Product Management is struggling for a definition

I’ve had two articles at the bottom of my Pocket for a while. Not just any ordinary articles though; rather, mega lists of blog posts:

If I was going to read all the articles I thought it would be wise to at least try and summarize some themes I saw after days of reading.

All in all, I scanned over ~100 posts. In the end, however, I’m just looking into 36 for my commentary below. Some of the posts were listed in both articles, and others were valuable but were a bit broad for the scope of this analysis.

Here’s what I took away…

What is Product Management, exactly?

10 of the 36 articles directly addressed the fact that it’s often difficult to understand what the discipline of product management is, or what the function of a product manager is.

As Andrew Chen notes: “The role of ‘product manager’ ‘program manager’ ‘project manager’ is one of the toughest, and worst defined jobs in tech.”


Some nice definitions of the role were offered to cut through the confusion:

  • Josh Elman wrote that a Product Manager should “Help your team (and company) ship the right product to your users.”
  • Hunter Walk thought that Product Managers have 3 jobs — essentially 1/3rd project manager, 1/3rd product manager, and 1/3rd CEO.
  • Satya Patel went about describing the role of Product Managers via an in-depth PM Manifesto of sorts, a can’t miss post titled “We Are Product Managers.”

Great Product Managers Get The Right Things Done To Channel The Company’s Vision, Without Any Excuses

Once a definition was established, many of the posts quickly turned to the skills that one must display to become a “great product manager.”

Across the dozens of articles, hundreds of traits were mentioned. I attempted to bucket these into distinct themes that emerged. The most common are below:

Even when you look at it this way, many of these traits are still pretty vague and soft. In some ways, they mimic the act of entrepreneurship itself — translating a vision into a reality, often following a road that is nearly always shrouded in fog. This process is messy, and most don’t make it. But, every once in a while, glorious things can be born out of this struggle.

Other traits that were mentioned a few times: being able to clear roadblocks for others (4), showing ownership (4), being good at a particular process (4), being positive (4), recruiting and leading the right team (4), understanding good design (3), being metrics obsessed (3, and having an ability to adapt (3).

Bad Product Managers Are Too Involved (In The Wrong Ways)

If we now know what makes a good product manager, then how about a bad one? A few articles touched briefly on this subject.

Far and away, the most common trait mentioned in a negative way was getting involved in the wrong ways. Variations of this included:

  • Getting too far into the “how” and technical details of a project
  • Working on things that don’t matter
  • Micromanaging
  • Being too much of a “project manager” rather than a “product manager”

Product Management Is A 100+ Year Old Discipline

A set of three posts — “The Origins Of Product Management” (part 1, part 2, part 3) were so unique that they deserve a special mention.

They traced the origins of product management to industries far before modern technology and far beyond Silicon Valley.

Start with the story of Proctor & Gamble, the powerhouse of Cincinnati; Camay Soap, a little known line; McElory, a brand man; and a memo that transformed everything.

My Favorite Posts

The quality of these posts was exceptional. Some really talented individuals set aside hours to share knowledge that will surely benefit the next breed of product managers building world changing products.

Narrowing the list down, a few that I’ve found myself going back to over and over again:

My Wish List For The Next 36 Articles

A few things I’d love to see a bit more of in the next generation of product management related writing:

  • More Specific Companies, Product Decisions, and Product Managers Referenced — This would further help give some concrete examples in a discipline lacking definition. Only a few specific product managers, companies, or actual products were referenced amongst the articles I read.
  • More Articles By Current Product Managers — Many of the great articles I read were written by former product managers who are now in venture capital or hold advisory roles. While their experience and expertise is valuable, thoughts from those currently going through the product trenches would be a welcome addition.

I’m building Bamboo, a mobile advertising agency focused on helping great products grow in sustainable, transparent ways.
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