There has never been more interest in becoming a product manager. There has also never been so many strong and helpful voices that can help these aspiring product managers (at the end of this article I’ll share several of my favorites).
- Product Manager Salary
- Who Is The Product Manager Stakeholders
- The Product Manager's Handbook
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Product Manager Salary
However, there has also never been so much noise and nonsense written about product management.
The original product managers, and indeed the majority of product managers in FMCG today, were very much a part of the Marketing function. They focused on the process of understanding the customers’ needs and finding a way to fulfill those needs using the classic marketing mix – the right Product, in the right Place, at the right Price. Product management is an interdisciplinary role that reaches across teams to plan, design, and continuously bring better products to market. The role evolved out of a set of responsibilities that traditionally fell to lead developers and engineers: scoping out user problems and making critical product decisions. Data product managers understand this and incorporate it into their products. Working with data at the core of a product requires a level of understanding of data modeling, data infrastructure. A product manager may be responsible for all or only certain of these tasks. PRODUCT MANAGER JOB DESCRIPTION. General Purpose. Responsible for managing the product throughout the product life cycle from planning to execution in support of organizational strategy and objectives. Main Job Tasks, Duties and Responsibilities. Research and Analysis.
Imagine being an aspiring product manager, new to the industry, but unfortunately without a capable manager or coach to guide you, and you see literally thousands of articles, podcasts, videos and classes on the topic.
But you have to jump in somewhere, and it’s very likely that soon you are completely confused and frustrated by the conflicting and contradictory messages.
I spend far too much time trying to get people to unlearn what they think they know about product management, so that they can have a chance to learn how strong product managers do their job.
I’m not sure this is a solvable problem as it’s really a consequence of both the good and the bad of the Internet.
However, for those aspiring product managers that manage to find their way to my writing, I do want to try to give these people a reasonable foundation, so that they can get started in (what I consider at least) the right direction.
What follows is a specific set of topics, in an intentional order, linking to a curated set of articles. Deezer paris office.
How should I think about the product manager job?
The article Behind Every Great Product describes the stories of six product managers that were behind six iconic products, and the hope is that you can start to get a sense of the traits and characteristics of strong product managers.
Where do great products come from?
Great products solve real problems for our users and customers, in ways that our customers love, yet work for our business. They are enabled by new technologies that make these solutions just now possible. Learn the backstory behind several successful and innovative products in Customer Inspired; Technology Enabled.
What really is a product?
This question sounds easy but there are many layers to this. Everything starts by understanding the role of the customer, the technology, and your business. Please read What Is a Product?
What do I need to worry about to ensure a successful product?
There are four big risks in every technology product effort. You need to understand and be concerned with all four, but two of them are the explicit responsibility of the product manager.
I’m confused. None of this is anything like what was described in my Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) class.
If your engineers are using Agile methods for delivery, then there’s an important administrative role called the product owner, and the product manager needs to cover these responsibilities.
The key is to understand that the product owner responsibilities are just a very small subset of the product manager responsibilities. And now you may be starting to understand why there are so many ineffective product managers.
Who Is The Product Manager Stakeholders
So what specifically am I responsible for?
As product manager, you’re responsible for ensuring that what gets built is both valuable and viable. And to be clear, this is what makes the job hard. You’ll have no chance unless you do your homework and prepare. You can learn the product manager contribution here.
My manager thinks that it’s not my job to worry about value and viability. He says the stakeholders and the executives decide what we’ll build, and we are there to “serve the business” by designing and building the features they need. What am I missing?
Unfortunately, it sounds like you may have ended up in a company that hasn’t yet transformed to true, empowered product teams, and you’re still working with feature teams or worse, delivery teams.
If your company is using a process like SAFe, and you want to be a true product manager, I’m sorry to say this but you’ll likely have to move to a company that knows the difference and why it matters.
If your company is using feature teams, then it’s worth trying to help the company transform. You should read carefully the differences between these three types of teams.
You may have the product manager title, but if you’re spending most of your day doing project management, it’s very likely you’re on a feature team or delivery team.
The Product Manager's Handbook
However, assuming you are working in a modern tech-powered product company, and you’ve been asked to serve in the role of product manager on a true empowered product team, we can get into the heart of the role.
