What exactly is the product manager role? It can seem a little nebulous if you don’t have the right information. And the role of a product manager can vary drastically depending on the type of product manager.
That’s why we’ve put together a comprehensive post on everything you need to know about the product manager role, including:
- Responsibilities of a product manager
- Different types of product managers
- Challenges of the product manager role
- Upsides of the product manager role
Let’s dig in!
- The product manager role is responsible for understanding what customer problems to solve and what success looks like for a product.
- A product manager’s responsibilities include evaluating ideas, setting product strategy, building and sharing product roadmaps, prioritizing features and documenting requirements, defining product releases, and analyzing and reporting on progress.
- The different types of product managers include the traditional product manager, the product owner, the growth product manager, the technical product manager, and the platform product manager.
- The challenges of the product manager role include engineering dependencies and delays, leading a team that doesn’t report to you, decision-making with incomplete information, and finding it hard to find time for independent work.
- The upsides of product management include the fact that every day is different, you get to work with technology, it sets you up to be an empathetic leader and you get to see customers use what you created.
What does a product manager do?
The product manager role intersects with many other roles, including evangelist, designer, expert, liaison, and many more. It’s the ultimate interdisciplinary role and is often considered “the glue” that holds a product development team together.
The product manager is responsible for understanding what customer problems to solve and defining what success for a product looks like. They must rally a team around a product’s vision and make sure the solution is viable from a business perspective.
Let’s take a closer look at the responsibilities of a product manager.
Product manager responsibilities
The product manager role is extremely diverse. It involves juggling strategic efforts, managing execution and dealing with conflicting needs from many stakeholders like end-users, engineers, sales, executives, and investors.
The product manager role can vary greatly, especially because of factors like:
- Company size and company culture
- Type of product (B2B, B2C)
- Adjacent roles (customer success, design, product marketing, etc.)
- Product leadership style
In general, these are the responsibilities of a product manager.
1. Evaluating ideas
The development of any product starts with ideas. And it’s the product manager who’s in charge of sourcing, curating, and scoping ideas that may deliver value to target customers.
A product manager needs to be curious enough to learn about different ideas but pragmatic enough to be able to identify the best ones. They monitor an organization’s ideas for a product or set of products.
It’s important for the product manager to create an effective feedback loop for incoming ideas from the organization. This feedback loop needs to be integrated into the product planning and development processes. The product manager must then communicate where every incoming idea sits in the product backlog or why it didn’t make it into the product backlog.
2. Setting a product strategy
At the heart of it, a product manager is responsible for defining a product’s vision and the strategy for achieving that vision.
This involves talking to customers to understand what they need on a deeper level, and then using that information to define what product areas to invest in.
The product strategy must be business-viable and in line with the organization’s business objectives. So, the product manager must also take the organization’s stakeholders’ needs and wants into consideration.
3. Building and sharing strategic roadmaps
Once the product vision and strategy are set, it’s time to build a product roadmap. The product roadmap is a plan of action describing how a product will achieve its vision. It aligns the organization on short-term and long-term goals for a product.
A product manager will typically create multiple versions of a product roadmap. For example, executives are more interested in seeing a high-level roadmap that focuses on key milestones and key outcomes. Meanwhile, for engineers and designers, a roadmap with more detailed goals and outcomes is needed.
It’s best to focus your product roadmap on outcomes over specific deliverables. The release plan is where you specify the exact deliverables and timelines.
4. Prioritizing features and documenting requirements
You’ve probably heard about the ruthless prioritization product managers have to do. When it comes to features, it’s critical for a product manager to carefully prioritize features based on the product roadmap’s strategic goals and initiatives. It’s difficult because you can’t predict the exact outcome a feature will have and need to make trade-off decisions with incomplete information.
Another significant responsibility of a product manager is documenting feature requirements for engineers and designers. This is best done in partnership with engineers and designers because you need their input for what the best approach is.
5. Defining product releases
A product manager is in charge of organizing scoped work into product releases. This is where the product roadmap is turned into a timeline with clear deliverables. It’s a necessary activity no matter what development methodology the engineering team uses.
When planning releases, the product manager must account for cross-functional dependencies and any delays in development. This often involves working with adjacent teams (marketing, sales, customer support) and bridging any gaps to make sure everything can be delivered in time.
6. Analyzing and reporting on progress
A product manager needs to be hyper-focused on the progress of their roadmap and the impact they’re making on the business.
This could include collecting data on user behavior or sentiment, looking at profit/loss data, or collecting qualitative feedback from customers and stakeholders.
Given how many functions a product manager’s work encompasses, it’s crucial for a product manager to constantly communicate progress within the organization. This is how they defend their product strategy and execution as well as continue to get buy-in for their product roadmap.
Now let’s dive into the most common types of product management roles that exist.
Types of product management roles
Depending on the company culture, type of product, and stage the product is in, the type of product management role will differ.
