What Product Managers are NOT and What They Really Do
From UX designers to Engineers, nowadays most of us seem to have jobs that are very difficult to explain to our grandparents. Product Manager is no exception. Even within companies who have Product Management (PM) teams, there can easily be some confusion over what the role is, and what exactly they do. So perhaps it would be easier to take a look at what Product Managers are not.
Project Managers Are Not Product Managers
While this can sometimes be excused as a slip of the tongue, this is the most common misconception, especially thanks to the shared PM abbreviation. And yes, to an outsider there are other similarities. Both require a science-based approach, with thoughts towards careful evidence-based planning. But a Product Manager has its feet planted firmly in the digital age, and requires a more fluid, contemporary experience. The doctrines of Project Management work across sectors, and have remained relatively unchanged at their core over the last few years. However, Product Management is constantly shifting, with new thought processes and methodologies being added every month.
This means that Product Managers can adapt to different sectors with relative ease, whereas a Project Manager will normally be specialized in a certain field. Project Management also comes with a set of pre-agreed targets, usually passed down by leadership, and the success of the Project Manager is based on meeting these targets. Product Managers on the other hand, have a more open list of targets, and can be much more flexible and adaptable depending on what the Product needs at certain stages of development. A Product Manager is also the keeper and leader of the Product vision, while a Project Manager is more in-charge of meticulous planning and scheduling based on the aforementioned targets.
Unfortunately, as the vast differences between the two are still so critically misunderstood, even within big companies, Product Managers find themselves stuck in the role of Project Manager. It’s up to leadership to fully understand the differences between these two roles. It may fall on the shoulders of each PM to explain to the higher ups what their roles should involve. It’s to the benefit of the entire company for everyone to have their skills used in the right places. If you find yourself in a Project Manager position and realize that maybe you’re more suited to Product, the transition is easier than you think.
Is a Product Manager the CEO of a Product?
What people really mean when they call PMs CEOs, is that they have a handle on all aspects of a product and liaise with practically every single person deeply involved in its progression. According to traditional hierarchical structures, this would place them above everyone in an overseers position, so we can see how the comparison to CEO can be drawn.
Maybe to some PMs it’s flattering to be bestowed this title, but being named the CEO of anything gives PMs a level of authority (and responsibility) that they just don’t have…or necessarily want.
PM is a much more team-based role. Even the most senior PMs don’t decide who to hire and fire with absolute authority, and they’ll always have someone to answer to. In terms of office politics, it’s also one of the worst things you could say to colleagues, who don’t want to feel like they have to run every decision by you, or that you’ll be bossing them around. A great PM is a team-player, not a dictator.
Tech Enthusiasts, but Not Experts
Another myth around Product Management is that a PM must know the product inside and out, down to every line of code. This misconception is common in the outside world, with friends and family looking at our jobs and imagining PMs to be app-building Wizkids. They look at us and see Steve Jobs (OK maybe they don’t but it’s a nice ego-boost to imagine so). And even within our companies, anyone involved in a digital product is assumed to be a technological genius.
Some of our instructors do recommend learning the basics of code, as this will help you communicate more effectively with your tech team and ask the right questions. It also feels natural for someone so deeply involved in digital products to be curious about learning exactly how they work. But this is not a requirement of the job, and no one should assume that their PM friend can help them write the code for their new website.
It’s also no coincidence that transitions from engineering to Product Management are fairly common. It’s important to bear in mind, especially if you are currently job-hunting, that some companies do require a tech background for their PM roles. We all know that each product is unique and some require a higher level of technical know-how than others. If you’re aiming to work at Google, for example, they are well known for requiring a bachelor’s degree in software engineering.
Less tech-dependent roles, such as Facebook’s RPM program, offer exposure to technical experience whilst not requiring formal training.
Is a Product Manager a Marketer?
Similar to not being experts in tech, PMs are also not as heavily involved in marketing as many think. While the two disciplines are heavily focused on the customer, marketing requires its own skill set and its own guidelines. Knowing the customer is an absolutely vital part or being a PM, but it doesn’t mean you know how to create the perfect Facebook ad segment.
It’s the job of the PM to be aware of how the marketing team for their product operates and what future campaigns will be run, but it is not their responsibility to have an overly hands-on approach. For example, a PM can ask to see a draft of the next email marketing campaign to make sure it’s factual, but they won’t be crafting the funnel themselves. There wouldn’t be Masters and PhDs for marketing if it was something people could just pick up along the way. Of course a person may be interested in both Product Management and Marketing…which is precisely why Product Marketing Managers exist. What a time to be alive!
Who are the Final Decision Makers?
There is of course a lot of decision making involved in a product lifecycle. The same people who call PMs the CEO of a product are probably the same people who think the PM calls all the shots. In reality, Product Management is about coordinating different teams and making sure that their decisions align with each other. A PM is a facilitator of effective decision making, not an overlord. Giving a PM such power also seems to remove the question of stakeholders. It’s the PMs job to manage stakeholders, something I have spoken about at length.
So…What is a Product Manager?
Product Managers wear many hats, and it can be difficult to succinctly explain what the job involves to outsiders. How can we condense it down into an elevator pitch when it involves so much? What makes this task even harder, is that each product requires a slightly different PM, depending on factors like industry, B2B vs B2C, digital vs traditional, software vs hardware…the list is endless.
You may have seen the popular question “How would you explain Product Management to a five-year old?” floating around the internet. How would you sum up Product Management in just a few words? Tweet us your answer using #ProductSchool!
I’m Carlos González, CEO at Product School, and I enjoy sharing weekly tips for Product leaders!
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This article was also published on The Product Management Blog.