What Is a Product Manager?
A Product Manager develops and delivers products through the entire product life cycle. It’s the job of a Product Manager to simultaneously have a deep understanding of the profitability of a business model, the opportunities and limits of technology, and the user experience of the end product.
In the role of Product Manager, you will often be tasked with leading a cross-functional product development and software engineering team through what can be a very lengthy process for a new product. Ultimately, a Product Manager takes ownership of the product vision and development process as well as the eventual success or failure of a product.
Product Management vs. Project Management
Product Managers typically:
- determine and own the product vision and product strategy
- are often referred to as a “mini CEO” of a product, sitting at the intersection of business, tech, and user experience
- spend time talking to users to understand requirements (before the prioritization decision making phase), identifying issues and opportunities
- collaborate with designers, marketing, sales, data, development, engineering teams as well as senior company leadership and stakeholders
- are product experts
- may take a Product Manager’s product vision before developing timelines, defining important goals and deadlines, managing resources, and ultimately working to bring projects to completion within the agreed budget, time, and quality
- sometimes work on multiple internal projects at the same organization, but more often cycle through different companies steering projects
- often interact extensively with top company leadership including the CEO, and they may also address any team whose work is relevant
Find out more about the differences between product management and project management.
What Does a Product Manager Do?
A Product Manager identifies the larger business objectives and users needs that a product will meet, defines how that product can be deemed a success and leads a team of developers and engineers to bring that product to life and then support it after its release.
Although the specific job responsibilities will vary based on the organization, Product Managers will oversee a development team as they begin with research and analysis on the market and customers, continue into a design and development stage, and finally proceed to prototyping, testing, and bug fixing before product launch.
Product Managers also spend much of their time in team meetings and in communication with key company stakeholders and making sure they’re all aligned behind a common core goal for the product. Although a Product Manager job is in some ways a technical role, it’s just as important that PMs convey their ideas in a persuasive and strategic way to help organizations see the value in their work.
Read more about what a Product Manager does.
What Are the Responsibilities of a Product Manager?
Product Managers are responsible for product development from conception to market launch, encompassing the entire product lifecycle.
In early planning, the Product Manager is able to provide valuable insight about the realistically achievable scope of a product’s features (that is, what’s possible), what features are valuable to customers (what’s needed), and what customers will be willing to invest in (what’s profitable). These questions are at the root of which products get made and which don’t – and, if they do get made, what features those products include, how they work, and whether they succeed. In other words, Product Managers are pivotal in answering the most existential questions of the development process.
As development proceeds, numerous considerations all come to bear—the wish list of features and technical requirements, the user experience, the business requirements. There are almost always tradeoffs between these considerations, each of them with their own proponents at different levels of the organization. It’s often a Product Manager’s job to evaluate and mediate those requirements—effectively acting as the glue that holds the entire process together.
Product Manager Educational Backgrounds
Since Product Managers have such a diverse variety of educational and professional backgrounds, there are many different ways to go about becoming a Product Manager.
The vast majority of product management professionals begin their careers doing something else. BrainStation’s 2020 Digital Skills Survey found that 88 percent of Product Managers started working in another field. But since PM tends to be a more senior position, typically someone looking to get into product management would have some experience in UX design, UI design, web development, product development, business, or filling other roles within tech companies.
There is no specific educational background that leads to becoming a Product Manager, generally speaking, most product management job descriptions do call for candidates to have a degree.
Really, though, if you want to become a PM, you should think of your bachelor’s degree as the very beginning of your commitment to lifelong learning. Product Managers tend to follow a strategic plan for continuing education, with 71 percent of them saying in one survey that they held at least one professional certification in addition to an undergraduate degree. Meanwhile, 76 percent considered continuing education somewhat or very important.
A product management certification course offers a first-hand look at the entire product lifecycle, allowing you to acquire product manager skills and work out issues in a simulated practice scenario so you will know what to do later when the stakes are higher.
BrainStation’s Product Management course gives students the chance to go through a comprehensive product launch before eventually presenting a go-to-market plan to key stakeholders.
Courses like that one will also help you build a portfolio that showcases your technical skills.
Characteristics of a Successful Product Manager
Even in a profession with such a diverse array of important responsibilities, there are some characteristics that mark a successful Product Manager.
They love products
In the role of a Product Manager, you have to know exactly what makes something a great product. If you’re going to work in the product management field, you have to be able to quickly assess possible flaws and conjure ideas on how to fix them. Further, Product Managers are usually considered leaders of a larger product team — and product leadership is all about letting your team members see your passion, dedication, and enthusiasm.
