What is a product manager and what do they do?

Main illustration: Neil Secretario

We often get questions from readers about business, startups, product management, customer support and more. And one question that our co-founder, Des, gets frequently is: “What is a product manager and what do they do?”

Des: There’s no one definition. People have written whole books on this question, and it varies from company to company, and from stage to stage.

If it’s at an early-stage startup and you’re the very first person managing the product, you’re doing everything that’s not engineering or design work – from product management to feature tweaks to product research to QA to project management to writing up release notes. Everything it takes to get the product out the door is on your plate.

Sidenote: A related question here is “Do early stage startups even need product managers?” My answer here is a firm maybe ;)  Some companies do fine without them, but in practice it means you’ll have engineers or designers doing work that isn’t engineering or design. If you continue down this path, you’ll eventually have a full-time engineer spending 0% of their time on engineering, and then you have to ask yourself some questions.

The product manager role shifts over time

Early-stage startups always need broad generalists in most roles. For product managers this means folks as equipped to chat to would-be customers, as they are to analyze engagement metrics, create a project plan, or wireframe new features.

As the team grows, the desire shifts from people who are Swiss Army knives, to people who are scalpels. You now need specific expertise in many areas, whether it’s database design or user research.

As the generalist product manager role gets broken up, it gets better defined. Items like QA, user research, competitive analysis, all become their own roles, and eventually their own teams. What gets left behind is the core of product management.

Most discussion about what a PM is, or what a PM does, focuses on the internal part of the role. That’s what the following two definitions answer.

What is a product manager?

Product managers connect the user experience, the technical requirements and the business requirements together.

Martin Erikkson’s classic definition of product management

What does a product manager do?

Product managers own the Job-to-be-Done, and must be passionate about understanding their user’s problems and dispassionate about what the best solution looks like. Product managers understand their product metrics, they plan the product roadmap, they know their product’s strengths and weaknesses, and have a vision for what would truly deliver a 10x product.

Articles talking about product managers as mini-CEOs have over-glamorized the role

But remember, those definitions only describe the internal roles, which excludes the other side of product management.

There’s an external-facing part too, which is looking at what’s changing in your landscape. One danger is that as companies get bigger and bigger they start to look only at themselves. You see this particularly in market leaders where they think they’re dominating the market so much that they don’t need to pay attention to the technology changes happening around them.

For example trends like A.I., M.L., messaging, bots, V.R., A.R. etc. All of these are likely to cause tectonic shifts to certain industries and it’s also a product manager’s job to know if and when their product will be affected.

The reality of product management

That’s why I’m always surprised that so many people want to be product managers – so much of the job is communication, research, and fighting complexity. I think articles talking about them being mini-CEOs have over-glamorized the role a little. People think product management is shit like you see in A Beautiful Mind, where they’re staring into a park and writing some breakthrough thoughts on a window. Or that they possess a Steve Jobs-esque type of product intuition, where decisions come easy, and influence comes for free. None of this is true.

If you look at how actual product managers work in any company there’s a lot more nitty gritty work. There’s a lot of spreadsheets, wireframes. Google Docs, emails, and oh-so-many Slack channels. And they all exist to research, collaborate, dictate, and document consensus on a direction the product is going. But I think if the role was titled “Direction and Consensus Manager” you might not get as many applicants.

As always, we’d love to hear as many questions from you as possible. If you’d like to get involved, just sign up to our newsletter and hit reply, or drop us a note. We’ll do our very best to answer as many questions as possible.

Intercom on Product Management book