Hot Take: What it really means to be a Product Manager

I just completed my first year as a Product Manager (woo-hoo!). At many companies (including ours) there’s no clear *path* to product management — and often no clear job description. My boss recently asked me to contribute to a JD, and I expanded on my original document below.

As a Product Manager, your job is to cast a vision for your product that supports and fulfills the strategic goals of the company. You’ll act as a human API between designers, engineers, and marketers to bring that vision to life.

It’s on you to ensure that your product is solving problems, serving customers, and fulfilling its business goals.

Your success as a Product Manager (PM) is measured by the output of your team — by the product you build, ship, and market to your customers.

As a PM, you will work across different departments and disciplines on a daily basis. Your job as a PM is to lead and influence a team of diverse individual contributors to build and ship a product that they couldn’t do on their own. This is called “leverage”. Brandon Chu wrote an incredible piece on leverage and you should read it immediately.

Being a good PM will require Olympian flexibility.

Every day, every hour could be different from the one before it. You’re a utility player. No task is beneath you. Brandon Chu (mentioned above) wrote what I consider to be a foundational post on the different knowledge domains of product management.

You should be able to learn and articulate the underlying technologies of your product. As someone from a non-technical, non-typical background, I’m living proof that anyone can do this. Bo Ren wrote a great essay a while back that every product person from a liberal arts background should read.

Be humble, ask questions, and read lots of books. Ask your engineers what books and blogs you should be reading. Read them.

You don’t need an MBA to be a successful PM, but you should be able to clearly understand and articulate your business goals and the KPIs you’ll use to measure success. You’ll need to own the “why” behind the product you’re building. If you can’t answer “why?” you’ve already lost.

You’ll need to understand good principles for project management, so that your team can build and ship your product on time and under budget.

On a daily basis you’ll articulate scope and will make difficult tradeoffs. You need to understand how tradeoffs will impact your timeline. You are ultimately responsible for when and what you ship. Be prepared to give an account for your timeline.

Empathy and humility will take your project management to the next level.

Speaking of empathy and humility — to be successful in this role, you can’t be a jerk. A gentle answer turns away wrath.

You’ll interact with people up and down the chain of command. You need to feel comfortable pitching executives (including the CEO), having technical conversations with engineers, and collaborating with designers and artists.

It’s likely that you’ll have no direct reports — so your leadership is primarily through influence and trust that you build over time with your team. You need to be good at telling people “no” without telling them no. You need to be equally good at telling people “yes” and executing on your commitments and the commitments that you make on behalf of your team.

One of your highest-leverage activities as a PM is creating clarity. Everyone on your team should know what they’re working on, why they’re working on it, and how it contributes to the overall mission. Patrick Lencioni wrote a great book on this called The Advantage.

The best way to create clarity is through writing.

Mediocre writing leads to a mediocre product.

The best piece I’ve read on creating clarity through writing is On Writing Product Specs by Gaurav Oberoi. Writing clarifies your thoughts and creates an artifact that your team can process, debate with, and refer to.


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