10 months ago

What Does a Product Manager Really Do?

Today’s product managers (PMs) need to wear many hats. Vijay Umapathy of Heap explores how PM roles differ from most careers and what the day-to-day for a PM looks like. It will also examine their key skills and competencies and how the role has evolved.

Product managers research and develop products, coordinate teams, and handle various other responsibilities. Boiling down their job to a single task is like trying to identify an elephant from one part — you miss the big picture.

“A jack of all trades is a master of none … but oftentimes better than a master of one.” While this saying dates back to William Shakespeare, it might as well describe the modern product manager. The saying posits that a generalist with many skill sets can be more valuable than a specialist who only does one thing.

How The Role Differs From Other Careers

Unlike more specialized positions like engineers and marketing or sales reps, product managers (PMs) have a broad range of responsibilities. They lead efforts in engineering, marketing, and sales, often at the same time. They also tackle less traditional areas like conflict mediation, C-suite-reassuring, engineer-whispering, schedule coordinating, policing, and babysitting.

PMs play a role in the entire product development lifecycle, from conception to implementation. They navigate the crossroads of business, technology, and user experience, focusing on achieving desired business outcomes and ensuring alignment across various teams.

A Day In the Life of a PM

During the first product development stages, product managers conduct research and collect feedback from existing and potential customers. This helps them identify the challenges facing specific user segments so they can develop the strategy, vision, and product roadmap to solve them. They also must understand users’ requirements and maintain empathetic communication with their teams.

Product managers play a significant role in guiding the teams responsible for enhancing the product and its features. They help set design goals and business targets, support product ideas, and find a balance between good design and what’s possible with technology and resources. They ensure deadlines are met and give honest assessments of what can be done within budget and time limits while resolving stakeholder conflicts.

As a new product or feature is being developed, product managers also work closely with product marketing to complete the go-to-market and launch strategy. This includes giving feedback on the main messages to ensure marketing positions the product or feature correctly and highlights the benefit to customers.

A product manager’s job isn’t done after the launch. A proficient PM seeks user feedback to better the product, focusing on solutions that improve the customer experience. They also identify opportunities and priorities for future product updates.

Key Skills and Competencies

Project managers adopt a blend of both hard and soft skills; they need to be flexible that knowing the job is a mix of art and science. The following are activities that fall under a product manager’s purview.

1. Agile product development: The process of building a product using the Agile methodology, which breaks down the project into short developmental cycles called sprints. Product managers play a key role in helping teams set and achieve sprint goals, which may include customer-facing enhancements, foundational work (resolving internal technical debt) and any quality assurance testing required before a release.

2. Product-led growth (PLG): Besides leveraging the Agile methodology, many businesses also use PLG, which is a business strategy that places a company’s software at the center of the buying journey. This is often at the center of the broader customer experience. A product-led growth strategy counts on the product itself — its features, performance, and virality —to do much of the “selling.”

3. UX design: Product managers are also responsible for knowing the basics of good UX design and how it connects to business goals. They must understand how time and technology limits can impact the product and work with designers to make sound decisions that factor in these limitations. 

4. A/B testing: A/B testing is the partial release of a change to a product or service to just a percentage of customers, comparing an “experimental” cohort to a “control” cohort to predict what the impact of that change will be at scale (with some confidence level). PMs must become proficient in designing A/B tests, using them appropriately, and driving decision-making after each A/B test concludes.

5. Roadmap planning and prioritization: Product managers gather ongoing feedback to improve the product roadmap. They define “value drivers” or strategic pillars for a roadmap, analyze data to highlight the biggest opportunities given a strategy or goal KPI, rank initiatives based on their value, and seek agreement from stakeholders on what to prioritize sooner vs. deprioritize later. 

6. Data analysis: Product managers also need to behave like data scientists. They use tools to look at data and find out what’s going well or not so well and where the biggest opportunities are to drive the most impact. 

7. Research emerging technologies: Product managers need to be aware of emerging and trending technologies to determine if and when they should be integrated into their products.  As technology keeps improving, a product manager needs to work on accelerating innovation and staying up-to-date on new tools that can impact their industry or product (e.g., significantly reducing costs, improving quality, or improving scalability). Examples of these kinds of transformational technology shifts include: 

  • The creation of mobile app ecosystems
  • Social media as a channel for low-cost, viral customer acquisition
  • Large language models and generative AI

Many Hats, One Role

PMs also need a set of soft skills, including strong interpersonal communication, storytelling abilities, creative thinking, and empathy. Having the ability to influence cooperation without the authority to enforce it is an often-overlooked skill. PMs are sometimes referred to as the “CEO of the product,” but they still must answer to key stakeholders — including the actual CEO.

A PM who wants to get ahead must balance time, planning, and foresight. PMs are also becoming more technical, relying on data to make decisions. A product manager should both epitomize and contradict Shakespeare’s “jack of all trades” quote, as the best ones tend to achieve mastery in many, if not all, of the skills mentioned above.

Enter your comment here