What is a product manager?
A product manager (PM) plays a pivotal role, sitting at the intersection of technology, the customer, and the business in most tech companies. It’s their job to manage their product or service to ensure it is valuable and desirable to both its customers and the business, and that it’s feasible.
They are responsible for guiding the entire product lifecycle, from conception to launch, and beyond. A PM’s main responsibilities revolve around understanding customer needs, defining product strategies, and ensuring the product meets business goals.
One central aspect of a PM’s role is translating business goals to the engineering team, and the folks designing and building the product. They are also responsible for collaborating closely with other areas of the business, such as Sales, Customer Success, and Marketing. They ensure that everyone understands what is being done and why.
By effectively establishing and communicating the product vision and strategy, the product manager ensures that all team members understand the goals and work together towards achieving them. Effectively, they sit between the technical people building the product and the commercial teams looking to sell it.
Additionally, a PM is responsible for reporting on the progress of product development. They track key metrics, analyze user feedback, and make data-driven decisions to optimize the product and prioritize initiatives. By regularly communicating updates to stakeholders, they keep the entire team aligned and informed.
Any organization that builds products or services that need to create ongoing value for their end customer or internal users will benefit from having a product manager.
What does a product manager do?
The product manager role is dynamic and multifaceted, involving a wide range of responsibilities throughout the product lifecycle. PMs are essentially the architects and advocates for a product, ensuring its success by aligning it with both customer needs and the company’s strategic objectives.
The PM is responsible for working with the different stakeholders around them, from business to tech, and marketing and sales. They need to develop a deep understanding of the different needs of the business and of their customers, in order to achieve their business objectives. They communicate and orchestrate to ensure that the right product decisions are made.
Here’s a closer look at the key tasks and functions that define a product manager’s role:
1. Defining the product strategy and vision
At the core of product management is setting the product’s strategic direction. This includes defining the long-term vision for the product, understanding market trends, and identifying opportunities for growth.
PMs must answer fundamental questions such as who the target audience is, what problems the product aims to solve, and how it will provide value to users and the business.
They also need to set and manage the product’s goals, determining what success looks like and how it is measured. The Objective and Key Result (OKR) framework is one of the most common, in which PMs specify specific, measurable, and time-bound key results in order to determine if they have met their objectives.
2. Conducting market research and gathering customer insights
To make informed decisions, product managers need to stay deeply connected with their target market. This involves conducting market research, competitor analysis, and gathering customer feedback and insights.
PMs leverage this data to identify trends, validate assumptions, and refine the product’s features and direction.
3. Creating and maintaining a product roadmap
The product roadmap is the blueprint for the product’s development journey. Product managers create and maintain this roadmap, outlining the important problems to solve, the target outcomes, and the order in which they’ll be tackled.
They prioritize features and initiatives based on business goals, market demands, and customer feedback, ensuring that the product evolves strategically.
4. Prioritizing problems to be solved
Not all initiatives can be implemented at once, so prioritizing which product ideas get built and when is absolutely central to product management. PMs often use prioritization frameworks and techniques such as the MoSCoW method to allocate resources effectively and focus on the most critical elements that will have the greatest impact on the product’s success.
Product managers often find themselves grappling with differing demands from different stakeholders. From important customers who want a particular piece of functionality, to executives in the business who want to beat a competitor’s feature, the PM is the one who must weigh up these competing needs and make a decision on what will ensure both the product vision and business objectives are met.
They need to consider a wide range of variables when prioritizing what to work on and when, including (but not limited to):
- Strategic alignment
- Market demand
- Business impact
- Technical feasibility
- Resource constraints
- Time sensitivity
- User feedback
- Data insights
5. Collaborating with development and design teams
Effective collaboration is key to bringing the product to life. Product managers work closely with cross-functional teams, including developers, designers, and quality assurance engineers.
They communicate the product vision, provide guidance, and facilitate discussions to ensure that the team is aligned with the product’s goals.
6. Launching new products and features and developing go-to-market strategies
A successful product launch is a pivotal moment. PMs are responsible for planning and executing the product’s introduction to the market. Although it’s more common for product managers to be working on existing products, there’s a chance that at some point in their career, they’ll be responsible for managing a brand-new product.
In that case, they’ll be responsible for go-to-market strategies, and working closely with marketing to generate awareness, interest, and adoption. This isn’t confined to new products, as PMs will often be responsible for launching major new features and services, and will want to drive engagement with these too.
7. Measuring product performance with key metrics and KPIs
PMs continuously monitor the product’s performance using Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) such as user engagement, conversion rates, and customer satisfaction. They use this data to evaluate the product’s success and make data-driven decisions for improvements.
8. Collecting and incorporating user feedback for continuous improvement
Feedback loops are essential for product enhancement. PMs actively seek and collect user feedback, whether through customer interviews, surveys, or user analytics. Using this feedback, they iterate on the product, addressing pain points, enhancing user experiences, and keeping the product relevant in a rapidly changing market.
In essence, a product manager is a visionary, strategist, communicator, and facilitator, all rolled into one. Their role is to balance the needs of the market, the organization, and the product itself. They guide it through its lifecycle to achieve sustainable success.
