How Does a Product Manager Really Drive Growth?

Written by Michael Catford

January 10, 2018

Software engineers have long been the hailed the heroes of Silicon Valley, but a new power is rapidly emerging: product management.

According to Hired’s 2017 Salary Report, it’s now the highest paid role in tech across Australia and the United States. The meteoric rise in demand has given a top product manager candidate ‘unicorn’ like status.

But what does the role actually entail?

“Good product managers are good marketers, says Twitter Product Lead Hernal Shah. “They know their target audience and the best ways to reach them. They design their product for distribution.”

So how did the role become one of the hottest in tech?

The path to product management

According to this O’Reilly media article, the dawn of the product manager can be traced back to a 1931 Proctor and Gamble memo describing a role which, through field testing and client interaction, would be held wholly responsible for a business’s product development.

The idea caught on in the tech sphere via Bill Hewlett and David Packard, who in the book The HP Way credited the ethos the role encapsulated for Hewlett Packard’s sustained 20% year-on-year growth between 1943 and 1993 – a period of no less than 50 years.

The role spread from Hewlett Packard through many other Silicon Valley companies as its disciples left HP and spread through the industry, with the position eventually evolving into the product managers that we see today.

As we discussed in this piece, today’s product managers generally concern themselves with the big picture; their focus on the product is longer term, and includes roadmapping, market analysis and balancing customer and business needs.

So with a broader and arguably less tangible set of responsibilities than most other roles in tech, we decided to pop the bonnet on some of Australia’s best product management teams and take a look inside. We spoke to Aaliah Eggins-Bryson, General Manager of Product Experience and Operations at Telstra, Imran Chowdhury, Product Manager at Deputy and David Burson, Senior Product Manager at Canva to paint a complete picture.

The day-to-day duties of a product manager

To understand the day-to-day duties of a product manager, we first must understand the role’s ultimate goal. In short, product managers are tasked with maximising the amount of value a business gains from a product. To do so they must first optimise the product, then focus on obtaining the greatest ROI possible through other means.

Understandably this sees a product manager’s duties vary greatly from company to company. A PM at a small company, for example, will likely have a wider variety of responsibilities than a PM at a larger company, who may be tasked with responsibilities that are narrower and more focused. What’s more, as Catherine Shyu points out in this article, it is often a role that is defined by the lack of skills within an organisation.

Summing up a product manager’s day-to-day duties is therefore complicated, says Burson. “This is completely dependent on a myriad of factors such as what type of product you are managing, what stage of life that product is at, what the industry is and how your company is structured. This is one of the things that makes the PM hiring landscape so challenging at the moment. The role of a product manager means something completely different from one company to the next.”

When pressed, Burson lists the main daily duties of the standard product manager role in the following order of priority:

  1.    Ensuring the product team is equipped for success.
  2.    Understanding and talking to the end user.
  3.    Interpreting and analysing product data.
  4.    Communicating closely with leadership and the rest of the business to ensure that the most important business problems are being solved.
  5.    Exploring new opportunities and validating promising ideas.

Eggins-Bryson’s role at Telstra comes with a very well-defined set of responsibilities that cover the product development process from end to end. She sums them up in five simple questions:

  1.    How does the product present in market by way of offers and proposition?
  2.    How does the customer purchase their product with us? (e.g. online, call centre, etc.)
  3.    How does the billing present? We must ensure that the right rules and processes are in place for appropriate application of everything that does and doesn’t appear on the bill.
  4.    What new products can be developed? (e.g. hybrid modem, new NBN technologies)
  5.    What are the short-term and long-term profit and loss projections of products being developed?

Measuring product management success

How does one measure a product manager’s success? With protracted timelines and hazy responsibilities, such ‘big picture’ roles in tech are notoriously difficult to conduct performance reviews on. But our experts say that their organisations have nonetheless found ways and means.

“At Canva, like most companies, it takes a huge cross functional effort to ship anything significant, so PMs are partly measured by their ability to support everyone in the team towards achieving the goal” notes Burson. “In this type of environment 360 degree reviews from peers are a great method for assessing the quality of a PM’s work and form an important part of our performance review process, alongside varying product targets such as reducing customer churn.”

