I spent much of my career working as a product manager. It seems that not many people know what a product manager is. That’s especially true in the engineering world, and so, I made this post to help explain what it is.

A Rose By Any Name

Product Managers go by many titles. Some of the ones I’ve seen are:

  • Product Manager
  • Product Marketer
  • Product Marketing Manager
  • Product Development Manager
  • Marketing Engineer
  • Project Manager
  • Program Manager
  • Product Director
  • Product CEO
  • Product Owner

There are definitely differences between each of these roles, but they all run in the same circles.

Let’s Pretend for a Minute…

Imagine you have developed a fantastic new widget. You funded the prototype development, made the website yourself, and have been pitching the product to stores. Your widget becomes wildly successful, and soon you need to hire on help. You may hire on staff to help with operations and inventory, or the finance side of the business. Maybe you don’t enjoy sales, so you hire a highly motivated sales professional.

As your business grows, you’ll get more information about what your customers like and don’t like about your product, and you’ll learn about trends in the marketplace. Maybe you even have your eye on some competing products. You’ll keep all of this in mind as you work on the next generation of your product, or you may decide to create many different versions of the same product.
If your business is performing well, you have likely staffed all normal business functions: an engineering team for development, a manufacturing team to make the product, an operations team to handle inventory, a sales team to maintain or increase revenue, a marketing team to support promotions and enable your sales team.

But who is in charge of coming up with new ideas, tracking market information, and bringing new products to market? Probably… you! The owner and inventor. The maestro of the orchestra; the thread that sews all of these different departments together and ensures they play in synchronized harmony.

An inventor-turned-business-owner needs to carefully consider when to hand over the reigns of managing the product itself. A product is a very personal thing to a business owner and can be difficult to transition responsibility to someone else. However, there are needs of the business overall that only the business owner can handle. For example, the business owner may need to focus time on developing relationships with key customers.

This is where a product manager can step in and handle all the duties of developing and launching new products and ensuring a successful mix of products in the business’ portfolio.

A PRODUCT MANAGER IS THE CEO OF A PRODUCT (…HUH?)

Many product management teams originate in the same way as my hypothetical scenario above. That is why product managers are described as the CEO of their product. Product managers (sometimes abbreviated as PdMs) are responsible for maintaining a healthy product portfolio for an organization.

When it’s time for a new product, product managers will solicit input from key stakeholders and do research about market conditions and changes in the industry in order to develop new product requirements. Once the product is with the engineering team for development, the product manager stays involved and is often the decision-maker when engineering is at a crossroads. Early on in an organization’s growth, all key stakeholders from every department may attend development meetings and provide input in new product development. As a business matures, a product manager will essentially take all of their place in day-to-day activities. This means a product manager must be tuned-in to the needs and challenges of every department, and every decision a product manager makes must be with the holistic business in mind.

Once a new product is ready for launch, the product manager must engage the appropriate teams at the right time in the process. Too early, and teams will be frustrated with a lack of information. Too late, and teams will be frustrated with the fire drill. A great product manager understands how important timing is to a product launch, and when to pull in which team members.

Because product managers led the development of new product specifications, they have a lot of information that other teams may find useful. For example, is the new product targeted at a specific geographic region? That may change inventory plans, or what kind of imagery is used in the marketing for the product.

Product managers bring the different functions together like a massive chamber choir – they help write the music, lead the practices, and then they serve as the conductor in the final performance. Product management is a challenging role that sees all facets of the business.

If you’re looking for help related to product management, let’s talk!