Most roles at technology companies are pretty easy to define. Software engineers write code. QA analysts test to ensure releases meet requirements. DBA’s set up and manage data schemas. Marketers market and sales reps sell. But ask the typical person to define the product manager role and they’ll struggle.
Perhaps they’ll say something like “they own the roadmap” or “they define the requirements”, which are certainly true, but that’s only a part of the product management role. Or, they’ll confuse it with project management, which can be a part of the role, but isn’t the primary function.
And, because the product management skills are not so clearly defined, almost everyone in a technology company, from CEO to field sales, believes they can define the product. While they’d never say “let me code that feature”, they all think it’s fair game to weigh in with “that button should be larger” or “we need a search by color feature”.
In reality, Product Managers own the full lifecycle of a product, from initial strategy through market adoption and ongoing enhancement.
image credit: Product Manager via OneDesk
By definition, the day-to-day responsibilities of a product manager will vary, depending upon where a product is in its lifecycle. But, regardless of where you are in that lifecycle, there are certain skills required to be a great product manager.
Evangelist: From the early moments of developing a product strategy, you need to get the rest of the organization behind your effort. Throughout the process, you need to communicate what you are doing and why it should be the priority for scarce dev resources to focus on. And when you approach product launch, you’ll need to rally sales and marketing, customer support and others to embrace it.
Listener: Product management is not done inside an office nor a garage. Product management is done in the field, understanding customer workflows, their challenges and their goals.
Business Process Analyst: The ability to fully understand business needs is perhaps the most critical b2b product management skill. A good product manager can explain, in simple terms, the exact customer need behind a feature request. Typically, this is done in the form of user stories. The key challenge is that customers will often try to explain what they want in the context of how they perform the task today (with your product or something else). So, they’ll say “we need a button here that loads the profile” when what they really need is to integrate data from two systems into a single view. The Product Manager’s role is to probe until they understand exactly what a customer really needs and what specific benefit that provides them.
Relationship builder: To successfully bring products to market, you need to build strong relationships with customers, with engineering, with QA, with UX, with sales, presales and training. Product management is about building mutual trust and respect with each of these groups, so you can constantly manage the balance and conflicts between their desires and the needs of the business.
Prioritizer: product management is about focus and prioritization. There will be constant trade-offs in terms of functionality, resources and timing. The product manager needs to be able to say no, or at least “not now” to feature requests from sales, marketing, customers and even the CEO.
Technical knowledge: while I’ve met a few product managers who come from a coding background, that’s not necessary for the job. But you do need to understand the technology stack and have a sense of what it takes to build something as well as understanding of how to scale to meet the needs of the business. If you don’t understand the technology, you’ll never earn the respect of the Engineering team nor will you be able to effectively translate user stories into technical requirements.
Being a great product manager requires all of these skills. You must be effective at cutting to the core of what customers need, while being incredibly focused, constantly reprioritizing and, most importantly, able to influence without authority.
And I wouldn't trade it for any other job I know.
(Part 2 of this post will explore the differences between being a product manager for a startup and for an established company)