Military to Product Management - Level Equivalents[
Military officers interested in moving into technology should consider careers in Product Management. There are strong parallels between the roles and product management requires many of the skill sets that effective officers have developed in their time in the service. But believing that you would be a good product manager and actually getting your foot in the door for an interview is another story.
When applying for roles, I recommend listing your experience in the military as a Product Manager rather than as a “Company Commander” or “Platoon Leader”. This will give recruiters and hiring managers something that they are familiar with on your resume and will allow you to open the conversation about how the roles are similar and you are trained for it. It is much better to have a conversation with a recruiter that starts with “I didn’t realize that the military had Product Managers”, to which you can answer, “Well my official title was Platoon Leader, but let me tell you about how the roles are very similar…” The alternative is that you don’t have any conversations because the recruiting software is literally looking for the words “Product Manager” in the job titles of your resume and you get filtered out.
But one question that I struggled with was how to level myself into product management roles. This applies for both for listing your prior work and for what roles to apply into. Thankfully there is some great guidance from Melissa Perri. In her book Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value she has this great chart (for organizations greater than ten product teams):
Based off of this framework I would recommend the following Army Roles to PM level Mappings. I’ve added some color commentary to help illustrate the parallels and support your conversations.
Also, when you are making the jump, expect that you might need to go down a level from what you were doing in the military to what you will do in a civilian company. You are changing industries and disciplines and that is going to get reflected somewhere. That shouldn’t prevent you from applying for roles that are at your current level. I applied for a Sr. Product Manager role at Splunk when I was hired and was hired into that role as a Product Manager to reflect my lack of experience in enterprise software.
Associate PM <=> Second Lieutenant (O1)
- Tactical - Focused on a specific feature they are building right now, speaks mostly with the design and engineering team for that feature. Talks to a few customers who are currently or potentially using that feature. Leans heavily on their engineering lead and a senior PM mentor for guidance.
- Operational - Understands what other PMs in their portfolio team are working on.
- Strategic - Understands where to find the organizational level road-map, could talk through their place in that road-map.
Second Lieutenant (O1)
- Tactical - Understands the capabilities of their platoon or section. Has strong knowledge of their specific equipment systems and is learning how to employ them effectively with guidance from company commander and platoon sergeant. Working off a checklist to make sure that troops, training and equipment are ready for events on the short term training calendar. If working on a staff as an assistant, they are waiting until there is a Platoon Leader seat available; usually spending their time learning what is happening from one of the NCOs or CPT staff assistants in order to be more ready when they get down to a platoon.
- Operational - Can explain the higher unit’s intent two levels up for today’s tasks.
- Strategic - Has seen the battalion level long range training calendar, knows that they are going to the field in 3 months, still not sure what to pack.
Product Manager <=> First Lieutenant (O2)
- Tactical - Has end to end responsibility for a modest feature or portion of a product. Expected to have ideas about how their area of responsibility could be improved to support larger company objectives, but needs to get approval before building them. If they are running experiments they are limited in scope so they don’t get to far along without getting confirmation from a more experienced product leader.
- Operational - Understands and can competently brief the road-map for their product portfolio’s current and upcoming work, is able to nest their explanation inside of the goal and objectives for the organization two level’s up.
- Strategic - Can explain the company direction to customers, knows enough to only speak in detail about their portion of it. Frames decisions for their product inside of the goals several levels up the organization.
First Lieutenant (O2)
- Tactical - Understands how most of the systems in the company are employed and what the interface points are in adjacent companies and the support battalion. Can run single day training events like small arms ranges competently with limited supervision.
- Operational - As a senior platoon leader or executive officer works with battalion staff to get the company ready to participate in battalion or brigade level training events. Will manage the details of executing line-haul operations, arranging convoy operations to training centers. Understands how events on the short term training calendar build readiness for events on the long term training calendar; can explain this effectively to troops.
- Strategic - Understands the sequence of events on the long term training calendar through red/amber/green phases, progressive training events from individual to team, platoon, company and up work together.
Senior Product Manager <=> Captain (O3)
Senior Product Manager
- Tactical - Responsible for a larger portion of product than a product manager, potentially responsible for multiple products or features. You are expected to shape the near and mid-term direction for that product. You are competent in the day to day work of talking to customers, internal stakeholders and the design and engineering team, no one is checking your work for these activities. You still spend most of your time focused on design and execution of your product, but are also building out a longer term road-map for your product(s).
- Operational - You have enough experience to start recommending items for the mid-term road-map for the portfolio level. You are expected to start synthesizing the conversations with multiple customers into a consistent narrative about how customers experience your product including their pain points and favorite features. You spend time communicating this narrative to your portfolio team and other internal stakeholders.
- Strategic - You understand the organizational goals and objectives, you are able to effectively communicate this to customers and understand when customers you talk to are understanding and agreeing with or pushing back on that vision. You can explain how your portfolio team’s work contributes to organizational level goals both now and in the “next” time horizon.
- Tactical - As a company commander you are expected to have mastery of the employment of all of the systems in your company and care of up to a hundred Soldiers and all of their equipment which you are personally responsible for. You spend most of your time actually doing that supervision. You don’t spend as much time doing actual work but mostly supervising that tactical activities are being planned and executed correctly. You are writing your own short term training calendar, and your feedback about the status of your organization are used to determine what goes on the long-term training calendar. You can effectively coordinate with other company commanders and the battalion staff to ensure that your company has all of the resources it needs to execute your mission (even if that is mostly telling your XO to do the grunt work). As a battalion staff primary or assistant to the S3 you are ensuring that all of the tactical operations being done across the battalion have the right level of support from your staff function, and that the companies have in fact done what they need to do based on orders that have been sent out. You spend a lot of time thinking about how you can help the companies complete the mission and put as few constraints on them as possible.
