India’s tech companies have a new superstar—the mighty product manager that has eclipsed almost every other role. The gold rush for hiring them, says Harshal Sanghavi, a product manager with the Future Group, was inevitable. 

The growth spurt of the product manager (PM), he estimates, is about five years old. It mirrors the rise of startups that have turned everything—from food delivery to dog-walking—into a product. “India’s IT firms have traditionally been about services. Building consumer products is a completely different ball game,” says Sanghavi.

The role first originated in Silicon Valley, where product companies like Google emerged in the 2000s. The trend hit Indian shores almost a decade later, in the 2010s, when homegrown product companies like Flipkart rose to prominence.

On Naukri.com—India’s number one job search portal—listings for “product managers” jumped 14% between May 2018 and January 2020. Exactly double the growth of overall job listings on the website.

The shift comes on the back of a digital tsunami that has hit Indian companies. The lines between product and services, online and offline have completely blurred, says Aravind Sridharan, practice head for Technology at Mumbai-based hiring firm EMA Partners. Even big box retailers like Future Group have grown digital arms like the Future Pay e-wallet. The need for a new type of manager has emerged from this chaos. “Regular IT jobs are now just plain maintenance and execution. Not exciting or high-paying anymore,” says Sridharan.

But even as product managers enjoy their moment in the sun, project managers, the original PMs, are at a precarious juncture. The culling from mid-level management staff at IT firms has been brutal. “These companies are looking at around 30% of their staff becoming redundant soon because now more strategic work is being outsourced to India,” says Sridharan. Project managers, beings of a different IT era, aren’t necessarily equipped to navigate the paradigm shift that products have caused.

"One of the first things an APM would do was minutes of the meeting. How do you work with different departments? PMs could try a thousand different things and it was okay"

Jaya Jha, former member of Google India's APM programme

Instead, PMs have taken on the mantle. “Product managers bring expertise and strategic thinking to the table,” says Anuj Rathi, vice president of products at food-delivery giant Swiggy. Founders like Aneesh Reddy, who runs business-to-business (B2B) software product company Capillary Technologies, say that as a startup scales, PMs often step into roles that founders initially played.

Part visionary, part executive, a PM is currently the coolest kid on the corporate block. It has left its poor cousin—the project manager—in its dust. “It goes, project managers, technical project managers, business analysts, and then product managers,” says Sanghavi.