Oct 6, 2022
Understanding what a product manager does is the biggest mystery in our industry. A search on “What is a Product Manager” on Google returns millions of results. Search it on Medium, and you’ll land on hundreds of articles.
What made the product manager role so hard to pin down?
While preparing for an AMA (Ask Me Anything) with PMHQ, we talked about topics I would like to discuss. I worked with the AMA host to prepare some questions and we practiced a few AMA scenarios, organizing the flow of the conversation. We wanted to find relevant topics for the product management community, so I asked the AMA organizers what they’d like for me to answer. These questions essentially come up the most:
What is your background in product management?
How did you become a product manager?
What’s the best way to transition into product management?
Teaching product management
When I teach product management, I focus on this:
Product managers must create the right thing, at the right time, in the right way.
That said, what does it mean? How does that translate to daily tasks? To explain this, let me bring you back to a special night that happened after I first settled in London.
I didn’t know anything about the city or the product community. I wanted to meet people and expand my network. So I started digging around and attended several meetups, from product tank to product talks.
In one of them, I gathered with 100+ people from the product community. The topic was the role and responsibilities of the product manager. A heated debate occurred on the differences between product managers and product owners. Who should do what?
That discussion revealed a fundamental problem in how we have these kinds of conversations. Why so many differences? Why is it so hard to find a consensus?
Product management is more attractive than ever
Over the past year, web searches for “product manager” have skyrocketed. The product manager role is not new. It’s here to stay.
The popularity of the profession has not waned over time. It’s only growing bigger, as is that of product owner. As we can see above in the trend graph, a direct correlation between web searches on ‘product manager’ and ‘product owner’.
This correlation supports two of my observations:
1. Every teaching session, someone asks what is the difference is between the product manager and product owner.
2. Arguments on social media blur the line between the job descriptions and responsibilities of the two roles.
This shows confusion in the market, but also among people working in technology careers — or in data or product teams. It seems difficult to define what a product manager does daily. Though it’s not like product managers are not trying.
Where does the problem come from?
In the product management craft, we have general principles around viability, feasibility and desirability. We have frameworks such as design thinking, jobs-to-be-done, customer-centric or human-centric approaches.
But when I looked closely, I noticed many differences in the trenches.
The community can be too virtuous
Job postings, blogs, and social media discussions can reveal the symptom. Voices can jump from one side of the room to the other in regard to discussion or debate topics. On chat threads, you can witness many voices contradicting each other. It’s almost like arguing over which diet is best: Keto, Vegan, Pescatarian. Each person has their favourite.
Mentoring and teaching helped me understand why aspiring product managers feel lost:
Truth is, the product management learning community isn’t helping.
Sometimes the “experts” forget that we have a duty and a responsibility as a community.
We, product managers, are in the business of services. Not in the fruit and vegetable industry. We serve our community, our team, our stakeholders and our customers. We are here to serve.
There is a systemic issue
When talking with other product managers it’s easy to notice that the community splits in two:
The ones who “did it” and wear their wounds like a badge of honor. You can hear in their voices the experiences and battles they had to fight.
Those who consider themselves experts, podcast creators, opinion writers, course trainers — but have never worked in a genuine product management role. Good on paper — bad in reality.
The product manager’s training school and communities offer customers a “Silicon Valley” version of sorts. The name dropping sets unrealistic expectations, salaries and responsibilities. Companies hiring include the ones that are called “big tech” — Google, Apple, Meta, Amazon, Tesla, and Twitter. The top of the chain.
Indeed there is an attractive aspect to working for one of the big tech companies. It reminds me of the video game industry. Video game developers had the same tasks and roles as if they were working for the government — except working on The Witcher was sexier.
The Agile development movement unintentionally created an issue
Agile has many frameworks. One of the most popular is Scrum. Unfortunately for product managers, their role doesn’t exist in Scrum. This impacts the product management community in two ways:
Companies transitioning to Agile don’t know how to include product managers in it. Some completely cut the role or give overlapping responsibilities.
Product managers want to find out where they sit in relation to the development team. Not knowing how to successfully navigate this topic — it leads to miscommunication and misunderstandings.
This creates a lot of confusion as Agile and Scrum are very popular and continue gaining adoption. But let’s face it — these issues many product managers face come from what appears to be an “emotional attachment” to the “product manager” title.
How can we solve these issues?
Here’s an idea: Let’s apply the same principles as when creating products. After all, we are our first products. We bring a unique value.
The first step of the lean product canvas is to define the problem, which we did. Next, we need to identify our customer segments.
Who are product manager’s customers?
We exist to serve businesses. Many different ones.
The vision we have for our products doesn’t include one value proposition to all. Then why should there be only one type of product management?
Our persona is companies. Now:
What’s the size of the company?
Where are they located?
How big is their market? Global, national or local?
What industry/area do they operate in?
What is their cultural identity?
How risk averse are they?
What are they dealing with? Goods or services?
We can add a product management touch that will help us define the role:
Are they suitable for the pre or post-product market fit?
Is the business model defined?
What is the product management function maturity?
How are they funded?
What is the technological maturity of the industry and the company?
From my experience, product managers play very different roles in companies:
of 30 people vs 500 people;
with pre-market fit vs post-market fit;
in technology vs manufacturing;
from Canada vs France.
Some product managers can handle many jobs. They can be both Product Manager and Product Owner. They can hold in parallel Product Managers, Designers, Marketers and Growth Managers roles. They can be Associate Product Managers with a reduced scope of responsibility.
They’re all fully-fledged product managers. But the tasks they perform are different. The market, cultural differences and the reality of our world are complex. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all here.
What is the value product managers are bringing?
As professionals in the product industry, we have to stop talking about “titles” and “roles.” It is not the role that is changing. It’s the number of roles someone is holding. They reflect the value product managers are bringing to a company.
The responsibilities of the product manager are clear. The one of the product owners or the scrum master also. The difference is in the way people talk about it.
Where to go from there?
In my career, I have played the role of a product manager in most instances. But sometimes, I was a team lead. Sometimes an architect, or even the Quality Assurance guy.
At the end of the day, the title doesn’t matter. My primary responsibilities are based in product management. How I do my daily occupation is what defines me.
Many experienced product managers have started writing articles explaining the product manager’s role. Here is a list of my favourites:
The past years have shown me that we can’t all agree on a definition. The truth is, it took me a while to coin my own definition. After years of experiments, problems, successes and failures — I found this:
“A product manager manages the frustrations of the stakeholders within the organization.”
A product manager will have to deal with his own frustrations and those of others. They have one goal in mind:
Make Product Better. Whatever they do, they will always end up displeasing one side or the other. How he can juggle these complex configurations will show his true skills.
In the past I felt that the product manager job was chaotic. One day I was a product manager, and the next day, I was a product marketer. I could be a designer or salesman. Today, I find this exciting and entertaining. It’s actually why I’m so passionate about it.
Two tips in this article that I want you to keep
Whether you are considering product management for your career, or not:
“Product Manager” is a title. You can call yourself whatever you want. It doesn’t matter. Responsibilities, tasks, and achievements are what matter. What is your impact on the organization’s lifeline and health?
The company, the sector and the maturity of the product will impact the job more than anything else. I recommend spending more time analyzing these components. It’s something I wish someone had told me 15 years ago.