Why Product Management Roles Differ Across Companies

Catherine Shyu
Sep 21, 2016 · 4 min read

People trying to enter product management often ask the question (unfortunately while pulling out their hair), “why do product roles look so different at each company?” The role can be totally different depending on the industry you’re looking at, the size of the company, the number of products, and more.

The framework I focus on in this post is both an answer and a help guide. It explains why PM roles can be so different, and gives you a core set of accountabilities you can work towards mastering.

Product management has become defined as a role that will inherently change depending on the things your company needs to do to get a product into the market. It’s partially our industry’s own doing by claiming product managers should “do whatever it takes to ship the product.”

Product Management Skill Areas

We fill in the gaps — depending on the skills the organization needs and the skills you have, you could be a more design, business, or technically oriented Product Manager. It is a role that is defined by the lack of skills within an organization.

When we break down the responsibilities of Product Managers and its adjacent roles (Product Marketers, Program Managers and UX Designers), you’ll understand why a PM’s role can encompass so many different activities. The venn diagram covering Tech, UX and Business that describes product management actually translates to a responsibilities breakdown fairly well.

The PM Roles-Adjacent Framework

Product Management has some core responsibilities (center of diagram) that won’t change from company to company. In addition, the responsibilities in the overlap are ones you should be comfortable with, because you may be called on to use them. With this framework, you can look at a company, see which role(s) they don’t have, then make an educated guess at what the PM role looks like. The order these adjacent roles are hired at a company are fairly predictable. In chronological order, the general hiring priorities are 1) Product Manager, 2) Product Marketer, 3) UX Designer and 4) Program Manager.

Responsibilities of Product Management and its adjacent roles

Diving in deeper, these are the three roles you should be able to play if needed:

Program Manager

Program management (or project management) in larger companies usually presents as a role that has multiple departments involved in the creation of a product. This requires the Product Manager to coordinate between all of them, and can easily suck up a large chunk of time. Program Managers take on this responsibility usually when a Product Manager can no longer spend time on product vision, roadmap, and other strategy work.

Program managers make sure a project ships on time. This entails:

  • Own the engineering estimates and ultimate ship date
  • Mitigate risks and dependencies that affect the ship date
  • Run and optimize the agile process for their team
  • Unblock the engineers on a day-to-day basis

At organizations where program/project management is not a role, the Product Manager owns the delivery estimate and helps ensure engineers are working as efficiently as possible.

Product Marketer

Product marketing is the business-side counterpart to product management (where PMs work with engineering, PMMs work with sales), and is responsible for positioning and marketing the product. Product Marketers are like Product Managers in that the Product Marketing Manager role is created once a company has enough products to require a dedicated marketing person to make them successful in the market. Based on the amount of work a good Product Marketer can take off a Product Manager’s plate, a PMM hire can really level up the capacity for product work within the organization.

Product Marketers are the experts on the market. This entails:

  • Price and position the product
  • Own the market and competitive research
  • Create marketing collateral and train Sales.

When an organization doesn’t have a PMM, that means the responsibilities of product positioning, launches, sales collateral and more are split between the Product Manager and Marketing team.

UX Designer

A UX Designer usually doesn’t get hired until a company has an established design team, so those skills are worth investing your time into learning. Product Managers will always be expected to participate in many of a UX Designer’s activities, so it helps your career to be able to run a usability test or explain your vision in wireframes.

UX Designers own the user journey through the product. This entails:

  • Understand users and create personas
  • Create low-fidelity wireframes and prototypes
  • Test these designs with users, analyze the data and iterate

Many companies will split a UX Designer’s responsibilities between the Product Designer and Product Manager roles.

You can use the above framework for establishing a baseline of where you are, deciding where you want to focus your learning efforts, and researching what a PM role will look like at a particular company.

Product Management is a broad discipline, and your job will change from day to day, person to person and company to company. Hopefully this clarifies one of the mystical questions that even practicing Product Managers wonder all the time: “why is my job so different from X’s?”.

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