What does a Product Manager do?

Nowadays one of the hottest job titles that you would see everywhere is a Product manager.  If you open up any job sites, the numbers of jobs for product managers are plenty. But what do you mean by a Product manager and what do they do, and how are they different from other roles in the organization? Although none of these are set in stone, this article would try to educate you well about the role itself and how it differentiates from other roles.  This is written for a medium to large sizes corporation in mind, because in start-ups there would be the same person donning many of these role hats.

     Product manager is typical of any product development organization who sells a ‘whole product’ (hardware system ergonomically packages/stand-alone software like a security software or a productivity software) but rarely found in a professional services organization. This role is not well described or absent in semiconductor chip industry (where the chip by itself is not a product but has to go into a system to become a product), or an IP company, or any physical component manufacturing company. When I say a “whole product” it would have one to many hardware components, a box or an external package, the firmware and a software solution that enables the product to the customer. Say a Fridge or a TV or a tablet computer.

      Product manager is someone who is accountable for the build, the marketing and the sales of the product to the end customer (a business or a consumer) that meets specifications and manages the entire product life cycle from ideation to handover. A customer here is the one who buys and pays for the product. A Product manager’s life starts with articulating the “why” of the product along with the strategic marketing to find a place in an organization offering (why is it important to be in the roadmap of the offerings?), and then is the person behind the “what” of the product from an end-customer perspective.   He comes from the business side of the organization and should have a handle on the user experience story of the product to ensure SUCCESS of the product.

    From the project management definition, let us be clear on responsibility vs accountability: The accountable personis the individual who is ultimately answerable for the product and has all the ‘veto power’ for the product.  Only one accountable person can be assigned to a product.    The responsible personis the individual(s) who actually completes the tasks associated with the design and delivery of the product. The responsible person is responsible for action/implementation. Responsibility can be shared.

    A product manager needs to have a combined skill of a strategic marketing person (who defines the market and the product initially and create the opportunity to sell), a product marketing (one who defines what features get sold to what customers) and a technical marketing (who is responsible to work with technical team to define and deliver specifications of the product).

 So, how is it different from the other roles with the organization?

  • Project Manager(PM): A project manager is accountable for “when” the product gets delivered or deployed.  A project manager, whether the project gets delivered in the waterfall mode or the Agile mode, is the one who takes the product from planning to delivery, and lists out a list of tasks, deliverables and milestones at various intervals of product delivery timeline, draws the interdependencies between the teams and works with the engineering team to ensure the timelines are being met (or highlights the risk if it is not for business to take a decision)
  • Delivery Manager(DM): A delivery manager is responsible for “what” gets designed and developed by the engineering team (may be different iterations here to reach the “what” that is being asked by the product manager), and then “how” it gets delivered to the business unit, working closely with the project manager to ensure the timelines are met.
  • Account manager(AM) – This is a role more common with professional services organization as the person responsible for a particular customer account (yes, it can be there in product development organizations as well). In fact, product manager has many customers for his/her one product whereas an account manager has one or two big customers for which many products may be rolled out.
  • Product Owner(PO):  This is akey role in Agile/Scrum methodology of project management who defines what (priority) user story gets developed and delivered along each sprint (or blocks of timelines), and creates and maintains the backlog of user stories for the agile team. Yes, PO is also ideally from the business side of the organization, and has the power vested in him to accept or deny the delivery from the Agile team at every iteration.  He is the user advocate sitting in the development team. There is a good possibility a PO would report into the Product manager for a particular product.
  • Product marketing manager (PMM) – although some of the responsibilities may be shared with the product manager, a product marketing person ideally is responsible for developing positioning, messaging, competitive analysis, product’s USP, and to work with sales team to generate and close opportunities.  I personally do not see very many product marketing roles now as I believe this may have morphed into a product manager role with added responsibilities in many organizations.

      Again, due to other budgetary and resource factors, nothing here can be taken in absolute terms as responsibilities unique to a particular role, but it is essential we understand the differences in expectation between the roles.   In short, if you have the skills to take a product from ideation through planning through development, and constantly are marketing the product along the way, and delivering it to the customers and they are delighted about it, then we can say that you are doing a pretty good job as a product manager.