So you want to be a Product manager?
If you work in tech, you’ve probably heard of the highly coveted role that is product manager (PM). And if you, like me, are interested in software product development, you’ve probably wondered what product management entails, and whether it’s an area you ought to pursue.
Not long after joining the tech industry, I became curious about product management. This interest only grew after I started working with different product teams in my current role as a Product Specialist. Even from my prior limited understanding of the role, my interest was piqued. It seemed like product management was a potential path for me. This was a relief, after a long period of uncertainty about the direction I wanted to take my career in. “Why did I not hear about product management in college?”
Over the next few months, I hope to share my learnings and interest with you. I’ll start with what product management actually is.
What on earth is Product Management?
Product management is relatively new in the software world. Based on my research, the role evolved from the concept of brand management in the FMCG space. A Brand Manager is responsible for ‘owning’ a brand, including how it is perceived, and how this perception can be improved to increase sales.
As the digital economy has grown, a need for a similar role for software products (i.e. someone who ‘owns’ the product) has also grown. Particularly as, over time, the gap between engineering and brand management has widened. Product management helps close the gap between these two teams. For example, product managers are responsible for collating and sharing insights regarding customers’ wants and concerns with the engineering teams building the products.
What on earth is a Product Manager?
The simplest and most common definition of a product manager that I have heard is that they are the “CEO of a product”. This means that they are responsible for defining and driving the overall product strategy. Just as an organization’s CEO would drive the company’s vision and oversee it’s day-to-day operations. Julia Austin, however, disagrees. She points out that:
“PMs do not have any direct authority over most of the things needed to make their products successful from user and data research through to design and development”.
As a result, the role is not equivalent to CEOs of the product (womp womp!).
At Product School — which I recently attended (a worthwhile investment, I might add!) — I learned that a product manager is the person that represents the customer. In other words, they ensure that the product built optimally meets the customer’s needs. To quote directly from “The Product Book“:
“Customers buy and use products because the products address their needs. Done properly, the products let the customers be awesome. The end result of representing the customer is that a PM helps the customer be awesome.”
To be honest, there probably isn’t a perfect definition of the role. This is because the responsibilities of product managers may vary based on different factors. For example, the company and even the product may influence the role. The above definitions, however, give an idea of what it means to be a product manager and probably why it is highly coveted.
You’ve got me, tell me more…
I should emphasize that, for the purposes of this blog, we are specifically referring to software products.
Imagine a retail store that recently decided to invest in their online presence due to the pandemic. They’ve developed an app and website that allows users to continue having a great shopping experience online. Let’s refer to this app as the product. However, keep in mind that a product can also refer to a fragment of the entire app i.e. different “feature groups” or features that enable the users to complete specific tasks. For example, the section with the selections to buy from could be considered one ‘product’. The website’s search functionality could also be a ‘product’. Indeed, any of the website capabilities could be considered a product, (especially if the web vs app functionalities vary widely).
This retail company would hire designers for the app, engineers, marketing people, researchers (maybe) and content strategists. But who would be the person…
- Bringing all these teams together?
- Moving everyone towards the shared goal of creating a great shopping experience for customers?
- Behind the thought-process of how the product can be iterated to best meet the users’ needs, and consequently the business goals?
- Drive the overall execution?
I am sure you can guess by now, that this is where a product manager would come in. They are responsible for the strategy, roadmap and feature definition of a product.
Do tech companies really need product managers?
As with most tech roles, a company can function without a product manager. As crucial as their roles seem, someone could wear the same hats I described above without the ‘product manager’ title. But to quote Carlos Gonzalez de Villaumbrosia, the author of “The Product Book“:
“Without a product manager, a company will continue to operate pretty well — to a point. Yet with a strong product manager, a company can become great.”
This is why tech companies continue to invest significantly in hiring good product managers — most PMs have direct impact on the business.
A day in the life…
You may now be wondering what a day in the life of a PM looks like.. From my conversations with PMs, they spend a lot of their time in meetings – shocker (not!)
Since PMs work with many stakeholders, this makes sense as they constantly need to get everyone’s buy-in, sell the vision, communicate updates and catch up with teams to ensure the execution is going according to the vision. They also spend a lot of time writing product requirements documents (PRDs). This document articulates the details of a product to be built.
Something for everyone?
As I mentioned, there are different flavours to the PM role. The main grouping for PMs I have seen are ‘General vs Specialised’. A common example of specialised PMs are technical PMs who work on heavily technical or backend products; think APIs or backend services. Companies can also create PM roles that are focused on certain parts of the organisation, or specific goals of the org such as growth. These would also be considered as specialised roles. These roles would typically index on certain skills more than others. General PMs on the other hand would not be as specialised and likely require a balance of different skills.
If you are like me and this sounds like the absolute dream job, stay tuned for my next blog! In it, I will share my findings on the attributes and skills necessary to be a good PM. Spoiler alert: You do not need to be a people manager or a coder!
If you haven’t yet, check out Episode 1 of CQP, which outlines how Marcelle Mbuyu pivoted into product management.
Until next time!
Ruth Kipng’eno is a Kenyan based in Ireland and working at Facebook as a product specialist. Her role entails providing technical support for Facebook’s business products, and partnering with product and engineering teams to improve the overall product quality and advertiser experience. The exposure to product teams within Facebook has significantly grown Ruth’s interest in product and her new career goal is to become a product manager.
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