Similar to UX roles, PMs need to have their finger on the pulse of their customers. They need to understand what makes their customers tick and how to meet customer needs. PM need to use a combination of research, intuition, and experience to get inside the heads of their customers and make sure they’re giving them the product they really want and need.
They’re enthusiastic about research
Hand in hand with empathy is understanding the value of learning more about your customers. Investing in user research and then acting on the data you find is a key characteristic of a good Product Manager.
PMs have the ability to think long-term. They have a vision for the product and acting as the product owner, you have to be able to envision how the product, industry, and competition are going to change and develop over time and change your business strategy accordingly. You must also have a knack for smart, data-driven decision-making, a solid base of design knowledge, and an understanding of data analysis.
We mentioned leadership already, but it bears repeating: Product Managers need to be great leaders. To meet their business goals and develop a successful product, Product Managers need to motivate and supervise large cross-functional teams of people, each with different skills and backgrounds. Getting the people in that product development team to buy into their idea for a great product is the mark of a skilled Product Manager.
Types of Product Managers
If you want to categorize Product Managers based on their relative skills and areas of expertise, these would be the main types of PMs:
Data Product Managers
Product Managers with a background in data science or data analysis will be adept at making persuasive data-based arguments and digging deeper into trends and patterns in customer behavior.
Technical Product Managers
Technical PMs usually have a background in engineering and development and may take a more hands-on role with coding and development.
Product Marketing Manager
With a background in marketing or perhaps a marketing-related tech field like UX Design, a Product Marketing Manager would worry less about technical aspects of a product and focus more on developing case studies, content, and sales strategies around a product.
Growth Product Manager
Digging into the details of a product, Growth Product Managers are responsible for boosting specific metrics, achieving short-term business goals, and driving revenue.
Benefits of Product Management
Some of the benefits of product management include:
Smarter, slicker collaboration
Just as a Product Manager combines several disparate disciplines, PMs also act as a bridge between different teams within larger companies. A Product Manager who can effectively address teams of designers, engineers, marketers, and business leadership while keeping them all focused on their end goal. A great Product Manager will free their teams up to do their best work.
Define and find success
It’s the role of a Product Manager to set goals, milestones, and expectations and ultimately define success or failure. The simple act of declaring a destination is often enough to motivate a product team to do better and more purposeful work.
Understands the market
It’s crucial in a Product Manager role to have a complete understanding of the market, the competition, and the customers. That means research is at the top of the list of Product Manager responsibilities, even if it’s one that’s often delegated to someone more junior. You can’t establish a product’s defining features, value proposition, or what problem to solve without thorough and thoughtful research.
Ultimately, even a great Product Manager can’t necessarily guarantee that a product won’t fail, but a strategic and forward-thinking Product Manager with vision will give you the best odds that the execution of your vision is pulled off with as few wasted resources as possible.
Product Manager Salaries
The average Product Manager makes an annual salary of $98,114 plus $8,000 in bonuses, according to Indeed. Salaries are much higher in tech hubs like the Bay Area and New York.
Demand for Product Managers
The demand for Product Managers has never been higher.
Glassdoor declared Product Manager the fourth best job role in the U.S. for 2020. And the number of product management roles in the U.S. has skyrocketed by 32 percent from August 2017 to June 2019 – less than two years – according to a study by Product Management Insider.
What Tools Do Product Managers Use?
Given the wide variety of Product Manager responsibilities at your average job, PMs have to use a variety of quite different tools to accomplish their diverse set of tasks. These are the main product management tools, broken up into the development stages when they’re used:
To keep products aligned with an overall business plan, Product Managers frequently need to lean on industry analysis and data analysis tools to gain a deeper understanding of trends in their companies and industries more generally.
- Google Analytics
Your team and other stakeholders will find a visual, interactive roadmap an essential tool for understanding product strategy and making sure your entire company is oriented around the same vision.
- Aha! Roadmaps
Customer feedback tools
Product Managers must understand everything they can about how users are experiencing a product. That requires extensive research at all stages of product development.
- Google Forms
Project tracking and management tools
With such an array of responsibilities to oversee, Product Managers need all the help they can get with tracking and managing their projects and tasks, handling team communication, and monitoring, and solving issues.
- Microsoft Project
- Pivotal Tracker
Read more about what tools Product Managers use.
What Skills Do Product Managers Need?
Product Managers need a rare combination of hard and soft skills to thrive in their job, including:
Mind for data
Although you don’t need to be a specialist, a Product Manager should understand how to correctly and efficiently interpret and translate data.
Some tech skills
Depending on the specific job responsibilities, a Product Manager might be expected to learn to code so they can pitch in from time to time as part of a development team. Other Product Manager roles won’t require any programming experience, but some level of understanding around the way your products and their features actually function will make it easier to flag and solve problems.
