By Priyanshi Gawarvala
Priyanshi Gawarvala, Co-Director of Operations at TechTogether Boston and Product Management Co-Op at Boston Globe Media shares her insights on the world of Product. Read on to learn more about the roles and responsibilities of a PM, how Product is different from Project Management, some skills a PM should have, how to enter the world of Product, great questions to ask in an interview, and helpful resources for you to land a career in Product Management.
What is Product Management?
Product Management lies at the intersection of technology, business and design where a product lead (typically the Product Manager) takes ownership of building and delivering a product to the consumer. A PM wears several hats and develops multiple perspectives. A PM is sometimes referred to as a mini-CEO of their product, without however having any direct authority over teammates. The PM works with and is the liaison between several teams including engineering, marketing, sales, business development, customer support, design, and executive teams. The PM also identifies when these teams should be brought in for a project.
What are the Different Types of Product Managers?
Usually, a PM is more business focused and thinks about user needs and what products to build based on the company’s strategic business & investment goals. However, some companies hire what is called a Technical Product Manager, who as the name suggests, has more technical experience. Experienced engineers and developers often transition into this role. TPMs are needed when a company needs to develop a technical product and needs someone experienced in the field to guide the project. So for those of you looking for a job, keep this distinction in mind during your search!
Who is a Project Manager?
Project and product management roles are often confused as the line distinguishing them is somewhat blurry. A project manager has more technical expertise and is in charge of making sure the projects get delivered on time and everything runs smoothly during the sprint (a time frame of 2 weeks when dev works on tickets to achieve a goal). They also are in charge of taking care of any development related roadblocks and concerned with what resources are needed and who is going to work on what. The project manager is often also referred to as the Scrum master who facilitates the agile development process and manages communication with the scrum team. [Scrum is a process framework used by teams for product development].
The project manager is also responsible for sprint sizing and planning (what tickets will go in a sprint) and also conducts retro meetings where the team discusses problems experienced during the sprint and how they can avoid them in the future.
Difference between Product and Project:
If the product manager is considered the CEO of a product, think of the project manager as the COO. While the product person is concerned primarily with evolving consumer needs, project manager is focused on the project’s requirements and getting it out the door on time and under budget.
What are the Responsibilities of a PM?
The role of a PM changes based on the stage of the product life cycle and depends on the company and/or team within a company, however most product management processes follow a general pattern.
Initially, the PM conducts market & user research and analysis (or gathers it from the analysts/marketing team) to determine what products to build. Once a solution to a user need or problem has been identified, the PM leads the way by proposing a product roadmap enlisting the product’s long term vision, and creates a list of potential features for development. As a PM for Boston.com, I have to think deeply about what problems are being solved with the features that I have enlisted and what the user experience would be like. This helps me understand how to define the functionality of these features and prioritize them such that the development team has all the granular details they need to build the features effectively. I have to be an expert on the product that I am advocating for so that I could guide the building process. I think about everything that should happen when a user does and doesn’t do something with the potential product/feature, and this is especially helpful when working with engineers who want to know exactly what they are supposed to be building and why.
[I use product and feature interchangeably as PMs do both or either depending on their company structure and requirements, however the general processes are similar]
Once the product has been finalized, the PM works with the design team to design the product and its features, keeping in mind the user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) such that the product is valuable, useful, usable, accessible, desirable, findable and credible to the user. I sometimes work with designers to brainstorm ideas, set use cases and build wireframes (mocks). However, the involvement of a PM in this stage varies by each company. Companies like Apple have designated design teams that require minimal input from PMs. Since the involvement of a PM in the design process varies across companies, this presents an opportunity to ask a good question during interviews. Who will you be working with as your core and extended team? How much of your time will be spent writing specs and how much working with designers and making user-facing decisions?