As far as Eggins-Bryson and Telstra are concerned, product management success is found within the zeroes and ones. “We do not make decisions without quantification of data, and use that data and insight to drive the solution.”

But what particular numbers are being looked at to measure a product manager’s success? “There are obvious metrics such as customer activations/deactivations leading to net growth and overall profit and loss management, customer experience metrics such as NPS, and more operational metrics like the time it takes for us to connect an NBN customer. The way we know we are doing a good job is when we are seeing positive movement in our metrics – and there are hundreds of them!”

Deputy takes a very grounded view of product management success, says Chowdry. “One of our rules is ‘perfect is bullsh*t‘. We are measured on delivering a feature that gets enough love from our customers that they are excited about using it. It doesn’t have to be the Mona Lisa on the first go.”

The skills that a good product manager brings to the table

So what ingredients allow one to bake the perfect product manager cake? Ian McAllister, Director of Airbnb, answered this exact question on Quora. He listed the ability to think big, communicate, simplify, prioritise, forecast, execute and understand as traits that the top 1% of product managers share. But what do our experts say?

“One of the more common misconceptions around the product manager role is that it comes with a sense of implied authority, when in fact you have zero,” reveals Burson. “In most companies PMs have no direct reports and are often not even the most knowledgeable in the room on any given topic.”

A good product manager, he instructs, will thus bring a wealth of non-technical – or ‘soft’ – skills to the table. “Communication & organisation are absolutely crucial soft skills for a successful PM. The ability to synthesise the sometimes competing wishes and opinions of both leadership and technically intelligent peers into a solution that everyone can rally behind is an incredibly intangible thing, but without it being a PM is almost impossible.

“Being a strong all-rounder is very important. When you spend your days bouncing from discussion to discussion with engineers, designers, marketing and business leadership you have to be able to communicate with each of these peers with a fluency that allows both of you to agree on an outcome and move forward.”

Again, the clear role definition that Telstra offers product managers allows the company to offer a similarly clearly defined list of vital skills for the job. Eggins-Bryson identifies the most important as:

Commercial skills: The ability to understand how your decisions have an impact on the portfolio commercially.

Data and insight skills: “Most of our decisions and changes are driven from the data and insights created. PMs must know how to ask the right questions of the data to derive the right insights.”

Delivery skills: An ability to take a changed or new product to market.

Pro Tips if You’re Going For a Product Manager Interview

With demand for good product managers increasing, good PMs are becoming some of the most valued tech professionals in the world. But this has also led to great competition for positions, and competing for such a complex and multi-faceted job can be a challenge.

As product management is not your standard job, it usually begins with not your standard interview. Thankfully the process has been undertaken by many interviewees before, and this email from a Google recruiter to a potential PM candidate gives great insight into what might be expected of you in your next PM interview.

What to expect: The Google example above hints at the breadth of knowledge that PMs are expected to display, or at least show an eagerness to understand. From product design to analytics, technical to strategy, a PM candidate needn’t be a master of any trade, but must show the potential to be a jack of all. Expect hypothetical situations to be thrown at you, and for the interviewer to attempt to gauge the level of technical expertise you bring to the table. Remember though that the focus will be far more on soft skills than hard.

How to prepare: Research, research, research. Learn about the company with whom you’re interviewing, and identify the products they’ve recently brought to market (and if possible, those that they are developing). Practice leading discussions, and ensure that you do so in a way that will work just as well with a product design team as it will with business leadership. Become familiar with things like A/B testing and product launch metrics. Understand the company’s culture, and think up ways to demonstrate that you’ll fit well within it.

What to ask: Unlike interviews of old, modern tech companies realise that top tier talent is interviewing the company just as much as the company is interviewing the top tier talent. Take the opportunity to ask the company about their expectations of a product manager, and exactly what the day-to-day duties will be. Gain an understanding of what you’ll be held accountable for, and who you’ll be asked to direct. Don’t just present yourself as the best fit for the job – do all that you can to verify that the job is also the best fit for you.

Looking for some further listening for Product Managers? We’d recommended Masters of Scale – #13 “The Big Pivot”.. Learn how Stewart Butterfield, founder of Slack pivoted several ways to succeed with both Flickr and Slack.

Written by Michael Catford

January 10, 2018