My team has been overseeing product managers in technology for years. The truth is product management is nothing new. It has been around for many decades.
However, it was only recently that it earned its identity as a formal discipline. Even today, there is no global consensus on a single definition of a product manager.
More often than not, people tend to confuse product management with product marketing and project management.
Instead of focusing on just one aspect, product managers focus on the complete (end-to-end) product development by collaborating with multiple teams towards a common goal.
If you’re interested in pursuing a career in product management, but are unclear on what it would entail – keep reading. I’ll take you through all of the roles a product manager plays, along with the typical responsibilities that come with those roles.
Who is a Product Manager and What Do They Do?
A frustrating thing about product management is how vague the job description is.
Each company describes the overall role differently, and the responsibilities vary.
To keep things as simple as possible and without resorting to business jargon (for now), here’s a brief definition:
A product manager is an individual who’s responsible for generating new ideas for possible solutions by understanding what the customers want, and turning those ideas into real products by working with a team.
To elaborate, a product manager is a key business professional – most commonly required by tech companies – who oversees the development of new products (from ideation to rollout).
They’re responsible for studying potential gaps in the market and determining how to capitalize on those opportunities. They work with different teams, including engineering, design, sales, marketing, etc. to ensure that they attain the product vision.
According to Martin Eriksson, a renowned author and product leader, being a product manager boils down to three areas:
- Business know-how
- User Experience
This Venn diagram does a good job at explaining where a PM should stand:
(via Martin Eriksson)
Of course, having a technical background isn’t a prerequisite (though it is preferred in certain companies).
However, a product manager should, at the very least, be passionate about the above 3 areas, while specializing in any 1 of them.
A strong business acumen, backed by a good knowledge of what the end-users want and the possible ways to go about it, are the traits of a great product manager.
Who is NOT Considered a Product Manager?
As mentioned earlier, product managers are often mistaken for other business professionals.
Here are some roles that are not the same as product management:
- Product Owners – they have more decision-making powers and essentially “own” the product. These can be CEOs or founders. In some cases, the product managers are also the product owners.
- Product Marketing Manager – they’re responsible for creating and executing the marketing/promotion strategies of new products.
- Project Manager – these usually oversee the procurement and allocation of resources, and may work under product managers.
As you can see, the above roles have certain similarities with product management. In a few areas, they even overlap.
In fact, in some organizations, they may be used interchangeably with product managers.
What Roles Do Product Managers Play?
No matter how much I elaborate, I can’t solidify the job description of a product manager without discussing the individual roles and responsibilities.
A typical product manager has to wear many hats.
As a PM, your roles can be broken down into the following 3 areas (along with the responsibilities that come with each role):
Role #1: Market Researcher
First and foremost, a product manager needs to play the role of a market researcher.
As someone who’s mainly responsible for studying the market and understanding consumer needs, you’re going to spend a great part of your career gathering data.
What exactly does that entail?
Here are the things that a typical PM is responsible for, as far as the research side of things are concerned:
Conducting Market Research
This is a no-brainer.
As a PM, one of your major responsibilities is to study the market. This would involve taking surveys, interviewing people, monitoring the industry, and (possibly) even conducting experiments.
Taking leaps is nice, but if you want to create a great product, you must study the market to pin-point what people need.
Obviously, this requires having an ample knowledge of market research tactics and data processing techniques.
Companies also expect PMs to leverage data analytics and visualization tools to make everything possible.
Understanding the Pain Points of the Market & Identifying Gaps
Product managers aren’t just responsible for mere data collection.
They’re also responsible for understanding the data, and identifying the exact pain points of the market.
As I mentioned earlier, product managers are responsible for finding out the gaps in the markets. This can be an area – a need – which no one has addressed or is currently working on properly.
The PM then, using that information, comes up with new ideas to fulfill those customer needs (more on that later).
Looking for Room for Improvement
Product management isn’t only about creating a new product, launching it, and being done with it.
In fact, it usually requires consistently monitoring the progress of the products you create.
By gauging where their solutions stand in the product lifecycle, PMs also look for new ways to keep them relevant.
In addition, they leverage the customer feedback to keep improving their products.
Considering that, it’s safe to conclude that a product manager’s work is never really finished.
Role #2: Strategist
The second key role that a typical product manager plays is that of a strategist.