Here’s a breakdown of different product management roles and what their responsibilities are.
The number of product manager roles in the US increased by 32% from 2017 to 2019. It’s likely increased even more in the past two years due to the following trends:
- The SaaS industry has continued to grow
- Product-led growth is on the rise
- There are more and more product management courses available
So, what does a product manager do?
Ultimately a product manager decides on the future development of a product and its direction. This involves a mix of different activities like:
- Competitive market analysis
- Generate, evaluate and curate new ideas for the product
- Research and develop user personas
- Manage customer feedback
- Prioritize feature requests
- Collaborate with engineers and designers on the product’s development
- Develop product roadmaps
- Align multiple teams (engineering, design, marketing, sales, etc.)
- Communicate product strategy and product vision
- Manage stakeholders and keep them updated
It might sound a little overwhelming, but the fact there are so many different activities is what attracts most people to the product manager role. Every day is different for a product manager because they work with different people and different challenges.
Many product managers also love that they can own a product and steer the direction of its development. Seeing the fruits of their labor (happy customers, happy stakeholders, and a strong bottom line) is extremely rewarding.
Next up let’s learn about the product owner role which is slightly less strategic than the product manager role.
The key difference between the product manager role and the product owner role is what stage of the product development process they’re focused on.
The product manager is generally involved earlier in the process from a strategic perspective. They do the early user research into how the product should evolve, getting buy-in from stakeholders, and making sure the direction is business viable.
On the other hand, the product owner is more tactical and is involved in the product development process. Their role is to translate a product’s existing strategy and vision into clearly scoped work for the development team.
The product owner role is very much tied to Agile Scrum development and is responsible for creating user stories and epics to represent the work that needs to be done. The product owner spends their days managing the development team, removing impediments for them, and performing agile ceremonies (daily standups, backlog grooming, sprint retrospectives, etc.)
“Product Owner is a ROLE you play on a Scrum team. Product Manager is the JOB title.” — Melissa Perri, CEO of Produx Labs
A small organization typically doesn’t need both a product manager and a product owner. It’ll just have one of these roles. As an organization grows and product development becomes more complex, there may need to create both a product owner and product manager role to run things more efficiently.
In cases where there is a product owner and a product manager, the product owner is responsible for managing the development team while the product manager is in charge of liaising with users and stakeholders to determine the direction of the product.
We’ve now covered both the product manager and product owner roles. But what exactly is the difference between the two?
What are the differences between a Product Owner and a Product Manager?
A product manager is more strategic than a product owner in that they’re involved in the user research and planning that comes before execution. They define the vision for a product and develop a product roadmap into the future.
On the other hand, a product owner is in charge of the execution of the product roadmap a product manager has come up with.
The product owner is more specialized in this way and spends their days working directly with the development team. They’re specifically involved in the “execution & launch” and “monitor OKR” part of the product development process as seen in the diagram below.
You can read more about the differences between a product owner and product manager in our post: Product Manager vs. Product Owner — Why Do You Need Both?
Growth Product Manager role
A growth product manager is a data-driven decision-making role in an organization. It’s laser-focused on increasing revenue by tracking and achieving specific KPIs like activation, adoption, retention, revenue, and referrals. A growth product manager is different from a traditional product manager, who is responsible for developing the actual product itself.
The goal of a growth product manager is to find ways to take the product to the next level of scale, impact, and profitability. They do this by running experiments and closely monitoring KPIs to see what moves the needle. They’ll also work with cross-functional team members like engineers, designers, and data analysts.
The role of a growth product manager varies depending on the organization’s types of products and their maturity. But growth product managers’ responsibilities tend to be the following:
- Experiment with customer segmentation (e.g. demographics, behavior) to make sure the right segment is targeted with in-app experiences and the product marketing managers can reach the right audience.
- Use user experience journey mapping and A/B testing to optimize the user journey and unlock more growth.
- Improve customer acquisition by analyzing user engagement in the product.
- Optimize for the “Aha! moment” in product onboarding to improve how users engage with the product.
- Work with cross-functional teams to collect data that will help improve KPIs for the product.
You can read more about the growth product manager role in our post: What To Do In Your First 90 Days As A Product Growth Manager?
Technical Product Manager role
A technical product manager typically has a strong technical background and works directly with the technical aspects of a product. They work closely with the engineering team and less so with other business functions like sales, marketing, and customer support.
The technical product manager’s technical knowledge helps them have technical discussions around architecture, review technical specifications, and better assess the accuracy of engineering estimates. But they’re still focused on the customer and making sure all solutions for viable from a business perspective.
Technical product managers usually only exist with the organization is large enough to have specialized product manager roles.
You can read more about the technical skills of a product manager in our post: Top 5 Product Manager Technical Skills in 2021.
Platform Product Manager role
A platform product manager is in charge of managing multiple customer-facing products in a cohesive way for the organization. It’s one of the most challenging roles in product management.
