What Does A Product Manager Actually Do?

Danni FriedlandProduct Manager1 Comment

The Product Managers' Role

Ever found yourself debating what does a product manager actually do, or what are the product manager’s areas of responsibility? We recently had a long debate about it.

Two weeks ago, we created a list of ‘31 product managers every product manager should follow’. While the idea of listing 31 product managers seems pretty straight forward, it actually opened a debate on “what is a product manager” – does it have to be a title, or is it basically a role someone needs to portray.

For example, Jack Dorsey is a CEO, but for me, he’s also a great product guy. Would you list him as a product manager? We did.

To try and clarify our dilemma, we’ve decided to dive into it – and of course share our insights.

Let’s take it from the top.

What does a product manager do

Before I go deeper and try to establish the exact definition of the product management role, I will start by saying the role definition changes from one company to another. It also changes as a company grows and evolves.

Product managers probably have the least glorified position within a startup company.

Everybody knows what the contribution of a designer or an engineer to a product is. They are the ones who build the actual product and make it look and work great. While their expertise is what gets the product built, it’s the product manager’s job to take the idea from start to finish.

They are the ones who take responsibility of every phase and action within the product’s lifecycle. Translating the idea or vision from the CEO and making it happen on the day to day – making it fit their customer needs.

The official definition comes from Wikipedia:

“A product manager communicates product vision from the highest levels of executive leadership to development and implementation teams. The product manager is often called the product “CEO.”

Some people consider the product manager to be the CEO of the product and is responsible for the strategy, roadmap, and feature definition for that product or product line.

The product manager's role

© 2011 Martin Eriksson. Re-use with appropriate attribution.

What are the product manager’s responsibilities

The product manager’s role includes wearing multiple hats at the same time, as they are in involved with all different aspects of the product.

The product manager’s role is at the intersection between business, technology and user experience.


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A product manager needs to be their company’s expert in the space in which the product exists.

Josh Elman, Former product manager at Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin (the list goes on) and these days partner at Greylock ventures describes the main roles and responsibilities of a product manager in one sentence, broken down to 5 categories.

“Help your team (and company) ship the right product to your users”

Help your yeam ship the right product to your users

Here’s how Josh breaks it down:

1. Help your team – “The best product managers spend all of their time on the highest priority things that help their team.”, Josh says.

A great product team makes the work of building a product into a collaborative effort and have collective feel of ownership over the result. The product is mix of all their ideas and inputs.

A good PM should focus on coordinating key decisions, work out any disagreements, break ties and get everyone to commit to a plan they can all agree on.

Your product shouldn’t be about building what your product manager thinks you should build, but making sure the team effort is directed the right way and everyone on the team in-sync and are able to do their best work.

2.And Company – Your product is a part of the company’s larger vision and goals. As a product manager you have to make sure the product you’re building and your team you are leading are being directed to the right place – aligned with the company’s needs and strategy.

3. Ship – If you’ve ever worked on a product you know you’re never going to get to a place where the product is “perfect”. There’s always more that can and needs to be done – but a product that doesn’t ship, is worse than a ‘not so perfect’ product that hits the market.

The product manager is the one that needs to balance between getting the product right, and getting it out in time.

PM role: Help your team (and company) ship the right product to your users”. Click To Tweet

4. The right product – the product manager is the one that really has to know the user’s needs and the competitor landscape. That’s why the product manager has to sometimes act as a compass for the product – directing it between what’s right and wrong for the product.

A good product manager has to have keen senses when it comes to building what’s right for the product’s sake and performance.

5. For your users – The hardest part in building a successful product is making sure it fits your audience’s needs.

The product manager needs to be able to create a story around the product – a story that resonates with the target audience, making it clear who the product was created for and how they should use it.

In an in-company discussion, the product manager needs to be the advocate for the user and his needs.

Adding to Elman’s list of responsibilities, Dan Schmidt adds another important responsibility:

Own the framework of quantification. The product manager is in charge of figuring out how to measure the product’s progress towards company goals and translate data into action. In some cases, this entails convincing management that a metric is toxic and should be removed as a gauge of success.”

Schmidt, VP product for MS Dave, and former PM for Cnet also makes a valid point when talking about the role of helping the learning process of the organization.

“If a product manager is responsible for such a product (one that is doomed to fail), it is their responsibility to communicate their experience with the product in a manner that makes the company smarter as a whole.”.

To summarize, the product manager has 3 big areas of responsibility :

  1. Directing the product from idea to execution including testing, costs, mass production, development, promotion and support.
  2. Deliver the operating plan including growth objectives, revenue, profits and ROI of business channels and key customers.
  3. Coordinate and envision the marketing activities from research to execution.

What it takes to be a good product manager:

A good PM needs to understand that it’s all about the bigger picture. It’s about building a product for the long term and winning over time. It’s not just about the next version, but the roadmap.

So what qualities should you look for when hiring a product manager?

Ken Norton, Partner at Google Ventures Formerly PM at Google had his share in recruiting product managers or being a part of the interview teams.

In his canonical post “How to hire a product manager” he shares some great insights of what a company needs to look for in its next hire.

First, he differentiates between small startups and large companies.

“At a startup, everyone does a little of everything, so you need strong generalists. More importantly, it’s hard to predict the future, so you need people who can adapt. “

In oppose to the startup mentality, when you hire at a big company, you would usually need a more experienced one-niche-focused person rather than someone who can easily adapt and act as Jack of all trades.

Here are his 6 big tips for hiring a great product manager:

  1. Hire all the smart people – Ken remarks that hiring someone who’s wickedly smart but lacks experience triumphes an “average intellect and years of experience” any day.
  1. Strong technical background – While not all product managers agrees on the amount of technical background a PM needs, they all agree they need to have enough technical understanding and experience to successfully convey product requirements to engineers and relay complicated details to non-technical colleagues and customers.
  1. Great instincts and creativity – When building a product, there is no bullet-proof way of making the right decisions. A lot of the choices you make are based on relying on your gut feeling and instinct. You need to have someone with great instincts. Notice that experience does not necessarily mean you’ve developed great instincts.
  1. Natural born leaders – Great product managers need to be able to lead their team based on values and dynamics, without rely on their title as “manager”. You need to be able to intuitively get people to listen to you, accept your authority and decision making process and more importantly trust you to guide them to do the right things and inspire them. No title can give you that, just personality.
  1. A 360 approach – A product manager needs to be many things for their company and product. They need to operate from the user point of view as well as represent the engineering, design, and marketing team in the product’s effort and coordination. You need to have someone who can be empathic and look at the big picture from all directions.
  1. Past experience – Seeing proof that somebody actually perfected a product from start to finish, from concept to launch is of course a great way to know their worth. Make sure you get someone who has already been through the process at least once. That’s the best proof of their capabilities.

In Conclusion

More than the day to day operations, a product manager is the person at a company that envisions the product and knows how to direct the team in the right path to building it.

Since young companies usually start their way by building one product, it’s not rare to see the CEO acting as the interim product manager and after a while will let the leading engineer (or CTO) inherent the role of leading and navigating the product’s roadmap.

The importance of having a good product manager, or looking at Product Management as a career option and not something you “become” is on the rise.

Are you the product manager in your company? Share with us your path to becoming a PM in the comments! What other roles have you portrayed, what’s your experience?

One Comment on “What Does A Product Manager Actually Do?”

  1. Timothy Hoyle

    As a product manager, the first thing I always wanted to confirm was that the product and the marketing were going to match up. Too often I found that marketing would hype the product but the actual deliverable did not do what was being hyped. I think you should explicitly call this out. I think you do in your article but not as significantly as I have seen needs to be done.

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