The next step after the design team has created a mockup or wireframe, is that the PM creates tickets detailing functionality of features so that developers/engineers can start materializing the product (tickets are like detailed tasks that contain info about how each aspect of the product should look and work). During the implementation stage, the PM’s role changes. Now, they keep track of progress and address any blockers. To help engineers work efficiently, PMs have daily or weekly check-ins (often times referred to as Stand Ups) to keep progress moving and answer any questions that might come up. Sometimes during the development phase, a feature can turn out to be harder to implement than expected. In that case, the PM makes adjustments to features to make them simpler or cut back on low-priority items. Many, if not all companies test their products internally before actually launching them. This helps the PM understand how users would react to it and if there are any bugs or usability issues that need to be addressed before the product sees the light of day. A/B Testing is also a popular way to test features to contrast between what’s working and not working with users.
The final step is the launch. The PM is usually responsible for making sure the release runs smoothly, hence they often create a launch checklist. This checklist might vary from company to company based on what their internal processes are, however every product launch needs final approvals from stakeholders and needs coordinating of any launch related marketing, legal and operational efforts. It is also important to think about and establish teams that would be responsible for maintaining the product after launch (eg. customer service team). While at Boston Globe, I have seen how there can be urgent issues that inevitably come up right before product launch. It is the PM’s job to think on their feet and fight the fires that may come up along the way. However, the job doesn’t just end when the product launches. Most likely the product that was created is a minimum viable product (MVP) and the team keeps on working to add more features to the MVP and iterating with different functionality based on user feedback.
Top Skills of a PM
- Articulate ideas to team members & stakeholders
- Effective cross-team communication
- Exert influence effectively- since PMs don’t really have any formal authority 🤷
- Ability to say NO to stakeholders without actually saying the word 🙅♂️
- Prioritize (can’t stress this enough, you need to be a Queen/King in prioritizing product features, functionalities, improvements👑)
- High level of organization
- Good time management skills🗓️
- Empathy (for your product’s users & team members)
- Understanding & defining consumer needs
How To Get Into Product Management?
Many colleges don’t have defined product management majors/courses but there are online courses if you are looking for some formal education & certification. They can be found on (specific links at the end of the article; in ‘Additional Resources’):
- Product School
- LinkedIn Learning
Many people start off as business analysts (data, consumer need, pricing, sales, etc.) or engineers and developers and slowly transition into product roles. I started directly into product management by getting a co-op as a PM. Fortunately, it worked out great! I do not believe you need to follow a specific career trajectory to become a PM but I’ve found that having some prior experience building things is a big plus, as it shows that you are a creator and can see a project from ideation to actualization. It can be a side project, a cool app or website, or anything that shows you can create.
Some Questions to Ask in PM Interviews:
- Who will you be working with as your core and extended team?
- How much of your time will be spent writing specs and how much working with designers and making user-facing decisions?
- How is user feedback collected, is it primarily through data analysis or direct user interviews?
- What is the last product/feature you launched ?
- How are most product decisions derived- through quantitative or qualitative data?
- What are some of the biggest challenges that the company is facing right now and how can a PM solve those challenges?
- Say you have a product idea, what processes & people would you have to go through to see it developed and shipped to customers?
- What product development process/methodologies does the team currently use? (scrum, design thinking, waterfall, etc.)
Here are some resources my product friends and I have used in the past.
- Cracking the PM Interview by Gayle McDowell & Jackie Bavaro
- Swipe 2 Unlock by Aditya Agashe, Neel Mehta, and Parth Detroja
Courses to Take
- Udemy: Product Management 101
- Udemy: Product Management- Building Great Products by Jon Kolko
- Coursera: Digital Product Management: Modern Fundamentals
- Coursera: Software Product Management Specialization
- What I learnt in the process of speaking to 50 Product Managers
- 7 Tips for Product Managers to Optimise Their First 30 days at a New Job
- How to land a PM job without PM experience
Thank you for reading the third installment of the #TechTogether Works career series. Stay tuned for the fourth article, which will be An Introvert’s Guide to Acing Your Next Behavioral Interview. In the meantime, check out our other #TechTogetherWorks articles below: