matters are the skills you bring to the table.”