The Product Manager’s Evolution

Ten years ago, the top companies by market cap in the world were predominantly in oil, general industry, and financial services. Today, the top five are technology companies, providing products and services to consumers and enterprises. With this transformation, the pace of innovation has increased exponentially in response to demand. Last year, the number of global mobile users grew to exceed half of the world’s population with users in South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, and Japan averaging three hours per day spent in apps. To keep up and compete effectively in such a busy market, and as tech trends continue to evolve, technology companies need to approach Product Management in an entirely new way.

In many Bay Area businesses, the Product Manager position is akin to CEO of a specific product or focus area. The Product Manager must have the knowledge and skills to be strategic and operational, to commit and deliver on business objectives while overseeing technical development. Elsewhere, the Product Manager’s responsibility may be limited to only the technical part of the value chain. Their role is to write technical documentation and to liaise with the engineering team. And in some cases, the product manager is really more of a project manager, responsible for deadlines and delivery, but not for the overall understanding of the customer and the metrics for the business.

I view Product Management as the embodiment of the business, the customer, and the technical side of the company. In my mind, it is the product manager’s responsibility to run the entire product and project roadmap, if possible without relying on a project manager. The Product Manager needs to have the diverse skills required to work alongside product engineers and help push a project to completion. This requires proven experience along with business acumen.

Increasingly, I see businesses adopt the Valley model of Product Management, but as new technology trends evolve and come into being, impacting business skillset and expertise requirements, the role is continually changing. I’ve been trying to establish a firm definition of what constitutes the role and have identified the following traits that I consider essential:

  1. Understanding of business requirements and customer need: The Product Manager must have a solid understanding of the business requirements and customer need to ensure that the technology delivers and functions as it should. She/he should actually spend time talking to real customers to understand why they use the product and what goals they have. They should then be able to marry those goals to an innovative and measureable solution that will achieve key business objectives.
  2. Technical experience and knowledge: Ability to work rapidly with engineers and the design team to bring the product to market. This means making requirements and priorities crystal clear and then forging a path for the team to get work done. It also means being able to quickly understand customer requirements and identify problems in development process before they arise, adapting frequently to stay on track. Ultimately it’s the product manager’s responsibility to ensure work is completed on time and to the right standard, so as well as having the resilience to make sure this happens even when the odds are against, he or she must inspire the team to adopt the same attitude.
  3. Capability for working with customers and balancing different requirements: The Product Manager needs to be able to build relationships with customers to gather feedback live and act on it as appropriate. If the product fails, they need to understand where the fault lies. Product Managers can and should be metrics driven. But they also need to be able to balance that with understanding what the user is saying.
  4. Aptitude for holding diverse and complex conversations with different groups of people: The role demands technical literacy and an ability to translate information to make the best, informed decisions. It also requires an ability to think politically and build relationships across the whole business and all levels.
  5. Passion for continually exciting consumers: The work of the product manager is never complete. With the increasing pace and demand for innovation, there is a constant cycle of product iterations and development in line with customer requirements. No single release or moment is the great accomplishment. Instead, the key is that the product is continually loved by customers and that you are able to offer a delightful product experience.
  6. Adaptability: Lastly, it’s essential that a Product Manager is able to adapt quickly to situations and changes in the business as they arise. It’s absolutely necessary that a Product Manager can rapidly look at the marketplace, customer, or internal changes and adapt their roadmap or team setup for success. This may take the form of changing how the team is organized, what the priorities are, or how a feature is built. The Product Manager must be able to understand when change is needed, justify that change and correct its course rapidly to ensure the best outcome for the business.

As technology takes over global business, Product Management has become core to business success. Limiting the role to creating technical documentation and overseeing engineering risks impeding the pace of innovation and disappointing consumers. Successful Product Managers today must understand and be passionate about the business, the customer and the technology.

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