“You Would Make a Good Product Manager!”
Being a PM doesn’t mean you get to do everything.
I was at the Grace Hopper conference a few weeks ago, sitting at a table with some students who were looking for advice for post-graduation careers. One of the girls got really excited after I said I was a product manager at a startup. Her friend didn’t know what being a product manager meant, but mentioned that she was studying computer science, but really loved user experience design. The first girl popped up and said, “you would make a good product manager!”
I hear this often, whenever someone has a computer science background but also has strong interests in design or business. There are 2 sides to this sentence.
First, the positive: It’s only recently that the term “product manager” has filtered down into colleges as a career path. I had never heard of a product manager while I was in college (class of ‘11), and neither had a lot of my friends. It was one of those careers that you found out about only after you’d already signed an offer and joined the tech workforce. For it to be surfacing in college now to this degree is great and shows how popular the career has become. It’s great for people with computer science backgrounds but who want more influence, more problem solving at a business level, and to manage the creation of a product from beginning to end.
Now, the caveat: People tend to confuse their own uncertainty about a future career with the actual desire to wear many hats and work cross-functionally. Product management is an easy career to prescribe to people because it is so nebulous and varies so greatly across companies. One of the biggest misconceptions around the profession is that you will do work in multiple departments (engineering, UX/UI, marketing, business strategy). That’s not true for most cases. You’ll be communicating and negotiating with each of these departments within a company, but you won’t be doing the real work that these people have trained hard to do. You probably won’t be designing the UI of a product unless it’s a fledgling startup, in beta, or design just isn’t a company priority. You probably won’t be writing code or press releases unless there is an emergency (or, you’re at a tiny startup).
Your job is to essentially organize people around an idea and persuade them that they want to work on it. Then you coordinate everyone’s work to ensure the right product gets built, helping out wherever you can along the way. You’re a conductor — you need to know how music is made, but you don’t get to play any of the instruments. The true nature of your work is a hub function, and by definition that means you are one degree away from the actual work being done.
When the job is laid out in that perspective, not everyone runs towards it. I’ve heard a lot of people get pulled in by the visions of power, influence, leadership, scope of work… and are turned off by the core fact that you do not directly own any of the work being done. Do your research and make sure it’s what you want to do — don’t mistake your own confusion or desire to do multiple things with an aspiration for product management. That said, being a PM is awesome and I highly recommend it, if you know what you’re getting into. ;)
Edit: A lot of people have asked me what the difference is between a project manager and a product manager. At the risk of overgeneralizing, a project manager is responsible for process, a product manager is responsible for results. There’s also a lot of indirect work a product manager does, including customer feedback, competitive analysis, measuring impact post-launch, turning their vision into a roadmap… the list goes on. What I described in the post above is more of the day-to-day interactions you go through.
My name is Catherine Shyu. If you enjoyed this article, please recommend and share below.