WTF is a Product Manager?

A primer for aspiring or junior PMs


Many of my friends and acquaintances have approached me with interests in Tech and often asks me about Product Management: What exactly is it? What is your day-to-day like? What does it takes to get into this field? This post is meant to introduce new or aspiring PMs to the idea of Product Management (and subsequently save me time repeating myself on the topic).

I have had the honor of managing products for the better part of the past 5 years, working in various industries, partnering with a variety of stakeholders, interviewing countless candidates, landing/getting rejected from PM openings myself,and getting invaluable experience along the way. More importantly, I have also had the privilege of launching quite a few products in this time—some were good, some were bad, all were great lessons.

(It’s also important to note that every industry, company, organization, and team views their PM’s just ever so slightly differently. While my experiences have primarily been in tech and startups, I’ll try to present an industry-agnostic distillation with my insights and observation.)

To start, Product Management is just what it sounds like: managing products. But what does that really mean? It means you manage a product — all aspects of it.

You need to understand the customer needs and what the current market landscape is like, conceive the best solution to the problem you are trying to solve, and launch a product that fulfills its goals and hits the market in a timely fashion. It’s also about the product once it has been launched — maintain performance and relevance throughout the product’s life cycle by tuning or adding features.

Also, as a Product Manager, you don’t work in a vacuum. In fact, most of the execution from the PM’s perspective doesn’t actually involve touching and developing the product itself. It involves guiding and empowering the team around you to do their best work, and solving whatever problems they may run into.

Here are what I consider the 3 pillars of Product Management — skills that you must have to be a successful PM:

  1. Product Sense
  2. Analytical Rigor
  3. Cross-Functional Leadership

I’ll elaborate further on each below.


1. Product Sense

This is a very broad category and tends to be specific to industries. It’s also the category that is the most difficult to quantify. Here are some of the key points in what it means to have Product Sense:

  • Be clear on your goal — what problem are you solving with this product? What are your goals? Who are you serving? You’d be surprised how often the answers to these questions gets overlooked throughout the development of the product.
  • Empathize with your customer — understanding what motivates them, and knowing how your product deliver value to them.
  • Driven by design — you must have the ability to design a great solution to solve your customers’ problem from the ground up; this often includes having a sense of what works and what doesn’t work before any validation or proof-of-concepts.
  • Balance needs — you must steer the product, first and foremost, towards fulfilling the customer needs (value creation), while keeping it completely in line with the goals of the business (value capture).
  • Know your market — inside and out.
  • Be creative — you often draw relevant inferences, inspiration, and solutions from adjacent (and sometime completely unrelated) industries or products.

2. Analytical Rigor

Analytical Rigor include core competencies in quantitative and qualitative analysis, as well as general problem solving:

  • Fly high, get low — being extremely versatile in both breaking down complex concepts into simple pieces and stepping back to understand the big picture. It’s really difficult to change context between the two often, but you often must do this in the same sitting.
  • Near-OCD approach to problem solving — you must use an incredibly organized, comprehensive, consistent, and detail-oriented approach to solve problems. Think the scientific method: define the problem, form a hypothesis, gather data, draw conclusions, and relate it back to a list of next-steps.
  • Decisions, decisions — you weigh known quantities quickly and comprehensively, assess unknown quantities with the proper risks and rewards, and are prepared to make MANY decisions… QUICKLY and on-the-fly, especially in terms of prioritization.
  • Thorough understanding of key metrics — you can identify substantive and actionable metrics that impact your business in a meaningful way(while avoiding vanity metrics) and have a good cache of proven means to move the needle on any given number.
  • Big on data — you know what kind of data is available, how to get to the data, what kind of analysis you can run against it to get the answer you need, and most importantly, how to to communicate the findings effectively.
  • Killing it in MS Excel — you’re very comfortable with pivotal tables, vlookups, and the likes.

3. Cross-Functional Leadership

Depending on the organizational structure, you will often take a leadership role way beyond the scope of their own core competencies. Some may boil this cross-functional leadership role into “project management,” but it is much,much more. The team is looking to you to give them clear direction, and it’s up to you to leverage your Product Sense and Analytical Rigor to lead the charge!

  • Paint the common vision — selling the stars to the team, getting everyone on board the same rocket ship, then keeping the team inspired throughout the development.
  • Understand everyone’s perspective — this means you’re able to speak everyone’s language(talking to Engineers about DB designing schema and tuning algorithms, then turning around to provide feedback for Designers about user flows and wire frames) and empathizing with their motivations and challenges.
  • Steer the ship — providing on-going direction at the high-level as well as attending the pertinent organizational minutiae the makes the team run smoothly and efficiently.
  • Knowing when and how to say no — being the bearer of bad news while maintaining good working relationships. This is one of the hardest and most nuanced part of the job; an entire book can probably be written about this topic.
  • Staying out of the team’s way — being an expert at define the “whats” and “whys” without getting into the “hows…” and knowing when to jump in for an assist and get out as soon as you’re not absolutely needed.

This list is by no means exhaustive, nor has each point been fully elaborated on. In fact, each of these bullet points can probably be a stand-alone blog post or two in and of themselves. Please do leave notes and thoughts on anything I may have missed!

For some additional readings that has helped led me form my perspective throughout the years, check out these awesome resources.