What is a Product Manager?!

  • By Christian Payne
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Product management

I have recruited Product Managers for around 3 years now, and the role of ‘Product Manager’ in a digital development sense has been around for some 10 years or so (depending on who you ask). As I recruit for these new breeds of managers, it is my daily role to screen candidates’ experiences, and make the call on whether they are suited. Through my own research and curiosity, I have felt compelled to share my insight into ‘What is a Product Manager?´

So, let’s start with the definition. There are many variants of definitions out there on the web, and I will give my version. “A Product Manager is wholly responsible for a specific product. This person owns the product life, from concept, to launch, to ongoing ‘shelf-life’ and iterations. It is managing the Product, and everything associated with it.”

That was my version, which I deliberately wrote without reference checking, or being influenced by other sources. So, then I researched, spoke to experts, and come with the following more defined version. Here is what Wikipedia defines it as: 

“A Product Manager owns the business strategy behind a product (both physical and digital products), specifically its functional requirements, and generally manage the launch of features”. 

Then having spoken with some experts, they tell me that “The Product Manager can in fact be responsible for several products, and not just a single one. A Product Manager owns the why. He or she is responsible for the outcome of the product.” I think this embodies it well.  

As you can see, we can summarise with owning the strategy of a product or products, developing the product, launch of the product, and continual support of the product, and responsible for the outcome of the product. 

The role of a Product Manager is expanding due to the growing importance of data in decision making, an increased customer and design focus, and the evolution of software-development methodologies.

Product Managers are the glue that bind the many functions that touch a product – engineering, design, customer success, sales, marketing, operations, finance, legal and more. They not only own the decisions about what gets built, but also influence every aspect of how it gets built and launched.

3 common profile types of a Product Manager

Now we have identified ‘what is a Product Manager’, I have also become aware of the different types of Product Manager that exist. My first observations from recruiting, is that I am often interviewing a Technical Product Manager, or a Business-orientated Product Manager. The 3rd profile is a hybrid of these, a Technical and Business focused Product Manager, or otherwise referred to as a Generalist. So, we have: 

  1. Technologist Product Manager
  2. Generalist Product Manager
  3. Business-orientated Product Manager

Naturally, different profile types suit different companies/positions. The Technologist will typically be best suited to a PM role with technical complexity, the Product itself could be backend, or highly complex B2B products. A Generalist may be better suited to Frontend for B2B, or B2C Products. Finally, the Business-orientated profile could be more suited to B2C Products, with focus on maximising business metrics. 

What does the job entail? 

A Product Manager’s role will vary depending on a variety factors (company, industry, size of company etc.) However, there is a common core which is consistent, call it the 80% if you will. Most product professionals spend most of the time focused on the following: 

  • Market Research – Conducting the research on the companies’ market, the audience/users, and the competitors.
  • Developing the Strategy – From collating the research, it’s then about putting a high-level strategic plan in place for their product, with clear objectives and goals. This also encompasses the strategy of pricing and packaging, and prioritisation.
  • Communicating the Plans – Develop a working strategic plan using a product roadmap and presenting this to key stakeholders across the organisation. This communication is obviously ongoing, across cross-functional teams throughout the development process and beyond.
  • Coordinating Development – Once we move into the development stage, the Product Manager coordinates the development with the relevant teams – Product Marketing, Development, Stakeholders etc. A big part of coordinating development is also coordinating the launch. A launch will not be impactful unless the PM has coordinated the release between departments. 
  • Acting on Feedback – Finally, after building, testing, and launching the product to the market, then it is the stage of listening to feedback. What works, what does not work, what should be added or removed. The Product Manager collates this feedback and coordinates with the relevant teams and uses this feedback for future iterations of the Product.

Mindset of a Product Manager

This is an interesting term that I heard numerous occasions when speaking with hiring managers that are looking to hire a Product Manager – ‘what is their mindset’? I was asked to add this to my screening criteria. Naturally I asked what this meant, and I needed to understand why this was so relevant to the profile. 

So simply put, mindset is how someone thinks, it’s the thought process. You can go a step further, and say it is the way you challenge a notion, the inner curiosity. Curiosity in the context of Product Management, would be a need to gather all information, to challenge things, to understand the problems, and the desire to solve them. You could also call this a learning mindset, a testing mindset, or curiosity mindset. 

