I’ve been interested in exploring the practice of product management, as it’s something that I think I do a bits and pieces of in my current role. I think that it’s worth digging in to this, to see if it would be a useful frame for me as I go about my current work, and if it’s something I would like to more intentionally lean into in the future.

To start, Wikipedia gives us this definition: “Product management is an organizational function within a company dealing with new product development, business justification, planning, verification, forecasting, pricing, product launch, and marketing of a product or products at all stages of the product lifecycle.”

That’s a lot of stuff! Way more than one person can handle. We’re going to need to dig a little deeper into this to really see what aspects are product management and what are really the duty of other disciplines. Overall, from my research, the definition varied greatly. This is still a relatively new role (in software, at least), and, a role that varies greatly from organization to organization.

Although a bit rudimentary, I want to start at a low level.

What is a product?

Quite a while ago now, when I first heard of people working at big tech companies as “product designers,” I was confused. The word product hadn’t yet been applied to software in my experience; it made me think of physical goods. Really, the word product is incredibly generic. Dictionary.com gives us “a thing produced by labor.” So, there you go. Products are almost everything.

The word product, to me, brings to mind the word “packaging,” and I think that those two words together are, pardon me, products of the human desire to put things at boxes. A product, in the marketplace, has a pretty well defined beginning and end, and we package it up to make it easy to market, sell, ship, place, etc. Same with software. A software product naturally comes to have walls around it, and, as we can see with npm, make it easier to distribute.

If products are the things produced by labor, we are making all kinds of products inadvertently. Companies usually give priority to a set of these products, and encourage resources be directed towards them. Whether or not we actually say “product,” we do say what is and isn’t important. Some of these products are for consumers, some are for internal teams, some are for research. The more important these products are, the more important it is that we approach them with thought and care.

What do product managers do?

Sherif Mansour of Atlassian has a great article about the product manager role, and offers this list of responsibilities:

  • Understanding and representing user needs.
  • Monitoring the market and developing competitive analyses.
  • Defining a vision for a product.
  • Aligning stakeholders around the vision for the product.
  • Prioritizing product features and capabilities.
  • Creating a shared brain across larger teams to empower independent decision making.

In a more simplified sense, it’s about taking in a lot of good information, processing that, and then giving it to the team in meaningful and helpful ways. Are we hitting the mark with what we’re doing? Could we be better? How do we get there? Is there something that the team can’t see from their point of view?

When I think about the responsibilities from above in the context of my current team, they are currently divided up between a number of different people. Rolling them all up into one role allows them to have special focus. (Isn’t this the case with almost all roles? Dare I say that us web people are all the result of thoughtfully breaking apart the webmaster role?)

As we learn that the product manager has their finger on almost all aspects of the product, it’s grounding to remember that “product managers simply don’t have any direct authority over most of the things needed to make their products successful,” according to Martin Eriksson, and, upon reflection, this makes perfect sense. They are not executing on their plans, nor are they the overall team lead. They bring, to quote Martin Eriksson again, "everyone together around a shared understanding of the customer problem,” and then they step aside.

In a very broad sense, from this article quoting Marty Cagan’s book Inspired, a product manager’s goal is "to discover a product that is valuable, usable and feasible.” It’s hard for any one discipline to come to this with a clear head. As a developer myself, I often push for features or plans that make the most sense to me. For a product manager, concerned with UX, business, and tech, there has to be a practice of making decisions not based on any one discipline. The discipline is product. The focus is users.

Product managers communicate that “we’re adding x feature because y,” or “we’re not doing x because it’s not worth the time.” These simple statements are really clear and concise, but take a lot of background knowledge to say confidently.

How is product management different from project management?

I work with project managers right now, and they are invaluable. They coordinate all of the volatile pieces of a project in a magical way, and are some of the most adaptable people I know. Where I think we really get to the distinction of the two roles, is that project management work mostly deals with puzzle pieces that are already in play.

Project managers have lots of inputs, from internal and external sources, and plenty of resources to route these inputs through. What is often lacking here, though, is the ability to make higher level decisions. This is usually good, as it allows them to stay focused on execution. It can be bad, though, if there isn’t someone there to make those higher level, strategic decisions, as things can veer off course rather easily. Product management fills that gap, by thinking about the bigger picture.

So, in essence, it can be a yin and yang that keeps a team going!

Wrapping up

Overall, through writing this, I feel less like what I’ve been doing in my recent work is product management. I believe that I initially confused it with project management in some areas, but can more clearly see the distinction. From the list of responsibilities provided by Sherif Mansour, there is a lot more that I could be doing if I wanted to lean into product management.

The biggest gap that I can see is on the research side. I’d say that this is probably pretty common. It’s difficult to get good data coming in, and keep it coming. The more we know about what users want or need, the better our products are, so this is important to devote resources to. In fact, it feels like this is a critical step one to get the ball rolling. From there, vision, priority, meaning all flow.

I definitely read a lot about product management to write this, but it still feels like the kind of thing that you have to experience to really know properly. Knowing that it varies from team to team, it seems like a role that needs flexibility. Really focused flexibility. I’m also interested in how this role is influenced by each person who approaches it. To be good, you need to already have an idea of what a good product is, and that will vary person by person. Something to keep chewing over.