Basic business acumen
Understanding how to give customers what they want with the right amount of time and resources to still make a profit is an important part of being a Product Manager. No PM wants to be responsible for creating a money-losing product or piece of software, so some business sense is needed.
Getting into the mind of your customer – empathy, in other words – is a crucial skill for Product Managers, who must learn to anticipate the desires and needs of their target customer.
Product Manager Career Paths
Product Manager tends to be a more senior role, and the career path of a Product Manager will first wind through a related field such as marketing, design, user experience, engineering, business analysis, or management.
BrainStation’s Digital Skills Survey found that 88 percent of Product Managers started their careers in a different field.
Once you move into product management, you might start with a job title like Associate Product Manager – where you might oversee smaller budgets and projects or have less control over the product vision – before moving up the ranks to Product Manager and Senior Product Manager.
With years of career experience, a seasoned product pro could qualify for a job as Director of Product, VP of Product, or Chief Product Officer.
Product Management Jobs
Although Product Manager is a senior role, it doesn’t mark the end of your career path in product management. Here are a few of the most common product management job descriptions you’ll find at tech companies and beyond.
A Product Manager’s responsibilities include the strategy, product roadmap, and feature definition of a product or products. They may report to the Group Product Manager, the Senior Product Manager, or even the CEO, depending on the size and type of organization. PMs have a leadership role on cross-functional teams, including product marketing managers, design teams, development teams, project managers, engineering teams, data analysis teams, and business analysts. They may also do forecasting, and profit and loss responsibilities. PMs analyze all the information they can on the competitive environment to become product experts. This role spans many types of activities, from strategic to tactical. They often act as a bridge between engineering, marketing, sales, and support teams.
Some agile teams actually have a separate PM and Product Owner. Defining the roles really depends on different companies and situations as well as the specific team, but generally speaking, a Product Owner may support the development team by prioritizing customer stories and answering product questions. In that scenario, the PM would be tasked with communicating the customer’s voice, making product decisions, and achieving market success.
Group Product Manager (GPM)
The GPM is responsible for directing and leading a product management team that is overseeing a specific group of products. One of the most senior roles in product management, Group Product Managers manage other PMs and their product teams. Their day-to-day responsibilities include strategy, product development, and people management.
Vice President of Product Management
Found in larger organizations, a Vice President of Product Management (VP of product) usually has more than a decade of experience in product management. They oversee all large initiatives and have a voice in all strategy discussions and even mergers and acquisitions. They work closely with other key company leaders to ensure companies are investing their money and resources in the right places.
Chief Product Officer (CPO)
The CPO usually reports directly to the CEO. All product activities inside an organization are the responsibility of a CPO. In this role, you would set product strategy and sometimes the marketing and development of the product.
Reasons to Become a Product Manager
There are many reasons to become a Product Manager, from a high salary to the opportunity to work with a wide variety of different people. Here are just a few of the reasons to become a Product Manager.
Product Managers could work in any size of company – from a huge corporation to a feisty startup – on any type of product. You could work freelance and create great products from the comfort of home or you could move to pretty much any major city on the globe to work in the role of Product Manager. It’s a job that can fit your preferred lifestyle, whatever that is, but you also have flexibility in another way: you can shape your role. Product Manager responsibilities vary from company to company and industry to industry, so you have an opportunity to define your own role and decide what you want your work-life to look like.
Product management is a field that offers rapid career progression and exposure to executives of a company, who provide real insight into the opportunities and challenges their companies are grappling with. Even more rewarding? The opportunity to see how customers interact with a great product you’ve nurtured to creation. Seeing how you’ve made a product that has made someone’s life better in any way is a satisfying and inspiring feeling.
You’ll never stop learning
Product Managers collaborate with such a diversity of disciplines, every day offers a new opportunity for curiosity, new information, and knowledge exchange. A PM interacts with top minds in fields like design, engineering, sales, marketing, and support. Not only that but the product management field is committed to lifelong learning. By continuing to pursue new certifications well into your career, you’ll get the benefit of ongoing mental stimulation and the acquisition of new skills.
High salaries and great perks
The average salary for Product Managers in the United States is between $103,000 and $109,000 according to Glassdoor and Indeed. Senior Product Managers make $125,000, with plenty of opportunities to make more with bonuses and other incentives. It’s also worth noting that Product Manager job opportunities are many; in 2018, CBS News listed Product Manager among the nine best jobs in America, noting the abundance of openings. So between the high salaries and hot job market, it’s clear why Product Manager is such a coveted job title.
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