What is Product Management?

This topic has been about written extensively. I drafted this for a company I was consulting as they were getting their product management function into place for the first time and wanted help understanding the exact role of a product manager.

After writing it, I realized it sounds quite a bit like Ben Horowitz’s Good PM, Bad PM essay from years back, so I’m linking it here to be clear I had no intention of stealing the concepts from that post (although I did write it independently and realized how similar it was after reading it). Good PM, Bad PM

What is product management:
I view product management as the embodiment of the business, the customer, and the technical side of the company. It’s your responsibility to balance across all the stakeholders and make sure that you are the person pushing the product and the business forward.

Product managers should be a jack of all trades. They have the ability to pull data, do some basic wireframes, make quick insights from data, they can be involved in technical discussion at a high level, they can help the engineering team make tradeoffs.

 

Their job is to push the engineers to get things done, but not just by urging them. It’s by working alongside them to help them make the best tradeoffs, to prevent them from getting caught up in an engineering challenge that isn’t important, and by focusing them on the customer. It’s also your job to shield them from bullshit (meetings, random requests, random thoughts, etc).

 

The most valuable resource you have is hands on keyboard time from your engineering team, and you should be striving to maximize it everyday. If your engineers are working a theoretical 8 hour day and more than 1-2 hours is not being spent coding (in meetings, meeting with management, doing other things) you are not doing your job as a product manager. Your job is to make the requirements crystal clear, the priorities clear, and then clear a path for your team to get it’s work done.

 

As you grow as a PM, you run your product team the same way. You protect them and foster in them the idea that it’s their job to get shit done, to own their metrics, and to find a way to ship when the odds are against. And you hold them to that standard – you are constantly questioning a bit below the surface to understand the tradeoffs they are making and helping them think through the right way to motivate the team, make the correct tradeoffs, and manage effectively to constantly iterate and get things done.

 

Product managers should be the best at politics at the company. You should be best friends with everyone who can help you get your code shipped and your product delivered. Don’t make enemies with engineering, with QA, or with design, instead be the bigger person and be ok apologizing because it gives you the upper hand in the relationship and the ability to ask them for favors and speed later.

 

Empathy is your friend as a PM – learn to embrace it and leave your emotions at the door. You don’t want the QA or engineering manager holding up your deployment at the 11th hour because they’ve picked you as a target for some random issue they want to bring up. You want to be the PM who takes them out to drinks and who they rely on so that when your code is coming in late, they support you and make the release happen.

 

You also need to be adept at managing upper management. You want them involved, but not too involved. Enough that the leadership team has confidence in you and your ability to get things done. But you don’t want them constantly questioning when the next release is, looking at wireframes, reading requirements. It’s up to you to strike the balance so that they have trust in your ability to do your job.

 

Good product managers don’t need project managers. They manage the project and roadmap on their own. In fact, in a well functioning organization, it’s increasingly unclear to me what a project manager actually does (this does not include companies with cross-platform multi-dependencies, just teams that are trying to ship and get things done on time).

 

And they understand the customer, either because they understand the data, or they talked to the customer, or they know the space or all of the above. They should have all of these skills, but I find that most PMs specialize in 1 or 2. It’s ok to be a bit more data centric, but you need to be able to balance that with understanding what the user is saying to you

 

They understand how what they does impacts operations and marketing. They also improve these organizations by figuring out the technology solutions they can deliver and then making them happen. For example, you are a trusted person for optimizing marketing landing pages, for making the marketing spend more effective, for driving conversion up throughout the funnel, and by understanding what the downstream impacts of additional sales (in the e-commerce case) will have on the fulfillment side of the business.

 

Product managers can and should be metrics driven. They should not be driven solely by grand ideas or visions – those can be the basis for their original thinking, but at the end of the day, they need to actually find a way to get things done when it doesn’t seem easy and drive their metrics and the business forward. Again, a big fan of Horowitz’s lead bullets piece as I think it sums this up well.

