Because I teach a course on product management at Harvard Business School, I am routinely asked “What is the role of a product manager?” The role of product manager (PM) is often referred to as the “CEO of the product.” I disagree because, as Martin Eriksson points out, “Product managers simply don’t have any direct authority over most of the things needed to make their products successful — from user and data research through design and development to marketing, sales, and support.” PMs are not the CEO of product, and their roles vary widely depending on a number of factors. So, what should you consider if you’re thinking of pursuing a PM role?
Aspiring PMs should consider three primary factors when evaluating a role: core competencies, emotional intelligence (EQ), and company fit. The best PMs I have worked with have mastered the core competencies, have a high EQ, and work for the right company for them. Beyond shipping new features on a regular cadence and keeping the peace between engineering and the design team, the best PMs create products with strong user adoption that have exponential revenue growth and perhaps even disrupt an industry.
There are core competencies that every PM must have — many of which can start in the classroom — but most are developed with experience, good role models, and mentoring. Some examples of these competencies include:
conducting customer interviews and user testing
running design sprints
feature prioritization and road map planning
the art of resource allocation (it is not a science!)
performing market assessments
translating business-to-technical requirements, and vice versa
pricing and revenue modeling
defining and tracking success metrics
These core competencies are the baseline for any PM, and the best PMs hone these skills over years of defining, shipping, and iterating on products. These PMs excel at reflecting on where each of these competencies have contributed to the success or failure of their products and continuously adjusting their approach based on customer feedback.
Self-management. Being a PM can be incredibly stressful. The CEO wants one thing, the engineering team another, and customers have their own opinions about feature priorities. Managing tight deadlines, revenue targets, market demands, prioritization conflicts, and resource constraints all at once is not for the faint of heart. If a PM cannot maintain their emotions and keep it cool under pressure, they can quickly lose the confidence of all their constituents. The best PMs know how to push hard on the right priorities, with urgency but without conveying a sense of panic or stress. These PMs also know when to take a breath and step away to regroup.
If the best PMs have well-developed core competencies and a high EQ, does that mean they are destined for success no matter where they work? Not necessarily. In fact, taking these skills and personality traits and applying them to the right company is what will ultimately guarantee success.
I have yet to see a standard job description for a product manager, because each role is ultimately defined by the size, type of product, stage, industry, and even culture of the company. If you possess the core competencies and high EQ needed to be a successful PM, the next step is to unpack who’s hiring and what they are truly looking for.
PM drives engineering. This is a “throw it over the wall” approach, where PMs gather requirements, write the quintessential product requirements document, and hand it off to engineering to spec out the technical requirements. Contemporary organizations may do this process in a more agile and collaborative way, but the expectation is that PMs know best about what customers need and engineering is there to serve.
Pro: Engineering can focus on coding without a lot of distraction; this tends to work well for Waterfall development shops with long lifecycles.
Con: Engineers lose sight of the big picture and do not develop empathy for customers, which can lead to a poor user experience. Often there are unhealthy tensions when technical debt and “plumbing” work needs to be prioritized over customer requirements.
Engineering drives product. More technically oriented product companies (cloud, big data, networking) tend to be engineering-driven, where engineers are advancing the science in their domain and PMs validate solutions or create front end access points (UIs, APIs) to tap into this new technology. There can be a collaborative relationship and feedback loop between customers, PMs, and engineering, but typically PMs are serving engineering in these companies.
Pro: Breakthrough technology can offer customers things they didn’t even know they needed. VMotion at VMware was a great example of this. An engineer thought it would be cool to do, a PM figured out how to monetize it, and it became a billion-dollar game changer for the company.
Con: Engineers chase the shiny new thing, over-architect the solution, or iterate forever, seeking perfection before getting customer feedback. PM input on priorities is ignored, which sometimes includes the most basic needs of customers.
The PM-engineering partnership. In these cases, there is a strong yin-yang between PM and engineering, with joint discovery, decision making, and shared accountability. Engineers join PMs in customer interviews, and PMs are in sprint meetings to help unblock tasks or clarify requirements. But the two roles respect the line where one starts and the other stops. PMs understand what’s being coded but don’t tell engineers how to code, and engineers have empathy for customers’ needs but leave the prioritization to the PMs.
Pro: A streamlined prioritization process that values technical debt and plumbing projects; better design processes leading to a more positive user experience; higher-performing teams with improved product velocity, quality, and, typically, happier customers.
Con: Breakthrough innovation may not get greenlit; time-to-market may seem to lag (though I’d argue that what’s released is far better aligned with customer needs and more likely to successfully scale).
I’m clearly biased in favor of the third type of philosophy about PM (as is venture capitalist Fred Wilson), as I’ve experienced all three and found the yin-yang to be most effective. But that’s not to say the others are notably bad — it really depends on what type of product you’re building, the company stage, and more. Regardless, when considering a PM role, the philosophy of PM at the company could be the deciding factor on fit for the role.
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