What is a product manager

If you're reading this, chances are you're interesting in becoming a product manager. "What is a product manager" is the question I Googled a few years ago when I was first considering it. Understanding what a product manager does though is complicated, because it's a discipline, not a job. Talking about 'product management' is like talking about 'engineering' – it depends on the type of engineering, company, project, and many more factors.

Asking any single engineer what they do only describes that one person's job and doesn't show you the dozens of different types of engineering (mechanical, chemical, computer, etc.) and the hundreds of different jobs within each type (designing, planning, logistics, testing, etc.). Asking any one product manager would give you a similarly thin slice of what product management is. But there are common elements.

There were two descriptions of product management I found helpful when first learning about it.

1. "A product manager is the CEO of a product"

Like a CEO, they are ultimately responsible for the outcome, but on the product level rather than the company level. The buck stops with them so they need to do whatever it takes to achieve the goals.

These are the key aspects of a product manager's job. Note how similar they are to those of a CEO.

  • Understanding the competitive landscape

  • Understanding the customer/market

  • Defining the strategy

  • Team management (number of, and skills of people needed to build it, also maintaining team morale)

  • Defining success (what are the goals and how to measure them)

  • Process (how to break down and organize the work)

  • Marketing (how to position the product, and to which people)

  • Reporting (communicating progress)

2. "A product manager brings together all the groups in the company to achieve the company's' goals"

Every product requires multiple teams working together (design, engineering, business, marketing, etc.). The product manager understands what each team can do and coordinates them. Not only does this include making sure the work is being done (i.e. project management), but also making sure the planned approach is within the team's capabilities. You can imagine how different a product manager's job is in a small startup compared to a large corp.

These two descriptions helped me understand product management at a high-level when I was starting out, but they leave the big question of what does a product manager _actually do_, like day-to-day. I'm not going to answer this here because it's so specific to the company and product that I could only provide a narrow slice based on my experiences (building consumer-focused products in a startup to medium-sized company). I'll leave it to you to research the specific area you're considering.

If you're considering something in consumer products, the rest of this blog will be very useful to you.

Becoming a PMMark Rabo