What is Product Management

My guide to critical skills for product managers, how to approach the role, and some key guidelines I've learned in my 15+ years leading product teams and as a product manager myself.

This topic has been about written extensively. I first drafted this for a company I was consulting as they were getting their product management function into place for the first time and wanted help understanding the exact role of a product manager. I recently looked at it again and have made some updates and edits based on some additional years of work and leadership.

It is based on 16 years as both a product manager and a product leader and my observations of the common characteristics of the best product managers.

After writing it, I realized it sounds quite a bit like Ben Horowitz's Good PM, Bad PM essay from years back, so I'm linking it here to be clear I had no intention of stealing the concepts from that post (although I did write it independently and realized how similar it was after reading it). Good PM, Bad PM

What is product management:

I view product management as the embodiment of the business, the customer, and the technical side of the company. It’s your responsibility to balance across all the stakeholders and make sure that you are the person pushing the product and the business forward.

Product managers should be a jack of all trades. They have the ability to pull data, do some basic wireframes, make quick insights from data, they can be involved in technical discussion at a high level, they can help the engineering team make tradeoffs. Product managers plug the holes in the team boat to keep it sailing towards the destination. They take on the tasks and work that no one else on the team can do in order to facilitate great outcomes for the team and business.

Their job is to push the engineers to get things done, but not just by urging them. It’s by working alongside them to help them make the best tradeoffs, to prevent them from getting caught up in an engineering challenge that isn’t important, and by focusing them on the customer. It’s also your job to shield them from bullshit (meetings, random requests, random thoughts, etc).

Product management is a key thought partner for design. We work together with design to understand the customer and the need we are solving as a business. But good product managers don't let design go crazy. Building software is not an art project, and we are not painting the Mona Lisa. We are here to deliver functional and great software to users, but that comes with constraints and tradeoffs. It's often the job of a PM to rein in and re-focus the design team on what matters and to get them to sit with engineering to understand tradeoffs.

The most valuable resource you have is hands on keyboard time from your engineering team, and you should be striving to maximize it everyday. If your engineers are working a theoretical 8 hour day and more than 1-2 hours is not being spent coding (in meetings, meeting with management, doing other things) you are not doing your job as a product manager. Your job is to make the requirements crystal clear, the priorities clear, and then clear a path for your team to get it's work done.

As you grow as a PM, you run your product team the same way. You protect them and foster in them the idea that it’s their job to get shit done, to own their metrics, and to find a way to ship when the odds are against. And you hold them to that standard - you are constantly questioning a bit below the surface to understand the tradeoffs they are making and helping them think through the right way to motivate the team, make the correct tradeoffs, and manage effectively to constantly iterate and get things done.

Product managers should be the best at politics at the company. You should be best friends with everyone who can help you get your code shipped and your product delivered. Don’t make enemies with engineering, with QA, or with design, instead be the bigger person and be ok apologizing because it gives you the upper hand in the relationship and the ability to ask them for favors and speed later.

I've seen great Product Managers ruined by holding a grudge with a critical stakeholder at organizations. Don't let this happen - find a way to re-establish the relationship, even if it means you have to apologize for something you don't necessarily think is your fault.

Empathy is your friend as a PM - learn to embrace it and leave your emotions at the door. You don’t want the QA or engineering manager holding up your deployment at the 11th hour because they’ve picked you as a target for some random issue they want to bring up. You want to be the PM who takes them out to drinks and who they rely on so that when your code is coming in late, they support you and make the release happen.

You also need to be adept at managing upper management. You want them involved, but not too involved. Enough that the leadership team has confidence in you and your ability to get things done. But you don't want them constantly questioning when the next release is, looking at wireframes, reading requirements. It's up to you to strike the balance so that they have trust in your ability to do your job.

Good product managers don’t need project managers. They manage the project and roadmap on their own. In fact, in a well functioning organization, it’s increasingly unclear to me what a project manager actually does (this does not include companies with cross-platform multi-dependencies, just teams that are trying to ship and get things done on time).

Good product managers know their customers. And they understand the customer, either because they understand the data, or they talked to the customer, or they know the space or all of the above. They should have all of these skills, but I find that most PMs specialize in 1 or 2. It’s ok to be a bit more data centric, but you need to be able to balance that with understanding what the user is saying to you.

They understand how they impact operations and marketing. They also improve these organizations by figuring out the technology solutions they can deliver and then by making them happen. For example, if you are a trusted person for optimizing marketing landing pages, for making the marketing spend more effective, or for driving conversion up throughout the funnel, you will want to improve the tooling and ease of optimizing these parts of the product. It's not efficient to have to manually deploy a new landing page every time your marketing or operations partner needs it done.

Product managers can and should be metrics driven. They should not be driven solely by grand ideas or visions - those can be the basis for their original thinking, but at the end of the day, they need to actually find a way to get things done when it doesn’t seem easy and drive their metrics and the business forward. A good product manager can take the product vision and translate it into a metric that will demonstrate if the feature or optimization is having the expected impact.

The takeaway of all of this is that a great product manager is generally someone who has a wide skillset. You need to wear many hats, you need to be able to tackle lots of unforeseen problems, you need to be a strong writer, speaker, and creative thinker. You need to influence even though people don't report to you. It's a hard job, there's no perfect background for it, and you need to find ways to strongly move the organization forward to make an impact.