The dynamic nature of the job requires adaptability, empathy, and a passion for delivering value to both customers and the business.
How do you become a product manager?
Here is some advice direct from ProdPad’s co-founder and CEO Janna Bastow, who herself is a highly experienced PM:
There are many routes to becoming a product manager. PMs come from all different backgrounds – some come from development backgrounds, others from customer support, sales, or marketing, but many don’t follow the “conventional” way. You’re just as likely to meet a PM with a legal or health-tech background.Janna Bastow, ProdPad co-founder and CEO
You could take the “normal” training route to get in, but you don’t need it to get into product management. To become a PM, you need to be curious and ask a lot of questions, and you need to be able to empathize with people on your team. You need to be willing to learn new skills on the job, and be able to work with the different stakeholders around you.
Find yourself a spot within the business where you can work adjacent to the people who are working on Product. Start working out what they’re doing, and figuring out if you can help solve problems in their space. That will also give you a sense as to whether product management is a space that you want to work in.
A product manager needs a wide range of different types of skills and characteristics to be really successful in their role, largely in the soft skills areas. They need to be compassionate, curious, and tenacious.
PMs need to really be able to dig down into the depths of a problem, to figure out what’s going on, whether it’s a customer, business, or process problem, or whatever other sort of problems occurring that are in their remit.
They also need to be highly empathetic, because they’re going to need to not just work with the end customer, but also a huge swathe of different types of stakeholders around them. They’re going to have to figure out how they can influence people to solve problems and get things done in the business, even though they don’t necessarily have direct authority over those people.
What’s the difference between a product manager and a project manager?
The difference between a product manager and a project manager is often misunderstood, with the two roles mistakenly being regarded as interchangeable. They are not. A product manager and a project manager are two distinct and very different roles, each with their own set of responsibilities and areas of focus.
The primary focus of a product manager is on the product itself. They are responsible for defining the product strategy, and creating the product roadmap. They ensure the product both meets user needs and aligns with the company’s goals.
PMs are concerned with the “what” and “why” of a product. They determine what features to build, why those features are important, and how they will benefit the users and the business.
The central role of a project manager is to oversee the successful execution of a specific project. They manage the project’s scope, resources, timelines, and budget to ensure it is delivered on time and within budget.
Project managers are focused on the “how” of a project. They develop project plans, allocate resources, coordinate tasks, and mitigate risks to ensure the project is completed efficiently.
PMs typically have a long-term perspective. They are responsible for the entire product lifecycle, from conceptualization to post-launch enhancements and iterations. They need to think strategically about the product’s evolution and its alignment with the company’s vision over an extended period, beyond the completion of individual projects.
Project managers work within a defined timeframe. Their role revolves around managing a project’s schedule and ensuring it is completed within the specified time frame, whether it’s a few weeks or several months.
While both product managers and project managers play critical roles in the success of an organization, their roles and areas of focus are distinct. Product managers are responsible for the strategic direction and long-term success of a product. Project managers are focused on the tactical execution of specific projects within defined timeframes and budgets.
What’s the difference between a product manager and a product owner?
Again, here’s another role that is often confused with the product manager role. The roles of a product manager and a product owner are often seen as one and the same thing, but there are distinct differences between the two.
It can be difficult to give catch-all definitions, as the job and role descriptions can vary from one company to the next. In broad strokes, however, a product manager is responsible for the overall strategy and vision of a product throughout its lifecycle, as described above.
On the other hand, a product owner is a role within the Scrum development methodology, and is primarily responsible for managing the day-to-day execution of the product development process. They work closely with the development team to prioritize and manage the product backlog.
The product owner is responsible for translating the product manager’s high-level vision into day-to-day actionable tasks. They help keep the development team working on the right initiatives, by writing user stories and product specs, and they ensure that user needs are represented.
The product owner works in tandem with the product manager, focusing more on the technical aspects of the product. It is worth noting that they are not mutually exclusive: “product manager” is a job title, while “product owner” is a specific role within a Scrum team.
Indeed, sometimes the product manager can act as the product owner as well, making the definition even harder to firmly nail down.
Essentially, while both roles contribute to the success of a product, the product manager drives the overall strategy and vision, whereas the product owner focuses on the tactical execution within the agile development process.
The former is outward-facing, watching the market and observing customers, while the latter is inward-facing, working with internal teams to build the products.
ProdPad CEO Janna Bastow’s top 3 tips for being a successful product manager
Surround yourself with other product people
As a PM, you are going to pick up experiences, which are a great way to learn, but another way to accelerate your learning is to surround yourself with other product people and learn from their experiences as well.
If you do that, when you hit a wall or an obstacle in your life as a PM you can pull on not just your own experiences, but experiences that you’ve learned from other people’s stories about how they’ve handled things.
Make space for learning
Make space for spending time to read, learn new tools and new ways of working, and learn how different frameworks work. That way you’ve got things in your back pocket for when different problems and opportunities come up in your life as a PM.
It’s really important to never forget to ask questions. It’s not your job to have all the answers, it’s your job to ask the best questions. So surround yourself with the experts in your team and in the industry, in your discipline.
Ask really good questions, and learn from those around you. Use their insights as a way to lift yourself up as a product manager.