- Operational - You are setting the agenda for the short term (six to eight week) schedule based on your detailed understanding of the long range plan for the organization two levels up. You are making mid-course corrections to make sure that your team is ready for future events. You work with battalion and brigade staff to set expectations about what is going to be possible in the mid-term based on where you know your organization is today. You are primarily looking to make sure you don’t get asked for unreasonable things in the near future.
- Strategic - You understand the long range training calendar in detail, you are expected to be able to brief higher headquarters your readiness to perform at upcoming events and to explain what challenges with personnel, equipment or training might impact your performance at events on the long range calendar.
Director of PM <=> Major (O4)
Director of PM
- Tactical - You might still have a team that you are managing personally either because you genuinely like hands on product management or you want to keep your skills sharp or tell yourself it’s a particularly important piece, or maybe there just isn’t anyone else to do it right now. But it had better be a high functioning team because you won’t have as much time for them as you like. You use your experience and skills at the tactical level to help council and unblock the more junior PMs who are now reporting to you.
- Operational - You are now responsible for a portfolio of different products with three to five PMs reporting to you each with different products. Your job is to make sure that all of the work that they are doing is coherent and in-line with company priorities, you do that by helping to select and what items from each of the teams go onto the road-map by supporting each team’s discovery efforts as they work to solve the organizational level problems. You also work with your other portfolio leads to harmonize what you are doing across the larger organization. You are asked more frequently to support the field and sales teams by explaining the organizational road-map to customers in order to give them confidence that the R&D organization really has a vision for the future of the company and that something on that road-map effectively solves that customer’s problems.
- Strategic - You talk on a regular basis with internal stakeholders including the VPs of product, the Chief Product Officer and Chief Technology Officer about the problems you are hearing from customers and offering your suggestions about what could be done in both you portfolio and in other portfolios to help address those problems. You are also integrating what you are seeing across industry trends and helping the organization “skate to where the puck is going to be” (the Gretzky quote that will inevitably be trotted out); in a nice change of events these stakeholders are listening to you and sometimes passing your insights off as their own at later meetings.
- Tactical - You used to do tactical things, you can still show up at a training event and tell an E5 that they are doing that thing wrong with a spot correction, but for the most part you are interested in the output of tactical tasks getting done. You use your experience to help council the junior officers fix problems.
- Operational - You are an iron major, you send a lot of email trying to coordinate the actions of multiple heterogeneous organizations in order to get them all moving in the direction of the commander’s intent. If you are the XO you are wrangling all of the support functions to make sure that nothing in the logistics realm gets in the way of the short or long term plan. In order to do that you are almost always working across organizational lines to help connect people in your unit with problems with people in other units who might have the resources to help fix those problems. If you are the S3 you are trying very hard to find a sequence of events that turn the commander’s intent into a sequence of events that ends in results and doesn’t require breaking the time space continuum. You run a multi-team planning operation continuously.
- Strategic - You understand the strategic plan intimately, and give feedback on what needs to change in order to get it to work, you probably can’t move some of the bigger rocks on the long term plan (no one moves an NTC rotation), but if you do it right you might be able to shape what the commander tells the trainers at NTC that the unit needs to learn at NTC. You absolutely will help your boss and his boss understand what the all up capabilities of the unit are before they get to NTC so that no one is surprised at how good or not you are.
VP of Product <=> Lieutenant Colonel (O5)
VP of Product
- Tactical - You interact with tactical product management when it shows up at a portfolio review and you have some feedback about where the buttons are placed and ask if this is in line with the latest design language. If you are doing actual tactical product management, you are probably also trying to hire some folks so that you don’t have to do it anymore, not because you don’t love it, but because it probably isn’t the best use of your time.
- Operational - You spend a lot of time in meetings with directors of product management reviewing their portfolio road-map plans and progress. You are helping to point out misalignment between what is being said in this meeting and the meeting you just left and telling those folks they need to get together and figure it out. You influence the same directors of product management by reiterating over and over the themes and goals consistently so that everyone is repeating them in their sleep much to the displeasure of their spouses.
- Strategic - The rest of your time you spend talking to folks in the C-Suite of the company about how your organization is solving their problems or how the problems you are hearing about from customers should be the problems your C-Suite is paying attention to more. You have been doing this long enough that the “industry leaders” are probably people you have worked with in other companies, you spend some time talking to them to help keep a finger on what is up and coming in other parts of the market that you could be expanding into getting ready to adapt to.
Lieutenant Colonel (O5)
- Tactical - Shows up to the range to qualify on their assigned weapon.
- Operational - Will we have sufficient personnel in the unit with the right skills in order to complete all of the missions in the next six months; if we don’t can we find people to train or other units to support us.
- Strategic - What do we think the operational environment in Afghanistan will look like in 18 months, what do we need to train on at the training center in 9 months in order to be prepared to deploy there?
Chief Product Officer <=> Colonel (O6)
Chief Product Officer
- Tactical - Can explain what was just shipped and what problems are being solved in the “now” column at the portfolio level.
- Operational - Reviewing proposed customer experience metrics for the next six months and getting executive buy-in for metrics that we want to move in the next six months.
- Strategic - Spends time with customers, analysts, industry thought leaders attempting to actively shape what people think about the industry and your market.
- Tactical - Knows where the range complex is, can cite numbers about how many Soldiers are qualified.
- Operational -
- Strategic - Lobbies for particular deployment slots because they want to prove their new and innovative way of deploying their particular type of brigade combat team effectively to finally win the argument they had at the war collage and pre-command course.