This article couldn't be more timely for me. I/we really need a product manager at my current firm. It's important to really detail out the need. So what does a product manager do, exactly, and why are these positions important within in a company? What job responsibilities do they have?
It's also important to understand where product managers fits in the IT spectrum. How does a product manager mesh with product support, and information services? What kind of training or background is helpful and, finally, what certifications are useful for a product manager to have?
What is a product manager?
To start with, a product manager is the person who identifies the customer need and the larger business objectives for your organization. They define what a product or feature will fulfill, articulate what success looks like for a product that has met that specification (or not), and rallies the organization to turn a vision into a reality.
In my many years of project management and product management, I have developed a deep understanding of, and appreciation for, what it means to be a product manager. Most of the confusion about what a product manager is likely stems from how recently we have begun to think of product manager as a distinct and independent job role.
Whereas practitioners of more established crafts, like design, engineering, and project management, have been able to segment themselves by specialization, many if not most product managers are still defining what the role should be. The definition of a product management often blurs at the edges as it morphs into a role that fits within a given organization.
Oftentimes, I have heard the product manager referred to as the CEO of a particular product or mentioned in the same sentence as the word evangelist. Like a traditional CEO, product managers set goals, define success, help motivate teams, and are responsible for outcomes. Specific responsibilities vary depending on the size of the organization.
In larger organizations, for instance, product managers are embedded within teams of specialists. Researchers, analysts, and marketers help gather input, while developers and designers manage the day-to-day execution, draw-up designs, test prototypes, and find bugs. These product managers have more help, but they also spend more time aligning stakeholders behind a specific vision.
On the flip side, product managers at smaller organizations spend less time getting everyone to agree, but more time doing the hands-on work that comes with defining a vision and seeing it through. They execute tasks that overlap with project managers and work very closely with UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) designers and developers.
To put a finer point on it, though, a good product manager will spend his or her time on a handful of tasks: understanding and representing user needs, monitoring the market and developing competitive analyses, defining a vision for a product, aligning stakeholders around the vision for the product, prioritizing product features and capabilities, and creating a shared brain across larger teams to empower independent decision making.
Master the nuances
There are sometimes subtle differences that separate project management from product management. Whereas the parameters of a project are highly configurable and flexible, a product is an item, tool, feature, or framework that is launched from with an organization into a marketplace — a product must therefore be both external and marketable.
Product management is shifting and growing rapidly with respect to AI and machine learning. As cutting-edge technologies evolve, team members' skill sets have to improve and a capable product manager has to keep up. but responsibilities can shift a bit when team makeups and practices shift.
For example, if a team isn't doing Scrum (suppose they're using kanban or something else), then the product manager might end up doing the prioritization for the development team, as well as play a larger role in making sure everyone is on the same page.
On the other hand, if the team is doing Scrum, but doesn't have a product manager, then the product owner often ends up taking on some of the product manager's responsibilities. Does the product manager know more about the product, or run more of the project? All of this can get really murky really quickly, which is why teams have to be careful to clearly define responsibilities.
Otherwise, they can risk falling into old methods of building software, where one group writes the requirements and throws it over the fence for another group to build. When this happens expectations get misaligned, time gets wasted, and teams run the risk of creating products or features that don't satisfy customer needs.
For a really good product manager — the kind of individual who hiring managers will treat like a one-in-a-million find — I believe a business background is helpful. This is one area where I think the responsibility for technical expertise related to the product should fall on a different team and not on the product manager.
The product manager should run the external communication and product as a whole, and that much better managed by someone who has a keen business sense. Many Product Managers have a bachelor-level degree in the industry that their product serves. Some also have MBAs or additional business and marketing training.
The role of a Product Manager provides an excellent training ground for moving onward and upward into roles like vice president, general manager, and CEO. And if you're lucky and choose carefully, then you get to work with some pretty talented engineering and development teams to create products that both delight customers and help achieve business objectives that propel your company to success.
For certifications, you will want to give special attention to PMI's Project Management Professional (PMP) credential. A product launch doesn't run much differently than a project, so understanding running a project will help you get the fundamentals down for a product.
As a Product Manager, oftentimes you don't have full responsibility or the authority to influence everything about the product, but you can certainly try. You might deliver the best product in the world, with every feature your customer wants, but for some reason the support, or the warranty, or the way the person buys the product doesn't work for them. The product will fail and your job along with it.
Just remember that it doesn't only matter how good the actual tangible product is — because the customer's experience is an important part of the whole product. Be a whole product champion. You're the only person in the company who can get that job done.