One of the reasons the role of a Product Manager(PM) comes across as ambiguous is because the role of a Product Manager differs from every company and lifecycle of a product. If you’ve socially introduced yourself as a product manager, you must’ve come across questions regarding your profile in the vein of, “what is it that you do?” You probably stumbled and hesitated over the answer initially and now comfortably throw out some jargon like “customer advocate,” and “cross-functional teams” and receive a thoughtful nod and the occasional blank stare from whoever asked the question.
In many ways, the role of a Product Manager remains open to debate. Many companies have only started bringing the role into their organizations in the past few years, and very few companies manage to incorporate this role well. As a result, the role of a Product Manager has been misunderstood and practiced incorrectly by many in the industry. You’ll come across many, who label themselves as PM’s, but when they describe their role to you, it is not the job description you would’ve expected of a PM. A Product Manager is not an engineer or a software developer. If you are spending most of your time writing code or building product, you are not a PM. This makes you a developer or an engineer. You should rarely have to do these tasks. The reason being, there are far too many other tasks requiring your time and attention. These tasks won’t get completed if a PM does not own them.
Who is not a Product Manager?
A Product Manager is not a software architect, designer or a consultant. It doesn’t hurt to come with technical expertise to keep up and make valid suggestions, however, the technical standards and high-level software design choices must be driven by someone who is completely dedicated to this area. Also, the design is a separate function of its own, similar to engineering or development. While you may churn out some high fidelity mock-ups as a PM, this space too must be owned by experienced designers. In smaller companies, there may be exceptions, but ideally, this work should not be held exclusively by a PM. Bottomline, if you’re not driving a team that’s building a product, you are not a PM. While there could be stretches of time, maybe in the discovery stages of a product, where you do hands-off research and analysis, this should not be the significant chunk of your work for extended periods of time. While a brilliant PM will interact with just about all these functions, no single one of these areas should be commanding the majority of your time in the long run.
What makes you a Product Manager?
You’ll come across enough people who describe the role in different ways. But, the best way to look at it is as the captain of a product. Not the CEO of an organization, but the captain of a team supporting a product. A lot of people equate it to the CEO of a product, but it is a poor analogy. A Product Manager must not have authoritative control over a team, similar to how a captain does not control the football team. A coach does. Additionally, Product Managers are down in the trenches slogging with the team, unlike CEOs. You get your hands dirty on a daily basis, so you see it isn’t merely a strategic role, setting the high-level vision. Another correlation is that you need to have the trust of the entire team to be able to work with them on a singular vision. Like a team captain, who has to have an eye on each of his team members, it is not an isolated position with only one focus. Similarly, to guarantee the success of a product, a PM must be able to work cross-functionally. Ultimately, the captain like the PM is responsible for the next move based on the information they see in front of them and are required to make quick decisions on the fly to ensure that a drive is successful. In a nutshell, this is what a product manager is expected to do for a product. A product manager must guide a team in discovering and developing the right product for their consumers.
What are the skill sets required to be a Product Manager?
The contribution of an engineer or a designer to a product is quite clear. They are the ones who build the product and ensures that it looks and works well. It’s the product manager’s task to take the idea from beginning to end, while their expertise is what gets the product built. The PM’s are the ones who take responsibility for every phase of the product’s lifecycle, translating the CEO’s vision and executing it every day, making it fit their customer needs. Some of the best product managers are proficient in all three:
To truly understand the user experience, it’s incredibly crucial for product managers to talk to their customers and get relevant feedback so that they can rightly represent the users when making design decisions about the product. Product managers need to develop a certain sense of empathy towards their target users, once they’ve understood who the target users are, what their challenges are, and how the product they plan to build is going to solve these problems and provide value.
Product managers should have a passion and knowledge of technology, even though they do not necessarily need to know how to code. However, it’s always helpful to understand the back-end workings and effort required to make the right decisions. When you know the technology behind the product you’re building, it will help you gain rapport with your engineering team as well as allow you to prioritize roadmap features better since you can accurately estimate how long each feature should take to build.
Ultimately, a huge part of product management is still focused on maximizing business goals. When it all comes down, you are still responsible for measurable results and your product KPIs or key performance indicators. A competent product manager should understand the importance of all business decisions whether it be sales, marketing, pricing, etc., to achieve market share and achieve business goals.
Better product managers lead to better products, and with better products in our lives, we all ultimately win. Unlike most other roles in an organization, when a PM stops coming to work, your team might not feel the effects right away. Nevertheless, over time the lack of PM’s expertise will shine through in the products delivered to market. Honestly, almost anybody with a decent technical and business sense can be a Product Manager. However very few can become great Product Managers.