Product management is one of the hardest jobs to define in any organization, partially because it’s different in every company. I’ve had several recent conversations about “what is a product manager?” with friends who are taking their first product jobs or advancing in their product careers. I wanted to capture and share them here. Please share your feedback via notes.
The job of a product manager is to:
Help your team (and company) ship the right product to your users
Or to break this down into smaller pieces:
1) Help your team:
The best product managers spend all of their time on the highest priority things that help their team.
These are primarily (a) coordination — ensuring that the team is planning, making decisions, and working together effectively with a clear purpose and focus, and (b) communication — making sure everyone understands what is happening, when, and why, especially as things inevitably change. Side note: By “team,” I am referring to the set of people directly working together on the product or area of a product including designers, engineers, QA, documentation, marketing, and affiliated teams on a project such as business development, support, legal, etc.
A lot of people describe a product manager as a CEO of the product or the “owner” of the spec, but I think that over-ascribes influence and authority to the product manager. The best teams operate in a way where the team collectively feels ownership over the spec and everyone has had input and been able to suggest and promote ideas. The best product managers coordinate the key decisions by getting input from all team members and are responsible to surface disagreements, occasionally break ties, and gather consensus (or at least ensure that everyone commits to a plan) when decisions get made. It’s not about building what the product manager thinks is right. This isn’t to say that product managers shouldn’t have great ideas of their own, but the goal is not to find a team that executes on their ideas blindly. Instead, the best product managers build a process to collaboratively decide on the right priorities so the whole team is bought in.
More tactically,helping your team often means being the person who writes and summarizes notes after a long meeting, or writing a spec to make sure you have captured the team’s consensus and plan in written form. I often found that producing a good write-up took longer than the meeting itself. And often it means collaborating with people on your extended team — getting their feedback, sharing the plan, and making sure there are no roadblocks or traps that could get in the way of the team delivering their product to users. At Twitter, we called this ACT SOLID to capture all of the groups that were part of the extended team (Analytics, Communications, Trust/safety, Support, Ops, Legal, International, Design).
While engineers produce code and designers produce mockups and graphics, product managers don’t produce any tangible artifacts for the final product. But ultimately, I believe the success of the team and product over time come down to the effectiveness of the product manager.
2) (and company):
As a product manager, it is imperative that you understand the company’s overall goals and objectives and exactly how your team fits in to the broader vision. The best product managers I’ve met or worked with were great at this — they frequently referred to the founder’s vision and ensured that what the team was working on helped get closer to realizing that. They could articulate how beating the goals and metrics of their product would bolster the company’s overall strategy. And they thought of their team in service of the company, in conjunction with other teams, rather than delivering on what they just personally believed was important. One of the things I always look for in product management interviews is how often the candidate refers to the bigger vision of the company, particularly the founder, CEO, or VP of their group, and the vision that person specifically articulated. Just like with helping your team, this isn’t to say that product managers shouldn’t have great ideas of their own, but that they should be able to translate their ideas back to the core vision and goals of the company, and ensure they have top-down support for executing on them.
Nothing matters more than actually delivering products to your users. You can be great at helping your team build cool things, figuring out the right products, or embodying the vision, but it only matters if you can ultimately help the team get to a point where you can ship it. Great product managers understand the very tricky balance between getting it right and getting it out the door. Teams should always be testing, trying out the products, and listening to early feedback, but at some point in every project, the team has to make a call that the product is ready enough (and it’s never truly ready, of course). Teams with clear goals and objectives, and a good feel for the user and what they want the user to be able to do, can make the final tradeoffs necessary. It’s usually great product management that helps drive this to completion.
4) the right product:
While shipping matters, the best product managers help the team make sure it’s the right product. Building something that doesn’t exist yet is always fun, but never a slam dunk. However, it’s up to the team to be creative and come up with novel solutions that feel like the right product and solves the right user needs. Great product managers have a good feel for what seems right or wrong, and are also good at listening to early feedback from testers and others who try it. They are good at getting a sense from the founders and other leaders to make sure the product feels right.
More importantly, once shipped, the best product managers can measure whether the product shipped is the right one. They should work closely with the team to make sure the right moments in the product are measurable, and that the hard questions about whether people are really using the product can be answered. Once a product ships, they are reading through that data voraciously and helping the team figure out what parts are working and what parts are not, and together quickly coming up with a plan for improvement and more testing.
5) for your users:
The hardest part of building any product is articulating your core use case, i.e., really telling the story of who should use the product and why. The best product managers are the advocates for your users and represent users in nearly every conversation when making decisions about the product.
Doing this requires a deep understanding of your target users, what their challenges and issues are, and how your product should deliver the value and delight they are looking for. Great product managers listen to user feedback all the time — whether it’s from usability tests, meeting users in the field, reading support emails or tweets, or working with the people in your company who do all of those things on a daily basis. But the best ones assimilate this wealth of information into a vision for the product that helps the team make sure they are building the right things.
The ultimate truth is that no product will never quite be right for everyone; it’s an ongoing process of continued development and iteration to make it better. The best product managers are the ones who simply roll up their sleeves and help their team through this journey.