With these mindset traits, you have a core fundamental ability to succeed as a Product Manager. Skills, experience, technical/subject knowledge are of-course very important and completes the package, but mindset is said to be core to it all. 

There is a lot more reading out there on mindsets, such as the breakdown of mindset types (Explorer, Scientist and Driver), but for now we just cover the over-arching topic of ‘What is a Product Manager’. 

So how does one become a Product Manager? 

As I mentioned, the role of a Product Manager is a relatively new one, at least from an official job title perspective. The evolution from waterfall to agile has contributed to this change in role types to accommodate new ways of working, the ever-changing needs.  

Product Managers come from a variety of different backgrounds, and not necessarily the same discipline. I would start with saying that those coming from an Agile environment, with the agile mindset, will make this transition far smoother than one coming without this. This is due to the mindset and way of working, the way a team works together, the whole dynamic in an agile environment. Essentially one who is used to working in Agile will be used to continuous change. I am also predominantly speaking in terms of a software development environment, which Agile is most known for, but this can also be true for other areas such as Marketing or Finance. 

Training vs. Transit

Product Managers can indeed be trained from other backgrounds, and some professions are more ‘seamless’ than others. From my experience, I have often seen Business Analysts and Project Managers make this transition. This is in fact what gave me the idea to write this article, it was the conversations with current Project Managers on how they could transition to the role of Product. 

So, what is it that would make a Business Analyst or Project Manager a good fit for Product Management? Well, both cover facets of the overall Product Manager, where Project Managers have the toolset to solve a problem, manage the time and resources, and to budget. A Business Analyst has the other angle, coming in from what the needs are, the interaction with business and IT/SMEs, to understand problems and needs, and to solve them. 

There are many ways to become a Product Manager, personal skillsets contributing more so than what background you come from. It stems from being able to answer: 

  1. Do you really understand the product? 
  2. Do you know how to speak to customers and conduct customer interviews?
  3. Do you know how to communicate your vision for the product and how to prioritise it?

A route into Product Management, starting with University

Fresh graduates will not go straight into a Product Management role, there needs to be several years of commercial experience to get the toolbox required in order to succeed. However, let’s look at what starting points a graduate could have as a good foundation into Product. These graduates could have come from any discipline. Again, we go-back to the mindset approach. Curious thinkers, those that challenge, those that love to solve problems, those that are customer centric and can think of user experience improvements, this is the DNA of a Product Manager.

Thus, there could be some courses more relevant than others, such as business, or technical, or an MBA could be good foundations. UX is, of course, a great foundation too. Interestingly, more and more universities are now introducing Product Management into the syllabus, and there is even an online MSc in Product Management from the University of Salford (UK). This all said, it is more likely that to get into Product Management, it would be beneficial to get some years’ experience in the foundations, such as UX design/UX research, Innovation Design or Business Analysis, post-University.

Summary

In summary, there are many definitions of a Product Manager, and their role, and this can also be said for other roles really. It really depends on the company’s definition, the size of the company, and how varied or specific their mandate is. I have best summarised what I have observed in terms of what a Product Manager is, what they do, and the importance of mindset. 

I often ask this question in interview with Product Managers – “What do you feel are the qualities of a good Product Manager?”, and I get a very interesting range of answers. Here, I summarise:

My Top 10 qualities of a good Product Manager: 

  1. Business Acumen
  2. Customer focused
  3. Good communication skills
  4. Data Driven
  5. The Ability to Prioritise and make GO or NO-GO decisions
  6. Coordination skills
  7. Leadership skills, with ability to delegate
  8. Strategic Thinking
  9. Visionary
  10. Can simplify complex problems

These 10 traits form a good amalgamation of a Product Manager. Then I would like to add the importance of the right mindset. Finally, let’s add the passion, the technical or industry knowledge, and you have a close definition of a PM. 

I hope this has given you some insight into what a Product Manager is. Of course, this is my take on it, seen from a digital recruiter’s perspective. I am fortunate to be in the position of working with different companies, hiring for Product Managers with different attributes and backgrounds. I have drawn upon my experiences and reached out to my network to put together this high-level article. Finally – If you are a Product Manager looking for your next career opportunity, or you are a hiring manager looking to hire a Product Manager, do please get into contact with me. I would be delighted in helping you. My email is christian@paynesearch.com