Who is the most misunderstood in technology? I would say it is the person who plans what will be built next. This person — often called the product manager — is a puzzler to many. Just consider how many different job titles are used for people who do the work of product management: product manager, product owner, business analyst, and even program or project manager sometimes. To keep it simple — let’s refer to these folks as product managers.
I would also add that product managers are among the most under-appreciated people in technology. Queue the tiny violins and sad music. But not for long.
This is especially true at emerging companies where the company is the product. For nascent tech companies, success hinges on the performance of just the one hopeful product — unlike in a larger company, where a single product flop within the overall portfolio will not sink the business,
The future of any company depends on the ideas that are being prioritized today. Product managers are the ones responsible for making those important decisions. This fact alone suggests that the work they do is critical.
So why is the role of product manager so misunderstood?
Well to start, the product management discipline itself is fairly new, multifaceted, and complex. (Just try explaining to your Aunt Gladys what a product manager actually does.)
When you look at the role of a product manager, it is clear that it is really a collection of many responsibilities that frequently do not have a natural home in other parts of the business.
This is why the question of “what does a product manager do?” is so hard to answer. On one day you are working to define a new user story for engineering and another you are presenting the roadmap to a major customer. And the next you are listening in on customer calls to support, hoping to better understand what is really frustrating users.
So what do they really do? We are fortunate to be in a unique position to seek answers to this question. We interact with thousands of product managers at Aha! every month. So we asked many of them (on LinkedIn and Roadmap.com) what they think is the real value of a product manager.
Here are just a few of the responses:
- “PMs are extremely valuable to build the bridge between the outside (market, customers, external stakeholders, partners) and the inside (all the sources around the product).”
- “They are the liaison between stakeholders and implementation teams.”
- “Every product manager has an opportunity to embrace the challenging and rewarding role of creating and applying the product vision.”
These are all thoughtful considerations of the role of a product manager. Product managers prioritize and define what features will be added to the product and help their colleagues understand how to best market, sell, and support customers.
When people ask me to define the role of a product manager, I try to do it simply. I explain that product managers are responsible for guiding the success of a product and leading the team that is responsible for improving it.
And I think my own aunt can even understand this explanation. It is what product managers really do (in summary form). They do what is necessary for their products and teams to succeed and that means that they perform many roles to be successful.
These folks take on so many different forms on a day-to-day basis that we defined a collection of product manager archetypes to help more curious people better understand how multifaceted the role truly is.
As I wrote at the beginning of this article, product management is misunderstood because it is so nebulous at times and the way to make any product and product team great means that responsibilities shift. And they shift fast. So the job and responsibilities morph all the time. It is tough to reflect that in a standard job description.
Working with our team of former product managers at Aha! to write this made it even more clear why product management is so hard to define but also so rewarding. I hope you can see, though, why I humbly suggest that product managers are the most important people in a technology company. These are the people who define the future of the product and advocate for its success today.
Do you agree or disagree?
Comment below with your thoughts or join the conversation about the value of product managers over at Roadmap.com.