PM Basics: What Do Product Managers Do? | Marvel Blog
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PM Basics: What Do Product Managers Do?

Posted 3 years ago by Romy Misra

An introduction to Product Management

A product manager defines, decides and helps the company ship the right features in a product.

So, for example, if you see the launch of Facebook reactions on your feed the product manager at Facebook worked with people to define, prioritize and ship it.

There are three key words here: Define. Decide. Ship.

Define: Product Managers define the feature that needs to be shipped. Say I wanted to improve Medium’s text editing abilities. To start defining that, you need to know the problem, product, the market and the user. You work with designers and engineers to help define what exactly goes in it, what it looks like and how much time it will take. Then you work with the engineers to build it. There are so many nuances in the term definition, and great product managers are very good at it.

“There are so many nuances in the term definition, and great product managers are very good at it.”

Decide: Product managers decide what needs to be done and they do that in collaboration with people. There are probably hundreds of features in the pipeline, so how does one take priority over the other? Which problem is more important to solve than the other for the users? You collaborate engineering, design, marketing, sales, customer support and sometimes even legal and accounting. None of these questions are easy to answer, which is why product managers are needed.

Ship: Product managers help ship the right features. And this is done by knowing that nothing is perfect, releasing at the right time and measuring what has already been released.

What skills should product managers have?

As a product manager, you are supposed to be generally good at business, technical, design, and marketing skills, while being really great at one or two of these. Most product managers I’ve met are also very organized and proactive about things. You have probably seen that Venn diagram where product management is the intersection of UX, Technology and Business. You have to be amazing at communication — listening and persuading people without being their boss or being in charge of them is key.

“Great product managers are experts on the problem they are trying to solve and are the voice of their customers. You can’t do your job without being an expert in that area.”

“You have to be amazing at communication — listening and persuading people without being their boss.”

What do product managers own in a company?

Product managers do not own any tangible part of the final product but they own a lot of parts that go into it. Product managers own specs, scheduling tasks for engineers, problem definition in some form (some companies still do PRDs and MRDs) and roadmaps of their area. Apart from this they collaborate with designers on designs and engineers on building it out. Most PMs will use JIRA/ Pivotal or a similar tool to help with this.

So for example, if your engineers don’t have a clear idea of what work to do then you aren’t doing your job as a product manager.

Some important things to know about a PM

The term “manager” is a misnomer — in reality, product managers rarely manage anybody except other product managers if you are the lead, or sometimes a designer in smaller companies.

“You have to influence without formally having the authority to. The way you do that is by earning their respect and trust. You lead by asking tough questions and listening very closely to what people in the company and customers are saying and not by being anyone’s boss which is hard.”

Working with people — Product managers need to know how to work with people and have stellar communication skills. You are working sometimes with difficult people, dealing with a variety of situations and are saying “No” more often than you are saying “Yes.”

A product manager can sometimes play a lot of other roles in smaller companies — for example, those with backgrounds in user research, UX and engineering backgrounds may even sometimes contribute to designs or/and code. That’s OK if you are still an expert on the problem and defining and deciding what goes out. For example, if you are a PM in a startup and spend your time wireframing but not really defining the spec, you are a designer and not a PM. Make sure you are doing what is expected as a PM first.

Product managers are not project managers, coordinators, engineer’s managers — don’t confuse them or yourself for any of these roles. As a PM sometimes you maybe asked the frustrating question of why do we need a PM or why they exist.

In early stage startups there may be no product managers but that doesn’t mean someone is not playing the product management role. A founder or engineer probably is but that doesn’t scale as you grow.

Good resources on the basics:

  1. A product manager’s job by John Elman — I love his definition of product management as well
  2. As a product manager you are a janitor by Mat Balez
  3. 4 mistakes product managers make by Matt Schnitt
  4. What exactly is a product manager by Martin Ericksson
  5. The Black Box of Product Management by Brandon Chu

Thanks to Trevor for reading the draft.

This article is the first in a series of posts on the basics of product management and was originally published on Romy’s Medium page.

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Romy is the founder of Flowcap, where she publishes content on product management, design and data with the aim of making real skills transparent and free. Previously Senior Director of Product at Visually. Has also taught at General Assembly.

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