What is a Product Manager (at a Tech Company)?

School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley

How is it that such a simple question provokes such complicated and varied answers? Much like trying to define an “iSchool”, agreeing on concrete characteristics of a Product Manager (PM) can feel impossible as the position is inherently fluid, multi-disciplinary, and adaptable. In many technical paths, such as engineering, for example, one can point to direct, tangible outputs to form a characterization. In contrast, the definition of a PM is found at the intersections. Luckily, that’s also where many students of information management are found.

Figure 1

As shown in Figure 1, product managers can be found at the intersection of business, technology, and user experience. While the specifics of the PM role often vary depending on the maturity of the product(s), the size of the company, and the industry, the common thread among product managers is having perspective and skills in these three areas.

Characteristics of a Product Manager

1) Tech: know the build capabilities, own the execution. One of the main things you will hear anyone mention when defining PM goals and/or responsibilities is the crucial need to ship products. And in order to ship, you need to understand your team’s capabilities to build. While a PM may not need to be able to code every line, he/she most definitely has to understand the technology stack and level of effort required to build, enhance and maintain each product. Not only do these skills help the PM maintain credibility as a technical leader, but with technical skills the PM can make informed decisions for the product. While the PM doesn’t necessarily build, the PM definitely owns the execution of the product. No excuses!

2) UX: be the voice of the user. A product manager does not just succeed by shipping product - he/she has to ship the right product, which means channelling the user. A successful PM will seek out information about the users from all angles - the user experience team, marketing, analytics, etc. He/she will do this so that, as a product manager, he/she is able to empathize with the users and use relevant information in creating and implementing the product roadmap. A PM is the product evangelist, and when developing and communicating the product vision, he/she must absolutely represent the voice of the user.

3) Business: understand how to maximize value. A PM must have a deep understanding of the overall market and how their product(s) solve a problem for users in this landscape. Besides building the right product, a PM needs to ensure that it’s released at the right time; in other words, ensure that the right market window is available. Many small decisions need to be made as part of product development, and the PM has to synthesize various perspectives when making decisions, including the perspectives of sales and marketing.

In addition to the skills above, the PM has the challenge of leading without ultimate authority. It is rare for multiple teams to report into a single PM; rather, the PM must act as a unifying force among disparate groups and constantly be communicating the product vision as well as a clear picture of what success will look like. It is essential that the PM be the ultimate advocate for the product so that the team can get the necessary resources and drive towards execution.

Ultimately a product manager is a bit of everything - a jack-of-all-trades or a misfit, depending on how the role is categorized. PMs must have a deep love for products and everything that goes into their creation from the technology, to the design, to how the product impacts society. If you ask me, it sounds like a role for an iSchooler.

Want to learn more from experienced and expert PMs? I suggest starting with the following resources, which were used to guide this article:

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