What Does a Product Manager Do? Part 1/5: Intro

When asked questions like “what does a product manager do” or ” is person X a good product manager”, too many times I answer with the unsatisfying “it depends” response. So here I try to better define the role of product management, by providing a framework, which we’ll explore in this 5-part series.

My parents (and likely my colleagues too) have no idea what I do

Unlike many other disciplines, Product Managers don’t have a specific “functional” background. No one goes to school to study “product management”, like you would for marketing, engineering, or accounting. So when you say “I’m a software developer”, people likely have a better chance to understand that (even if vaguely), whereas saying “I’m a product manager”? Not so much.

Even within the industry, there really aren’t standard definitions like others (e.g. brand vs. direct marketing), so you end up with a broad array of backgrounds and experiences — and many times fit to the wrong job — since what’s needed from a product manager can widely vary depending on the company and by team by market by business model by external climate.

Creating a model to help us define the discipline

So to answer this, I’ve put together a little framework consisting of 3 dimensions, each with 3 facets (so 3^3). In this post I’ll provide an outline of it all, and we’ll dive into the specifics in subsequent parts of this series.

The basic premise is that in order to define the discipline, we first have to define the core responsibilities, intended objectives, and the external situation, by way of the following “3Cs”:

  1. Competencies: In Part 2, we’ll look at the three (3) core responsibility facets product managers must fill, which are “direction”, “design”, and “details” – where the mix of time / expertise amongst these will depend on factors 2 & 3.
  2. Customer: In Part 3, we’ll look at the second dimension, which is who the audience of the product is. For instance, product management in enterprise and consumer domains are quite different, so we’ll define the three types of customer: “you”, “not you”, or “near you” upon which the job varies widely with each.
  3. Context: Then, in Part 4, we’ll look at how things change depending on where the product (or company), is in its lifecycle. With that we’ll explore three facets of the context: the pre-product-market-fit stage, post-product-market-fit, or the “mature” phase.

Finally, we’ll pull it all together (in Part 5) with some examples of how these factors combined yield very different “types” of players in this game.

Using this model, we can not only help understand the role better, but also use it to evaluate opportunities best suited for a job seeker, or as a hiring manager looking to recruit the “right” person for their particular situation.

Looking Ahead

Here’s what we’ll cover in subsequent parts of this series, I’ll fill in the links as I complete each post, so you can use this post as a table of contents for the others:

My hope in all of this is to better define the discipline, help current product managers asses the right fit for their skills, and help other hiring managers find the right “product” person for their business…and selfishly, help my parents & colleagues understand what I do for a living.



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