 

Agree or disagree with this as an overview? Let me know in the comments.

7 thoughts on “What is Product Management?”

  1. I like the post that makes me think and this is one of them.

    The “kill the meetings” part speaks from my heart. I am witness of unnecessary or outcome-less meetings that keeps us away from delivery.

    “Beeing a politics” part is great, but i feel “politics” as a word has a negative attitude. I would just say “be honest and constructive”. If the company culture needs a politician type of persons this is a sign that something went wrong.

    “Project manager” – i think this is a role that someone should take. This person could be the PM or the techlead – it does not matter. This is a job of director of product to setup a right team where someone will responsible for this role. I agree that dedicated person is not necessary.

    This post is simple awesome.
    thanks to share your thoughts and makes me think

    kalman
    director of product at prezi

    1. @Kalman,
      Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I agree on your characterization of politics, that’s likely a sign of something wrong with the culture. I meant largely that if that is the situation at the company, the PM has the onus to figure out those ties and find the most effective way for their team to get things done.

      And I also agree on project management – I think we are saying the same thing. I agree that project management needs to happen completely, just that having a dedicated project manager is more often a sign of weak product leadership than it is of an actual need for a new person. In complete agreement that someone needs to manage timelines, but I view that as a role someone on the product team should be actively taking.

      Thanks!
      Barron

  2. Great post, Barron. The similarities with Ben Horowitz’s essay are not accidental. Those are definitely the core points from which a Product Manager role is composed.

    There is one point I’d like to highlight, though. I’ve been doing various product management roles for over a decade. I now know that there is no “one size fits all” and there are various flavors of the product manager role. The emphasis and focus change based on multiple factors such as
    – the type of the product (e.g. enterprise software vs. e-commerce);
    – the maturity (a new product with little or no customer base vs an established product with thousands of customers)
    – the size of the company (e.g. long rollout processes with an extensive delivery chain vs. no processes);
    – the culture (e.g. is consensus a critical factor in the decision making process; does R&D consist of opinionated people that need to feel they’re part of the process?)
    – the structure (distributed/out source or local)
    and more.

    And of course, there is the personality factor. I’ve seen people (including myself) fail in one company (simply because they were not the right person in the right place) while being tremendously successful in other places.

    1. @Eitan,
      Agreed on all points. Something else I should probably consider adding is that the PM needs to adjust to the needs of the company and the situation and not assume that their previous style will always work perfectly at the new company. Instead, they should have the ability to listen and morph their style to the company they are working at.

      And sometimes, it still may not work out – that’s very accurate.

      Thanks for commenting!
      Barron

  3. I enjoyed your post; including your point that PMs can help make other departments like marketing and ops more efficient. You capture ~95% of the PM’s job which is ultimately to ship products that delight customers. You also make a compelling case for why product managers are valuable.

    However, there is 5% (or ideally more depending on the org and product lifecycle) which goes beyond the day to day release cycle, and it’s the thing that most distinguishes Product Management from Project Management. PMs need to be able to pull themselves out of the weeds periodically and think strategically – beyond the next few sprints. And, they need to consistently and creatively reinforce that vision and market opportunity. This is critical for the ongoing motivation of the team: making a compelling case about how the product they are building fits into the broader company vision and addresses a meaningful market. It includes things like competitive research and watching for broader trends in technology, regulation, etc. that may provide threats or opportunities for disruption. It’s one of the harder skills to find in PMs (particularly those from project or program management backgrounds). But without a strategic framework, backlog prioritization (and pushing back on upper management whims) can feel arbitrary.

    1. I completely agree and if that’s not coming across, it’s not intended. All the discussion about understanding customers, stakeholders, engineers, and being able to pitch a consistent, compelling vision is very much what you describe in your 5% comments and I very much believe they are an essential part of being a PM.

      Thanks for commenting and reading!

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