Product manager is one of the hottest job titles of the current times. The job has existed in one form or another for a long time but started becoming more and more popular since the early 2000s.
Product managers exist across many different industries and hold well-paying positions. If you think it may be a good fit for you, read on to find out more about product manager roles and responsibilities, how to become a product manager, what skills are required for the job, and more.
What Does a Product Manager Do?
A product manager is a person who identifies the needs and objectives of a business or users for a product or feature and comes up with all the necessary steps that need to be taken to get from the idea to the final product successfully. This may be something as seemingly simple as redoing the search bar for a website or creating a mobile app from scratch.
A product manager identifies all the moving parts that are involved in a project like this from user research to design and software development. They make sure everyone on the team is delivering their end of the responsibilities promptly. They report to supervisors and get their feedback and change if things need to be changed. (and believe me when I say there is always a request for a change)
The most important skill required in the position is communication. The hardest part of being a product manager is that you are responsible for a product but do not have authority over the people you work with to execute that product. It is an intermediary role between management and the people working on the product like designers, engineers, researchers. This means you have to use your influence and social credit rather than authority to convince your peers.
Do You Need Technical Skills?
The type of product, who uses it, and the type of company will determine how technical a PM needs to be. That said, having a basic technical understanding of what is under the hood and mastery of the tools that PMs use is definitely important for the role, anywhere it is.
Some of the skills you may need include data analysis, market research, roadmap planning, and prioritization, UI/UX design, agile product development, A/B testing, and other technical knowledge based on the company or the specific product you are working on.
If you are an aspiring PM and are concerned that you lack the basic tech skills for the role, you might consider taking online courses. Many renowned universities offer them online for free.
Start-up vs Corporate
The role of the PM at a startup is far more likely to be responsible for “all the things,” whereas at a mature company their role will be more distinctly defined. For startups beyond discovery, definition, and shipping, PMs may also be responsible for pricing, marketing, support, and potentially even sales of the product. These PMs thrive in a scrappy environment and are comfortable with ambiguity and frequent changes to direction as the company works towards product-market fit and learns to operate at scale. Whereas for mature companies the PM may have a narrower scope and have coworkers who handle pricing, go-to-market strategies, and so on. And they are likely to be part of a larger team of product managers.
Different models of PM
- PM drives engineering: where PMs gather requirements, write the quintessential product requirements document, and hand it off to engineering to spec out the technical requirements. Contemporary organizations may do this process in a more agile and collaborative way, but the expectation is that PMs know best about what customers need and engineering is there to serve.
- Engineering drives products. More technically oriented product companies (cloud, big data, networking) tend to be engineering-driven, where engineers are advancing the science in their domain and PMs validate solutions or create front-end access points (UIs, APIs) to tap into this new technology. There can be a collaborative relationship and feedback loop between customers, PMs, and engineering, but typically PMs are serving engineering in these companies.
- The PM-engineering partnership. In these cases, there is a strong yin-yang between PM and engineering, with joint discovery, decision making, and shared accountability. Engineers join PMs in customer interviews, and PMs are in sprint meetings to help unblock tasks or clarify requirements. But the two roles respect the line where one starts and the other stops. PMs understand what’s being coded but don’t tell engineers how to code, and engineers have empathy for customers’ needs but leave the prioritization to the PMs.
Best Practices for a Product Manager
Talk to Users/Customers
You need to talk to people who are the target market. If you have a separate position in your company for someone who is responsible for doing user testing or customer interviews, that’s great. Work with that person or team. If not, you need to get started on this right away.
User testing is where you select a group of people who are in your target market and you ask them to test certain features or the product itself depending on how far along you are in the process. Then you ask them a series of questions to see what is working and what needs adjustment. Users are not expert PMs. So avoid questions like what works or what needs adjustment. You need better questions that will ultimately answer those queries about what works and what does not.
Some examples of questions may be about ease of use, whether they found something easily on the app you were testing. You can also use various tools like screen tracking to see how people navigate an app or a website with fresh eyes as someone who is seeing it for the first time.
Remember you and your colleagues have been looking at the same screens for weeks and sometimes months so it is important to get fresh eyes on the design and usability to decipher what is working.
Customer interviews are also important especially if you are working on a product that will be sold to specific customers then you need to understand their needs, requests, and assignment well to be able to deliver a successful end product. A good PM may know the dos and don’ts of a customer interview, but the best PMs can empathize with customers in that interview, are tuned into their body language and emotions, and can astutely suss out the pain points that the product or feature will address.
If you will do the user testing and the customer interviews make sure that you are not influencing the users or the customer with your thoughts and feelings about the product or a certain feature on it.
Prioritize and Build a Road Map
At any given time whether you are at a small startup or a major company, as a PM you are allocated limited resources and you have to decide what to pursue and what to eliminate or postpone in your plan. This is one of the hardest and most important parts of the job.
You need to prepare a roadmap for the product. This is a rough estimation of how and when you are building the product. The roadmap will help you keep everyone on track. If there is a roadblock you can adjust the timeline but in the end, you will be able to show what took long, what did not, etc. Every road-mapping will improve you as a PM for your future projects.
A good PM starts by asking questions. More often than not you might find yourself starting a job where others already started on a product and you are picking up from where another PM left off. So take the first couple of weeks or even months to talk to as many stakeholders as you can. You need to know how decisions are made, how the people making the product work, how you can work with them when you need to convince them to do something in the future. So it is essential that you spend a good amount of time always asking questions and listening to the involved parties.
A product manager is not technically a higher ranking person than those he or she works with. They are usually not the team lead. The main challenge, therefore, is to convince your peers in the engineering department or design, research, and other departments to do as you say. Gaining respect from your coworkers is the key. Listening is a great way to start gaining the respect of your peers. You can set up a one on one meeting with everyone you will be working with on this product. Understanding which levers to pull with which person is the key to leading without any direct authority.
Develop a Thick Skin
As a PM you will inevitably upset people and have some hard conversations with frustrated colleagues. You will need to continue having a good working relationship with everyone so you cannot afford to burn any bridges. A great PM I know once had to tell a group of overworked, underslept engineers that everything they were pushed hard to do for the past ten days was scrapped by managers and all of it was essentially for nothing. His way of cooling everyone down was to bring some fancy treats to the office. (This was a foodie group and everyone in the team loved discovering new restaurants, ordering from different places. It was part of the team building for them. So knowing this the PM was able to handle a crisis and not lose the credit he had built up with the team.) It is important to know the people you work with well so you can use different tactics for different people and teams in different situations as rewards or pressure mechanisms.
Come up with Success Metrics
Even though you are not a manager you are still responsible for the performance of a group of people. Something that can make your job a lot easier is defining success metrics. Even if you were to keep these metrics for your own use only and do not go over them with the team, these metrics can help you clarify what is not working and where do you need to make an adjustment, whose performance is lagging and who is putting an extra effort in
Communicate Urgency Without Panic
This one is really tricky to master but a great skill that will serve you well in life not just in a PM position. Sometimes things need to be done and they need to be done well and they need to be done right away. A good product manager needs to be able to convey this sense of urgency without stressing him or herself and the team out.
In the end,
product managers must understand customers’ emotions and concerns about their product as much as they understand the concerns of the sales team on how to sell that product, or the support team on how to support it, or the engineering team on how to build it. PMs have to have a deep understanding of how the organization operates and must build social capital to influence the success of their product, from obtaining budget and staffing to securing a top engineer to work on their product.