Many people talk about the product manager role as if all product managers were created equal. This affects how they hire a new product manager or look for a new PM job themselves. But there are many kinds of product managers and a broad range of industries and companies that PMs now find themselves in.
One important way to categorize product managers is on a spectrum of different focus areas — customer, engineering, design, and business. No matter which area they work in, a product manager’s strength is largely formed by their background, past experiences, and biases. These also inform the types of products and organizations that PMs will add value to.
Good product managers are able to balance 2-3 of these focus areas, but that’s tough and few can handle any more.
So, what if we considered what a PM would be like if they were skewed toward a singular focus? It is an interesting thought, and one that I feel is worth discussing as product management continues to emerge as a key role in most technology companies.
Here are four different kinds of product managers that many of us can relate to:
Customer-Focused Product Manager
The customer-focused PM is more externally focused than internally focused, and thinks more about the “what” than the “why” and “how.” He has a strong understanding of his product’s customers and is able to build relationships with his customers.
The customer-focused PM may have come from a professional services, sales engineering, or customer support role. Without software development experience, the customer PM may find it challenging to face technical tradeoffs, as well as the more tactical aspects of design and engineering.
The customer-focused PM is perhaps the most canonical definition of a PM, especially when paired with an engineering background. The strength of the customer PM lies in his high EQ and commitment to customer advocacy.
Engineering-Focused Product Manager
The engineering-focused PM typically comes from a software engineering background. She tends to be more internally focused and measure results against internal metrics (cost, performance, accuracy, SLAs, etc). She may be focused more on the “how” than the “what” and put more emphasis on process than other types of PMs.
The engineering-focused PM’s strengths align well with products built for technical users such as: external APIs, platform-as-a-service products, or infrastructure-as-a-service products. They tend to do very well working with products where technical nuance makes or breaks the product (search, recommendation engines, etc.)
Design-Focused Product Manager
The design PM puts an emphasis on user-centric design and functionality. He is relentlessly focused on how users experience their product. This also means that he might lose sight of business or technical tradeoffs. This is especially true for products where the user is not the customer.
The design-focused PM’s strengths align well with products where an excellent user experience is key for the company’s bottom line. This is especially true in developed markets where user experience is a key differentiator.
Business-Focused Product Manager
The business-focused PM comes from a position of understanding the market and customer base for her product. However, she may not be as intimately familiar with a product’s specific customers. Instead, the business PM worries about where the money comes from, the competitive landscape, partnerships, and business tradeoffs.
Like the customer-focused PM, the business-focused PM may be not be as intimately aware of design and engineering tradeoffs and execution. Instead, her strengths align well with products in a competitive market, products in an established market, or products in a market with well-defined regulations or rules of engagement.
Are you looking to hire a new PM? Or are you a PM looking for your next career move? What kind of PM do you want or want to be?
Consider this framework when evaluating which type of PM is right for the job. It will help you match the right skills to the right role. Choose smartly and prosper.
Jeff Holman is Director of Product Management at Lattice Engines. He also organizes Early Stage Startup Talks, a product talk series in the San Francisco Bay area.