Light Bulb ‘on’ till Lights Out: What Does a Product Manager Do?

24th Sep 2012
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A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine decided to shift roles from a technologist to a product manager.He walked up to me and asked, "So, what does a product manager do? How should I prepare for the role? Is there a book or manual that I should refer to?"

This got me thinking.

I have worked in product management for a while now. Most of what I know has come from experience, not just in product management, but also by spending time in various ancillary fields like R&D, marketing, business partnerships and business development. I have seen some interesting reading on product management, but there is a definite lack of literature that I can hand over to someone to explain product management.

Everyone knows that product management is a discipline that helps evolve a product from a concept stage, taking in multiple stakeholder inputs.

However, many companies still approach it as

-         an extended role of R&D with no direct interaction with consumers, or

-         as a consumer-facing role, closer to marketing that involves little or no R&D experience

The first approach generally leads to new products being extensions of existing ones, with not enough ambition or confidence to try something totally fresh.The latter leads to an extended wish list of product requirements, resulting in frustrating extensions of deadlines, much-delayed product launches and lost opportunities.

Startups generally see everyone from developers to the CEO participate in product ideation, creation and management, but often suffer from ever-changing requirements. Many are always in fire-fighting mode, leaving little or no time for strategic thinking.

In reality, the product management function usually works on everything from ideation (the light bulb moment!) to maintaining a portfolio in the market.

Let’s take a quick look at product management as a discipline and what a product manager has to deal with.

Note: This article is planned as a part of a series, though you can read each article independently.

Why do you need product management?

Is a web-site a product?

What about software? Is it a service or a product?

Banking offers for categories of consumers? (eg: special offerings for NRIs)

Some enterprising Bollywood folks even define songs or movies as products (though I must confess, I can barely imagine a product manager resume highlighting a product manager role for ‘Bol Bachchan’).

We recognize the distinct entities packaged and sold as products. But there are more amorphous inclusions for a product as well. Just as the definition of what gets classified as a product has expanded, the stakeholders related to a product have also increased dramatically – marketing, sales, R&D, design, finance, procurement, sourcing, legal teams – all have a role to play in the process. And each have their own set of requirements and demands of a product.

While there are more opinions to be heard during a product cycle, there is increasingly less time to absorb the information and act on it. Every industry is going through enormous changes to quicken the concept-to-product cycle. There are innumerable decisions to be made, many of which cannot be revisited, yet have immense bearing on the outcome of the product.

Hence, there is a need for a function that can orchestrate the process to evolve the product from an idea stage to a final delivery.

Product management is responsible for what needs to be done for the product and works with stakeholders on how things should be done.

In reality, working on a product involves multiple knowledge bases across various domains, and it is extremely difficult for one person (or function) to take a call on all the aspects. In most companies, product management takes part of the decisions and drives stakeholders for others.

So, what does a product manager do?

Performing a product managers role in a tech company can involve many things - in some, the PM gets into portfolio management, conceptualizing and product creation; while in others, the role involves program management, support and product marketing functions. There may be multiple product managers handling separate aspects of a product, often in different business units.

Firms may include product marketing or go to market functions under product management

-         product marketing handles internal communication and product messaging,working with marketing to get the right message out

-         GTM handles launch activities, product training and supports post sales queries

The PM could also be involved in product strategy: building partnerships and business associations to ensure the product’s success.

PMs in tech companies work closely with development teams - in most organizations, the PM has to take a call on what product features to build and prioritize. In addition, the product manager often works with design and user experience teams to figure out how the end user experience should look like.

Those familiar with the SCRUM process expect the PM to be ‘voice of the consumer’ in the development cycle, but it often involves much more. A central part of the PM role is to exercise judgment for the product through the process, and maintain communication on decisions with all other stakeholders.

What to expect if you’re getting into it afresh?

A product manager is expected to know something about everything: what consumers ask for in the product, what they can live without, what factors affect the success of the product in the marketplace, what features sell, what do consumers expect for the price they pay, how should you drive engagement, how should you present product features, what competition has in the market and what their next move could be – and more importantly, how a product fits into the company’s overall strategy.

The product manager not just has to plan what needs to be done, but has to be an ace at communicating decisions with different teams.

Be ready to deal with decision making on a daily basis, often with uncertain info. You will be the go-to person within and outside the company for the product, and your decisions have a huge impact on the company’s fortunes. But also be prepared to invest a lot of your time planning the details around implementation, communication and convincing people about what you think.

As someone put it to me: often product management seems like trying to change a flat tire on a running car. Things are not going right, but there’s no time to stop and fix them.

But it’s fun when you get into it. Try it!

In the next article, we will explore dealing with ideation for new products.

I know that there are many ways of dealing with product management, and many of you may have your own views on the topics discussed. Feel free to post in the comments, or reach out to me on Twitter at @shrinathv.


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