What is a Product
Before discussing what a product manager is, we need to discuss what a “product” is for this article.
A “product” is anything that you or your company are responsible for that is a user or customer touch point.
This is an intentionally broad definition because it is meant to cover traditional products, like a credit card or car to more granular digital assets such as a website or a part of a website (eg the checkout flow). It’s important to keep this definition of “product” in mind when we discuss product management because as the definition of a “product’ is extremely broad, so too is the definition of product manager. Someone who is a product manager at Chrysler is going to have much different responsibilities than someone who is a product manager at Google. The interesting piece here is that even though there are vastly different types of product managers, the high level definition and ultimate responsibilities remains the same.
What is a Product Manager
A product manager functions as the CEO of their product. We can see from the above definition of “product” that a product can be almost anything. This makes it hard to visualize what a product manager’s specific responsibilities might be and “what they do all day”. The common theme, though, is that every product manager, across any industry, is essentially the CEO of their product.
What do I mean by saying that a product manager is the CEO of their product?
I mean that the product manager is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the product, much like a CEO is responsible for the success of the company. A product manager needs to do anything necessary to ensure the successful performance and continued development of their product in the market.
This means a substantial amount of project management, like developing a timeline and managing funding constraints, but it also includes ensuring build of a product that does what customers want. A product manager needs to deeply understand the market and where their product fits in. It includes bringing in tons of stats such as usage data, market research, competitive analysis, etc. This is why it’s impossible for a product manager to do everything on their own, there needs to be others who also assist on various parts of the endeavor. But, even though the product manager may not be responsible for the work of collecting the data or creating a project plan, the product manager is accountable for both of these items (check out a RACI chart for more info on the difference).
The product manager skill set has been hard to define for years because there is no single set of skills. This is partly due to the many different types of products described in the first part of this article, but is also due to the very different types of organizational needs for those in this role. As a product manager I have often found myself taking on other roles when there are organizational gaps. Because I am a technical product manager (technical product management is outlined in the next section), this has generally been in the area of UX design, web development, web analytics, or marketing. Because there are always going to be gaps, either from team shifts or bandwidth constraints, a product manager should have solid experience in the groups they are primarily to engage with and always be ready to learn. Being flexible and ready to learn will foster communication and keep things moving even when there are challenges across groups. Your customer will not care if the team had organizational changes or someone leaves a team, and as the product manager you will still be accountable to the customer and market success of the product no matter what else is going on.
What is a Technical Product Manager
The technical product manager role has been exploding in recent years as more and more software companies expand and the product manager role becomes more commonplace. To quote Daniel Elizalde over at Mind the Product, “the term Technical Product Manager describes a person, not a role. Specifically, it describes a Product Manager who has a technical background and works on a technology product.” So the technical product manager is more geared towards those who will be working in the technical software development space.
Generally, the technical product manager will sit at the intersection of technology (web development), UX design, and the business. What this means is that in order for you to guide your product, whether it’s a new ecommerce platform or a new way to stream music you need to be able to speak the language of technology, understanding what is possible on the web and what is not. It may be helpful to be able to build these things themselves, but it generally not necessary, and great technical product managers come from direct coding and non-coding background. A technical product manager also needs to understand the business of the company, how it makes money and how to work within the budgetary constraints to get the most value out of the least cost.
This role that sits between the 3 critical areas of a software company has been widely successful, and in my experience products launch more successfully when there is a well defined and data-backed product vision driven by a product manager. It allows the developers to feel confident that they know exactly what to build and why. The UX team feels comfortable that the product will be usable and is targeted to customers who will use it. And the higher ups and finance group can be confident that the product makes fiscal sense to the company and will provide a good return on investment.
As companies get more data, and the market becomes increasingly fast paced and ever more complex, the demand for competent flexible technical product managers will continue to boom. The product manager role allows constant challenges and constant growth because a product is never done, never perfect. And that is what I love so much about it.