What is product discovery and why is it important?
If you’re on a feature team and you’re given a roadmap of features to build, then there’s really no need or room for product discovery. There’s a little design, and then it’s all about coding.
However, if you’re on an empowered product team, then rather than being given features to build, you’ve been given problems to solve, and product discovery is how we discover a solution that works – a solution that’s valuable, usable, feasible and viable.
There are many techniques you’ll need to learn to understand how product managers collaborate with designers and engineers to discover a solution worth building, but for now, it’s important to understand that feature teams deliver output, but product teams deliver outcomes. And yes, outcomes are much harder.
What about wireframes, prototyping and user research?
These are all important, but they are the responsibility of your product designer, not you.
There are two reasons for this. First, while learning to use the tools of design is easy, learning to be a good designer is anything but easy. Second, if you spend your time doing the designer role, then who is going to do the product management role? They are both full-time jobs when done with competence.
If it seems to you that there’s significant overlap between the two roles (a very common confusion), then you probably either don’t yet understand what a professional product designer does, or you don’t yet understand what a true product manager does, or both.
How do I get up to speed for this job, or as you say, “do my homework?”
Start by doing a skills and knowledge self-assessment (or better yet, get your manager to help you with this). The idea of this assessment is to quickly identify your weaknesses – if you think you don’t have any, you should probably think again, because people aren’t born with these skills.
Once you know the areas you need to develop, you can create a plan for yourself (or again, better to get your manager to help you).
To set your expectations, it usually takes about three months of real work for a new product manager to get to a basic level of competence. And that’s if you have a strong foundation and an experienced manager coaching you at least weekly.
What’s the most important thing for me to understand if I want my product team to be great?
First, you absolutely need to do your homework as I described above. Your team is depending on you. Beyond that, develop a true understanding and appreciation for the role of design and especially the role of engineering in technology-powered products.
I’m in. How can I learn more?
I am biased of course, but I wrote a book for this purpose, called INSPIRED: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love which is all about how strong product teams solve hard problems. And if your manager doesn’t have the time or experience to coach you, I’d strongly suggest some serious training.
Surely there must be other important voices that I can learn from?
Absolutely there are, and I’ll share some of my favorites below. But I have no desire to serve as some sort of gatekeeper to good content. I want you to be able to determine for yourself whether a given author has something to say that can help you or not.
In my experience, if you can develop a solid foundation of the principles of strong product management, then you’ll usually be able to determine fairly quickly the potential value of a given piece of content.
With those caveats, these are some of my favorite thinkers about product, and I’ve benefited from each of their writings:
- Teresa Torres
- Holly Hester Reilly
- Melisa Perri
- Felipe Castro
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There are others as well, including some very smart people I know that are working on publishing their thoughts for the first time, so this list will grow.
I hope this series of articles have helped you make sense of the product management role on an empowered product team, and I encourage you to continue learning and developing.
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Because I teach a course on product management at Harvard Business School, I am routinely asked “What is the role of a product manager?” The role of product manager (PM) is often referred to as the “CEO of the product.” I disagree because, as Martin Eriksson points out, “Product managers simply don’t have any direct authority over most of the things needed to make their products successful — from user and data research through design and development to marketing, sales, and support.” PMs are not the CEO of product, and their roles vary widely depending on a number of factors. So, what should you consider if you’re thinking of pursuing a PM role?
Aspiring PMs should consider three primary factors when evaluating a role: core competencies, emotional intelligence(EQ), and company fit. The best PMs I have worked with have mastered the core competencies, have a high EQ, and work for the right company for them. Beyond shipping new features on a regular cadence and keeping the peace between engineering and the design team, the best PMs create products with strong user adoption that have exponential revenue growth and perhaps even disrupt an industry.
There are core competencies that every PM must have — many of which can start in the classroom — but most are developed with experience, good role models, and mentoring. Some examples of these competencies include:
- conducting customer interviews and user testing
- running design sprints
- feature prioritization and road map planning
- the art of resource allocation (it is not a science!)
- performing market assessments
- translating business-to-technical requirements, and vice versa
- pricing and revenue modeling
- defining and tracking success metrics
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These core competencies are the baseline for any PM, and the best PMs hone these skills over years of defining, shipping, and iterating on products. These PMs excel at reflecting on where each of these competencies have contributed to the success or failure of their products and continuously adjusting their approach based on customer feedback.
A good PM may know the dos and don’ts of a customer interview, but the best PMs have the ability to 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. A PM with a high EQ has strong relationships within their organization and a keen sense of how to navigate both internal and external hurdles to ship a great product. Here’s a deeper look at how the four key traits of EQ, as defined by Daniel Goleman, relate to the PM role:
Relationship management. Probably one of the most important characteristics of a great PM is their relationship management skills. By forming authentic and trustworthy connections with both internal and external stakeholders, the best PMs inspire people and help them reach their full potential. Relationship management is also vital in successful negotiation, resolving conflicts, and working with others toward a shared goal, which is especially challenging when a PM is tasked with balancing the needs of customers, resource-constrained engineering teams, and the company’s revenue goals. Authentic and trusting relationships within an organization can lead to more support when additional funding is needed for a product or when an engineer must be swayed to include a quick bug fix in the next sprint. Outside an organization, these skills could encourage existing customers to beta test a new feature for early feedback or to convince a target customer to try the MVP of a product still in stealth mode. These relationship skills can also be what makes the difference between having irate customers because of a bug introduced into the product and those who say, “No worries, we know you’ll fix this!”
Self-awareness. PMs must be self-aware so as to remain objective and avoid projecting their own preferences onto users of their products. If a PM is in love with a feature because it addresses their own pain points — PMs are often super-users of the products for which they are responsible — they may cause a user to say they love it too, just to please the PM (“false positive feature validation”). If not self-aware, a PM may push to prioritize a feature they conceived even when all the customer interviews and evidence are stacked against it. This lack of self-awareness could derail more important priorities or damage the PM’s relationship with engineers, who may lose confidence in their PM when the feature isn’t readily adopted by users.
Self-management. Being a PM can be incredibly stressful. The CEO wants one thing, the engineering team another, and customers have their own opinions about feature priorities. Managing tight deadlines, revenue targets, market demands, prioritization conflicts, and resource constraints all at once is not for the faint of heart. If a PM cannot maintain their emotions and keep it cool under pressure, they can quickly lose the confidence of all their constituents. The best PMs know how to push hard on the right priorities, with urgency but without conveying a sense of panic or stress. These PMs also know when to take a breath and step away to regroup.
Social awareness. According to Goleman, the competencies associated with being socially aware are empathy, organizational awareness, and service. PMs 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. Finally, social awareness ensures the best PMs service their customers with a product that addresses their jobs to be done, which is ultimately what drives product-market fit.
(Read more about what Paul Jackson has to say about EQ and PMs here. And here’s an interview with Sam Lessin, former VP of product management at Facebook, who says he has “never successfully trained empathy.”)
If the best PMs have well-developed core competencies and a high EQ, does that mean they are destined for success no matter where they work? Not necessarily. In fact, taking these skills and personality traits and applying them to the right company is what will ultimately guarantee success.
I have yet to see a standard job description for a product manager, because each role is ultimately defined by the size, type of product, stage, industry, and even culture of the company. If you possess the core competencies and high EQ needed to be a successful PM, the next step is to unpack who’s hiring and what they are truly looking for.
Here are a few of the key areas in which companies differ in what they want from a PM:
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Technical skill. The type of product, who uses it, and the type of company will determine how technical a PM needs to be. For example, Google requires PMs to pass a technical skills test regardless of what product they’ll work on. If the company is building a SaaS CRM, there may be more requirements around experience with go-to-market and customer lifecycles than around how the product is built. By contrast, if it’s a data science product with machine learning algorithms and APIs, the role may require a lot more technical depth to not only understand how to build the product but also how to talk credibly with the customers who will use it. 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. Colin Lernell has more to say about these necessary skills here. 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 such as the renowned Introduction to Computer Science (CS50) course offered by Harvard University or one of the many intro and advanced technology courses offered by The Flatiron School.
Company philosophy about PM. Every company has a different philosophy about the product development process and where PMs fit into that process. Below are the three most common types, with pros and cons:
- PM drives engineering.This is a “throw it over the wall” approach, 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.
- Pro: Engineering can focus on coding without a lot of distraction; this tends to work well for Waterfall development shops with long lifecycles.
- Con: Engineers lose sight of the big picture and do not develop empathy for customers, which can lead to a poor user experience. Often there are unhealthy tensions when technical debt and “plumbing” work needs to be prioritized over customer requirements.
- Engineering drives product.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.
- Pro: Breakthrough technology can offer customers things they didn’t even know they needed. VMotion at VMware was a great example of this. An engineer thought it would be cool to do, a PM figured out how to monetize it, and it became a billion-dollar game changer for the company.
- Con: Engineers chase the shiny new thing, over-architect the solution, or iterate forever, seeking perfection before getting customer feedback. PM input on priorities is ignored, which sometimes includes the most basic needs of customers.
- 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.
- Pro: A streamlined prioritization process that values technical debt and plumbing projects; better design processes leading to a more positive user experience; higher-performing teams with improved product velocity, quality, and, typically, happier customers.
- Con: Breakthrough innovation may not get greenlit; time-to-market may seem to lag (though I’d argue that what’s released is far better aligned with customer needs and more likely to successfully scale).
I’m clearly biased in favor of the third type of philosophy about PM (as is venture capitalist Fred Wilson), as I’ve experienced all three and found the yin-yang to be most effective. But that’s not to say the others are notably bad — it really depends on what type of product you’re building, the company stage, and more. Regardless, when considering a PM role, the philosophy of PM at the company could be the deciding factor on fit for the role.
Stage of company. 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. (Banfield, Eriksson, and Walkingshaw’s book Product Leadership has a section that has a lot more detail on this topic.)
- Startup. 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.
- Pro: PMs are likely to be more involved with company strategy, get exposure to senior leadership and the board, are able to take more risks and make a bigger impact. They also have more influence and authority over company resources.
- Con: There’s typically little to no mentorship, role models, or best practices within the company. (You may have to seek it externally.) Budgets are typically tight, and PMs may not have the requisite experience to succeed at some of the things they’re tasked to do.
- Mature company. 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.
- Pro: PMs are more likely to have mentoring and role models, as well as development standards and best practices. Close association with an engineering team can create strong relationships over time, which is great for long-term impact and career growth. And if the product has market fit, there is an established customer base and performance baseline to work from, versus guessing until you get it right.
- Con: PMs have less exposure to company strategy and are just one of many voices of the customer. They can get “lost” in the system and have to deal with more politics and tight budgets.
Founder/CTO/CEO relationship with PM. Especially in earlier-stage companies, it’s important to know how involved the founder/CEO/CTO is in the product process. If they are deeply involved, the PM role may play more of a support role, to flesh out their ideas or validate concepts with customers, versus conceiving and driving ideas of their own. This can be great fun for some PMs who enjoy partnering with founders and C-level executives and collaborating on the product evolution. But for other PMs, it can be very frustrating if they prefer to take more ownership of the product direction. It can also be challenging if the more technical founders or C-levels prefer working directly with engineers. This can leave PMs out of the loop or undermined (sometimes unintentionally), causing not just personal frustrations but delays. When considering a PM role that may work closely with the founding leadership team, be sure to find out their expectations of the PM function and decide whether this is the right fit with your interests.
There are, of course, many other factors to consider for any role, such as the type of product you are building (B2B, B2C, industry), the people with whom you’ll work, the overall company culture (diverse, inclusive, flexible work hours, remote culture), and, of course, the compensation and benefits. There are also lots of articles on hiring product managers to get perspective on what the hiring managers are looking for — I especially recommend my friend Ken Norton’s piece “How to Hire a Product Manager.” However, if you are striving to be a great product manager, consider all of the above before signing on to your next gig. Developing core competencies will be an ongoing activity throughout your career, and leveraging EQ will ensure a more positive experience. But where you work, how they work, and who you work with and for will ultimately determine your long-term success.