This particular role comes with a broad range of responsibilities – all concerned with creating and executing the actual product strategy.
In simple words, a product strategy is the complete roadmap of a product, which includes all of the phases, from coming up with an idea for a product, to specifying where you want your product to end up.
A few other things involve prioritizing tasks and figuring out the best way to achieve broader business goals.
This usually includes the following responsibilities (remember – these may vary from organization to organization):
Brainstorming New Ideas for Great Products
By using the data collected from market research, the PM brainstorms potential ideas with their teams.
Do note that this could also be the other way around. As in, a PM, together with their team, could come up with new ideas and conduct research to find out if it would resonate with the target market and add to the business value.
Regardless, coming up with fresh ideas for new products – that could potentially deliver great customer experiences – is expected of PMs.
Specifying Whom You’re Selling to (the Target Audience)
Specifying the target audience is a critical part of creating product strategies.
Depending on what you’re selling, this may or may not be an iterative process. In any case, it’s an important component of the overall product strategy.
Sharing this information with the rest of the team can provide clarity on the product vision and help them focus on the right areas while developing the solution.
Determining the Value
In addition to coming up with the core ideas, PMs are also responsible for coming up with the overall value to deliver.
In simple words, this responsibility includes determining and delivering the actual solutions for the problems that you’re going to solve.
This mainly involves conceptualizing and/or even designing the new features (if you’re a technical product manager).
A PM doesn’t usually handle the actual engineering and designing aspects themselves. However, they do have a say in the entire process, and closely monitor the progress to ensure that the actual product features meet the requirements.
This depends on the specific organization’s policies/attitude towards cross-functional teams.
Coming Up with the Pricing Model
A product manager might also be responsible for identifying a suitable pricing strategy for the product.
What problems does it solve? Are there any alternatives? Would people be willing to pay this price? How much are the competitors charging (if any)?
Those are just some of the very few questions that a PM has to ask.
As you’d expect, this involves factoring a lot of things.
First and foremost, you’d need to consider the perceived value of the product that you’re offering.
Secondly, you’re going to need to consider your target market – the geographical region you’re targeting, affordability, etc.
Thirdly, you’ll need to consider the industry and the competitors. Product managers need to ensure that they’re not overcharging (or charging too little, for that matter).
To do all of that, a PM may need to collaborate with the finance and marketing managers.
Coming Up with a Distribution Strategy
Last, but not least, a PM’s role as a strategist also involves determining how they want to sell their products.
This would completely depend on the nature of the product.
For example, if you’re working for a SaaS business, the entire transaction – from payment to acquisition – would take place online.
On the other hand, if you’re providing a heavy, more physical solution, the process would involve a bit more legwork.
In any case, a good PM focuses on providing maximum convenience to the end-customers, which, in turn, could be a USP in itself.
Role #3: Leader
Product management is a leadership role.
As a product manager, you’re going to essentially guide the entire organization towards success – much like the captain of a ship.
Without the right leadership skills, you’ll find it incredibly difficult to keep things together and develop a working solution.
The usual responsibilities include:
Coordinating with Different Teams
One of the main responsibilities of a product manager is coordinating with different teams to ensure success. This is a common requirement in all companies, regardless of the industry.
This could entail working with the folks in:
- Engineering and development teams
- Supply chain
- Other support teams
If your organization works on the scrum framework, which prioritizes teamwork and accountability, having a knack for collaboration is even more important.
Rallying All of the Concerned Departments
Product managers, in addition to coordinating with different teams, also play the role of a mediator or a middleperson.
They’re responsible for rallying all of the teams and leading them towards success.
Naturally, this requires having strong communication skills.
Track & Monitor Progress
Last, but not least, all product managers – regardless of their scope – are responsible for tracking and monitoring the development processes.
Whether it’s the preliminary research, or the design process, PMs work closely with their teams to ensure that they’re on their way to achieving the broader business goals.
If things don’t go according to plan, they’re required to rectify the situation to bring things back on track.
All things aside, there is one role that all product managers play, and that is of a problem solver.
That’s what the product manager role is all about – finding out problems, figuring out the best ways to solve them, and increasing the business value in the process.
A career in product management is certainly challenging and requires being agile, but in the end, it’s also rewarding.