They often have to be involved in the technical requirements of APIs and other platform components that link multiple products together. Knowledge of security and resilience is paramount to ensure users on the platform can swiftly and safely conduct their business.
A big challenge platform product managers face is having limited control over the user experience because they don’t decide on the features and experience for end-users. They merely work to connect different products together from a usability and security perspective.
Another challenge is constantly having to reconcile dependencies between different products, each of which has its own vision. A platform product manager must always focus on the long-term vision of how all products jive together.
Let’s take a look at the challenges a product manager faces across the board.
Challenges of the product manager role
The product manager role is an interdisciplinary role that touches many different activities, business functions, and projects. Here’s a list of challenges the product manager role faces.
Engineering dependencies and delays
Estimating engineering efforts is extremely difficult because there are a lot of unknowns and the devil is in the details. And the resulting effort greatly depends on which engineer is completing the work.
Many engineering tasks and activities are interrelated and the order in which they are executed matters greatly. One missed or delayed task can have negative consequences for a product’s release.
The challenge here is that much of what happens within engineering isn’t in the product manager’s direct control. So they have to closely monitor engineering’s progress and keep a close eye on subtle signals that suggest work might get off track.
Leading a team that doesn’t report to you
To make matters worse, the product manager has to lead a team of individuals who don’t directly report to them. A designer or an engineer is not obliged to listen to the product manager and often has their own conflicting agenda.
It’s a really tough position to be in because a product manager is responsible for the overall outcome of the product. But they don’t have direct control over the people whose work impacts the product.
A product manager must learn how to lead by influence and without authority. This means using your expertise and deep knowledge of the customer to persuade your team that your vision is the right one to pursue.
Decision-making with incomplete information
Sure, there are metrics and customer feedback, but a lot is unknown to the product manager: true market demand, how a feature will be adopted by users, how much revenue a product will make into the future, etc.
Waiting to have complete information is not an option because a product manager needs to bring a new product to market fast to be competitive. This means there’s a high chance of failure, which can be very taxing mentally.
The best product managers are ones who forge forward in the face of unknowns and know how to pivot quickly when they don’t get the results they want. They constantly question their riskiest assumptions and don’t dwell when they get things wrong.
Hard to find time for independent work
A product manager’s schedule is extremely busy. Given the number of people they need to coordinate with on the direction of the product, they tend to spend a lot of time in meetings. On top of that, they need to spend time with customers to understand what problems to solve and get feedback on the product.
This makes finding time to do independent work as a product manager very challenging. Yet having time to think about product strategy and the feedback they’re getting is crucial to being able to move forward.
Therefore, a product manager needs to be able to ruthlessly prioritize their work and guard their time for independent work and thinking. They need to know how to prioritize and focus on the long-term.
Now let’s dive into the many upsides of the product manager role.
Upsides of the Product Manager role
Every day is different
What most product managers like about their role is that every day is completely different. This is because of the broad range of activities they’re involved in.
Their schedule can be filled with customer interviews, analysis of customer feedback, quantitative analysis of user behavior, or meeting with important stakeholders and managing their expectations. Other days could be spent fixing a critical issue with the software while providing a workaround to customers.
There’s never a dull moment for a product manager and that’s what keeps many product managers motivated and on their toes.
You get to work with technology
Working with technology is a lot of fun especially because the rate of iteration is very high. It’s easy to ship new software and features, which makes for a tight feedback loop. Many product managers enjoy being able to make changes based on (almost) immediate feedback to their software product.
Many product managers find collaborating on software with engineers and designers extremely rewarding because the mixture of perspectives leads to some exciting innovations.
It sets you up to be an empathetic leader
We mentioned before that one of the challenges of being a product manager is having to lead a team of individuals who don’t directly report to you. Well, this is also a big benefit to being a product manager in the long run.
Learning how to lead through influence is invaluable for a leader because it forces you to understand what motivates people to do their best work.
Instead of giving people orders. Many product managers state that their experience as a product manager gave them to empathy and persuasive skills needed to be a respected leader.
You get to see what you created in the wild
A product manager not only gets to create something out of nothing but gets to see that creation being used by customers in the wild. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing people get value out of something you created with your team.
This isn’t always the case for engineers, although they’re the ones building the software. They often don’t have the chance to observe customers use the very product they created. However, product managers are directly involved in sourcing customer feedback for new creations and seeing the result of their work.
These are the main benefits of taking on the product manager role — it’s probably why it’s one of the most popular career paths these days.
You should now have a solid idea of what the product manager role really is. The interdisciplinary nature of the role makes every day different and interesting but it can be tough to juggle multiple responsibilities to stay on track.
What a product manager does varies greatly on the type of product manager they are but they all require a mix of hard and soft skills. One of the biggest challenges as a product manager is leading a team that doesn’t directly report to you. But learning how to lead by influence breeds spectacular empathetic leaders.
Still a relatively young profession, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on how it continues to develop over time.
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