In recent years, product management has risen in popularity and importance, catching the eye of people who want to break into the industry. Media coverage of the PM role often highlights the “sexy” aspects of product management — being creative through brainstorming, promoting empathy, being agile, and falling in love with the problem. These elements, while important and necessary tools of the trade, are not the trade itself.
Unless you are someone who works alongside product day-to-day, it’s difficult to gain a clear understanding of what exactly product managers do. Even with the growing popularity of product management and the onslaught of articles on the topic, the field is still widely misunderstood. If you’re not in product yourself, it’s easy to misjudge the role. And if this lack of clarity exists within the industry, imagine what it must be like for recent graduates, or people outside of the PM world looking to break in.
When aspiring PMs reach out looking for advice, I always ask them why they want to be in product management. Often, their answers give me a better idea of whether they understand the day-to-day responsibilities and expectations of the job. This article is an attempt to clarify the role of product management for this audience with lessons that I’ve learned as a PM at a hypergrowth company.
Lesson No. 1: You’re Accountable to the Business
It’s idealistic to believe that PMs spend the majority of their time ideating and being creative, then building the features that they want in order to craft a delightful user experience. In fact, modern product management is less of an art and more of a science.
As a product manager, the reality is that every decision, feature, and investment that you make needs to be defensible to the business and its stakeholders. Yes, you have the autonomy to identify, understand, and triage problems and opportunities that you see in the market. However, at the end of the day, you are deciding where to invest the company’s resources. Those decisions need to be logical, well thought out, supported with data, and aimed at benefiting the business.
At the end of the day, a PM’s job is to deeply understand the pains and needs of a certain market and monetize a solution to those problems with as little cost as possible.
Lesson No. 2: Gather Qual and Quant Data to Make Informed Decisions (and Tell a Compelling Story)
As a PM, you are responsible for gathering and sorting through the qualitative and quantitative data necessary to make informed business decisions. It’s the classic “If I gave you $100, how would you spend it?” problem. While you’re considering different options, hundreds of people are giving you their input on how it would be best spent. Customers want features that you’re missing. Success wants you to fix those long-standing bugs. Leadership wants growth, and the marketing team wants something new.
It’s a PM’s job to gather data from each group. You send out surveys, set up calls, hold ethnographic interviews, and take detailed notes of your observations. Then you pull data on how much each investment will cost — not just in terms of money, but in terms of time, opportunity, and team morale. Once you understand each group’s perspective and can speak authoritatively about the qual and quant data behind it, you can you form a point of view and subsequent plan of attack.
Finally, you present your findings, your point of view, and your plan as a compelling story to the stakeholders for feedback. You’re selling them on why this well-researched, well-supported plan is the best plan. And if your stakeholders like options, present some of those as well.
Lesson No. 3: You Can’t Have It All
In product management, there’s no such thing as a perfect outcome. Every prioritization decision you make, and every plan you put together, has two sets of tradeoffs. The first is: Who is happy and who is frustrated? And the second is: Do I sacrifice time, resources ($$$), or scope? As a product manager, you need to consider what these tradeoffs are. Also, you’ll need to understand how to move them around to give yourself and the business more options.
Lesson No. 4: You Have to Be a Leader
As a product manager, you must be a leader, building up those around you, making correct and timely decisions, and communicating clearly across the organization. Given the expectations and responsibilities of someone in a product management role, people with poor leadership skills will not be successful. Granted, there are many different leadership styles, and each will inform a different flavor of product management. However, the role will be nearly impossible for those who do not want to be in positions of leadership and those without leadership skills.
Some Additional Considerations
As you continue to learn more about product management and pursue opportunities in the field, keep these considerations in mind:
1. Product Management Varies Greatly by Company Stage and Size
At smaller companies, you will have a greater scope of responsibility and more ownership over major areas of the product. At larger companies, you will have more resources, frameworks, and direction to keep you focused on certain product experiences.
2. Product Management Varies Greatly by Company Culture
What does the company value, and how does leadership exhibit those values? As a PM, you will be interacting with executive leadership often, and collaborating with other leaders across the organization. Consider how these cultural dynamics will impact how team members might react to change, give feedback, and work with customers.
3. Try Sales
Sales organizations have evolved a lot. Don’t let the negative stereotypes that once defined the trade put you off. As a PM, your job is to research problem spaces, identify opportunities, and put together a bulletproof business case for why the organization should invest in certain areas over others. As a member of the sales team, you will overcome any anxiety about speaking with customers, and you’ll learn executive presence and invaluable presentation skills. Plus, you’ll gain a revenue-first lens that will drive your product management strategy to market success.
4. Invest in Skills
There are a number of product management bootcamps and courses available. While valuable, these programs will not be a “golden ticket” to becoming an effective product manager. Instead, consider investing in other skills that will help round out your experience and widen your breadth of knowledge. For example, you might build up your skills in areas like qual and quant research, data synthesis, storytelling, and communication. These are the key skills that PMs need to be successful.
5. Be Intentional With Your Resume
Treat your resume like a product. Think about what information is the most important, and what information you want to stand out. It’s an opportunity for you to demonstrate your ability to prioritize information, make tradeoffs, and guide the reader through something you built.