It’s funny meeting people out and about who work in technology and you ask about their job. Generally, you’ll get a one sentence answer that says nothing and effectively shuts down the conversation. “I’m a manager at an IT company”. “I work in strategy”.
Wow, so enlightening.
What do they really want to say? Instead of trying to get blood out of a stone from that Product Manager guy standing next to the dip at the party in the park, just read this article instead.
Product management ≠ product management????
In this article we chat to 5 industry peeps:
- Rakshit Bhandari, Digital Product Manager, McKinsey & Company
- Paul Hart, Advertising Technology Specialist, Amicus Digital
- Vipin Vijayan, Product Owner Apps, OFX
- Jason Fischer, Head of Development, Bambora
- Mandar Karlekar, Product Manager, SiteMinder
All product pros, yet a diverse set of responsibilities – as you will see.
What’s in a job title, anyway? A Product Manager could also be a Chief Product Officer, Product Owner, Product Evangelist… whatever you like, really.
Hart of Amicus Digital hits the nail on the head here: “If you were to search LinkedIn today for “Product Manager” the chances of finding two job descriptions that were the same are slim. The nature of the Product beast is that the role must be flexible, however at the moment it’s nebulous to the point of being of limited use as a label.”
While these roles may be slightly different in a very large business, with smaller SMEs it’s probably all going to mean the same thing. They’re the head non-gender-specific dude in charge of product.
Um, yeah, but what does ‘product management’ really mean?
What exactly does it mean to be in charge of product, though? Turns out it’s trying to give your product the best chance at being as successful as possible. How?
Well, as Karlekar of SiteMinder puts it, the “key to success [is] to truly understand your customers”.
Think like the customer; be like the customer; you are the customer. So Zen.
Fischer of Bambora goes a little further with his explanation of the basis of product management. “You need to spend as much time with customers and potential customers as possible. You need to get into their heads and figure out why they do the things they do and how your solution is going to add value to them. This knowledge will then also help you with creating an effective go to market strategy. There is no point creating something if no-one wants to use it after all.”
“You are a custodian, you are the customer in the room when they can’t be there. You will be getting to know technology to understand how it could be used to solve the problems your customers are facing.”
Essentially, it’s your job to give the customer what they want. Many startups have tried and failed by focusing on giving the customer what they need. It’s far harder to convince someone they need something, rather than presenting them with something they already want – even if you have the top marketing team that money can buy.
A digital product company without a product manager is like trying to navigate without Google Maps
This concept of product management isn’t a new one. Back in the ‘30s, Neil McElroy at P&G came up with the concept of “Brand Men”, those who became champions of the brand from the perspective of the customer. You know, really getting in the customer’s shoes.
Product management is very similar to brand management in this way. Core activities will involve:
- Product roadmap
Other core activities can involve marketing strategy, forecasting, risk analysis, and more. A continuous finger on the industry pulse, particularly with competitors, is essential. Agility in business is more important than ever before.
A product manager needs expertise and confidence across all these areas. The role is analytical, diplomatic, visionary, and data-driven.
Bhandari of McKinsey & Company explains the basis: “It’s the data and your users who decide where your product goes. So most of the actual time is spent in analysing data and listening to feedback from the users.”
Or, as Vijayan of OFX says, “Concrete data insights and customer insights are powerful tools to have in your toolkit”.
In other words, the right data will show you the way forward.
Key product manager responsibilities: Finessing and motivating stakeholders
Of course, it’s not just all getting a bunch of market research done, turning that into some sort of product, and then putting your dev team to task.
It’s as much about being a good manager and communicator, diplomatic go-between, and motivator as it is about trying to build a killer product.
Vijayan elaborates: “We bring together a cross-functional team (none of whom report to you), motivate them to work towards a common product vision, and ‘earn’ their respect and trust – with little authority. So, being a product manager is less about total authority and more about ‘helping’ the team ship the right product to customers.”
Being a product manager involves speaking to many different sets of people and stakeholders about their pain points; the customers, C-suite, investors, data scientists, the dev team, testers, marketing… the list goes on.
Hart highlights the importance of being able to effectively navigate communication throughout your role: “Product management is all about solving other people’s problems. From the grand scope of solving those of the customer, to those of the business, to those of your team. Learning to balance keeping all of the plates spinning in the short term whilst never taking one’s eyes off the prize is an incredibly difficult, yet important, thing to do.”
Unexpected challenges that your product manager job could throw at you
We’ve handpicked a few first-hand insights from our panel of experts:
“Constantly changing dynamics are always a challenge. Product managers need to be versatile and adaptable to deal with changes in things such as the delivery team, technology, market trends, competitors etc. All product managers encounter failures; the best ones learn from those failures, fast.” – Karlekar
“Depending on where you work, there might not be as much value placed on the customer as might be needed. It is your responsibility to make sure they are championed and that the Developers have what they need to create an awesome product.” – Fischer
“If you are not from computer engineering background, the initial challenge would be with getting used to the technical language and word used by engineers. Later on, the most important challenge would be with prioritisation. It’s not easy and you need all the help you can get.” – Bhandari
“While it is important the team understands the WHAT, the WHY is more important. It is crucial to bring the development team closer to customers and stakeholders by involving them in customer sessions, usability tests and stakeholder discussions. These insights go a long way in motivating the team and providing the wider context needed to build the right solution.” – Vijayan
Ok, product management sounds challenging but really fun!
Well, we’re convinced that a career in product management sounds challenging but extremely rewarding – how about you? Have the skills to launch into a product management role yet? Perhaps you’re already a product executive wanting to take the next step?
Have a browse through our open job opportunities. Or, to dip your toes into the product management community and get involved in some training, follow Hart’s excellent recommendation and check out Brainmates.