What Is A Product Manager?

Despite the significance of the digital product management, the term has escaped mainstream terminology.

There we are, mingling at a party... we haven't met yet, but that is all about to change. As you bite into a freshly prepared hors d'oeuvre, a mutual friend insists that we must meet. Suddenly we lock eyes.

As we engage in conversation, there is a certain vagueness to my words. Despite how attentive you may be, you cannot seem to place my life's story. A question burns within you...

What did you say it is you do, again?

As I explain, only more questions arise. A 'product manager?' How does one manage a product? What exactly constitutes a digital agency? Why do I not refer to such as an ad agency? Surely they must be one in the same.

So you build websites?

Things continue to become complicated. How does one create 'digital products' without designing or developing? What could I mean by 'strategy' anyway?

So are you like, the boss?

Let me stop you right there. If this exchange is painfully awkward for you, keep in mind this must be the tenth time I've run through this tonight. Perhaps I am hopelessly awkward, and may never hope to engage in normal casual conversation... such is my inner personal identity crisis. It's a good idea to try bail out of this conversation entirely - otherwise we could spend all night trying to get to the bottom of what my job title title is.

As PMs, nobody understands us, and perhaps nobody ever will... sometimes it seems as though all we can do is cry in our beds as we listen to My Chemical Romance. Even if party going acquaintances do in fact remember us, it will likely be a few months later via phone call: a friendly proposition to build the app idea, pro bono.

PMs solve problems, so why can we not solve the age-old problem of "who am I?" It seems escapes even the best of us, but we may as well give it a shot. Here it goes.

What Does PM Stand For?

Types of PM

When you hear the acronym 'PM,' chances are the person you're speaking to is being purposefully ambiguous. 'PM' can stand for a number of meanings, all of which generally refer to as a technology middle-level manager. In the most basic definition, a PM is somebody whom creators report to on the day-to-day status of their projects... this is not an accurate representation of what PMs do, but rather a quick way to identify organizational hierarchy to those outside your company. Cocktail parties are one example of this.

Otherwise, the similarities between those who label themselves as PM end there. A 'PM' can refer to any of the following titles:

  • Project Manager: A technical project manager is the equivalent of a foreman who ensures digital products/projects are delivered on time. They monitor a project's health on a daily basis. This entails managing timelines, enforcing processes, and keeping constant team communication.
  • Digital Producer: Producers exist exclusively within digital agencies. They retain many project manager responsibilities, but additionally lead a number of client accounts within the agency. As a result, an average producer may be less technically involved than a project manager.
  • Program Managers: Some companies call their PMs 'program managers.' This title implies having similar duties to some of the above PMs, except more boring. So yeah, Microsoft.
  • Product Managers All of the above, as well as defining the nature their work themselves. Due to the number of tangible and intangible skills it requires to be a good product manager, product is typically considered the most valued and lucrative flavor of PM... but then again, I may be biased.

Product Management

Product Management

Of all PMs, product managers have arguably the most in-depth (thus confusing) role.

The term "product" is meaningless phrase to most, as our world contains nothing but products. Our title is intentionally vague, as digital "products" are used to describe anything from apps to feature. What constitutes a "digital product" varies wildly, but the skills an individual requires to deliver remain the same. These skills include an understanding of human thought patterns, a passion to solve problems, and testing ideas with data.

Companies exist to create products; being a product manager means accepting responsibility for producing the tangible pieces which define a company. BMW is a company comprised of car 'products' such as the x5 or the z4. If car manufacturers had product managers, they might be faced with a problem such as "we need to get a car to market which appeals to young professionals in income bracket XYZ." The rest is more or less up to them.

What Do You Do All Day?

All day

Most people assume we send emails all day. In the perspective of those who write code or make beautiful works of art, this likely doesn't feel too far off.

The truth is, we really like making lists of bullet points... so here are some bullet point of what PMs do on a daily basis:

  • Defining Products: The most rewarding part of being a PM is shaping products which go out into the world. This is a process of learning who the product is for and building out a complimentary backlog of features.
  • Communication: The term "liaison" is often used to describe much of what a product manager does, but this is just one small piece of the puzzle. This covers everything from client communication to facilitating work between teams.
  • Requirements: A lot of grunt work goes in to writing and maintaining requirements for projects, as they are constantly defined and changed.
  • Project Management: Overseeing the execution of tasks over time, and ensuring timelines are met by a team.
  • Budget Management: Keeping projects out of the red.
  • Data Analysis: Learning from what we create is imperative to making sure we build better things in the future.
  • UX: Wireframing and white boarding are simply second nature as we subconsciously draw boxes on napkins.
  • Meetings: Oh yeah we totally love these.
  • Morale: AKA memes.
  • Daily Secret PM Party: Fine Scotch & cigars every day in the secret PM lounge hidden behind the revolving bookcase.

Basically, PM's spend much of their time meeting the fleeting needs of many humans on numerous projects.

To the acquaintance you met at the party, you may as well respond with "I make apps, or whatever..." and follow up with an exuberant magic trick to distract them. That's what I usually do.

Are PMs bosses?

No: PMs are representatives of all, and therefore are superiors to none.

A PM should be the source of all answers for a project under their jurisdiction, to whichever party they may be speaking to. Doing the "thinking" is the sauce of a PM's job title. PMs do not have the power to 'dismiss' employees, but must maximize the talent of their team to accomplish any worthwhile endeavor. Thus, a PM's power starts and ends with their own ability to, well, be a PM.

This is where a PM might stand in a typical organization:

PMs Within Organizations

PMs have direct superiors, but additionally have "dotted line" obligations to potentially every department. Initiatives cannot be executed without a PM, and initiatives originate from executives, stakeholders, clients, or anybody remotely revenue generating.

This dynamic has less friction than one might expect. The concept of 'product' has evolved faster than conventional definitions of power; traditional pecking orders are traded for innovative and useful creation in Silicon Valley. Chaos and uncertainty is difficult, but arguably not as difficult as living an unfulfilling life.

All Product Managers Do The Same Thing?

Absolutely not... let's make things even more confusing.

Within organizations, PMs tend to share the same skills, but their preference of certain skills over others can lead to different management styles. Some organizations explicitly call this out, with roles such as "Mobile Product Manager," or "Marketing Product Manager."

Between organizations, the roles of PMs differ as well, with some being more empowered than others:

  • Product-driven Organizations: Those committed to pursuing product have a drive to change the world with their ideas in an environment which allows them to do so. These organizations typically tend to be startups, or companies involved in the early creation and introduction of new products.
  • Product as an Afterthought: Organizations with overpowering stakeholders can reduce a product manager's role to be one of simply executing projects - many of which may have been predetermined in board meetings. This environment is toxic for talented PMs, as a leap into a product career should imply a confidence in one's ability to create change, which this dynamic inherently lacks.

The Takeaway

Perhaps you're getting an idea of why this title is so difficult to explain.

If you had to explain what Steve Jobs' role in the creation of the iPhone must have been, how would you explain it? Surely he didn't engineer, write code, design, or manufacture hardware. So what did he do?

Well, I guess the best answer would be... "everything, and nothing."

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Todd Birchard

Todd Birchard

Application Architect

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