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Product Management
General Assembly
Product Design

What is Product Management Anyway?

Jul 28, 2016
By Suzanne Abate

If you’re new to technology or new to 100 PM, you might naturally be asking the question, What is product management?

Great question!

Before I tackle a longer form explanation, let me offer you a short version — because I believe you may already know more about the topic than you think.

Product Management is the new term for Brand Management.

Short, right?

Well it’s true.

The roots of product management were laid when companies like Procter & Gamble (monolithic purveyors of fine soaps, detergents and household names such as Gillette, Tide and Febreze) started encouraging each of its products to have their own brand vision, target customers, and marketing strategies.

Forthwith the company bore dozens of mini CEOs under the title of “brand manager,” each responsible for the operation and success of their own business units.

product-soap Some say product management was born at Procter & Gamble, when the Camay soap team declared friendly war on the Ivory soap team — fighting for resources to be oriented around individual product lines rather than business units.

Today when we talk about product managers we are talking about brand managers (they’re still doing their thing!) while also talking about the evolution of the PM role as it relates to managing technology products.

##What is a Product?

This may seem facetious but I’m being serious.

What are we describing when we say product?

A lot of different things, actually.

Products that are tangible. T-Shirts. Tables. Jewelry. Products you can see and touch. The kinds you can eat! The spectrum of physical products that, for the better part of centuries, make up our primary understanding of what a product is.

Products that are intangible. Facebook. Your 401k (yes, your 401k). Products that are made up of electrons. Products that you interface with through web-connected desktop and mobile devices. Software products that provide a service to you.

Product that are both. Wearables! VR headsets! The Internet of Things! Tangible products that interface with intangible products to deliver a combined experience that is hard and soft.


##Product Manager are not Project Managers. Except when they are.

The title product manager may be used interchangeably with brand manager, but it should never be mistaken for project manager.

Project Managers manage people and tasks. They are responsible for getting things done within a finite period of time for a finite purpose. Project Management is tactical.

Product Managers are planners, not executers. They are responsible for developing and owning the product vision and for overseeing the steps a company must take to realize that vision. Product managers are the lifeline to the customers and the gatekeepers of product features. Product Management is strategic.

Oftentimes, product managers may need to act in the capacity of project managers — especially in a startup or small business environment. Even so, this delineation is important because — as you’ll discover below — product managers have an inherent identity crisis.

##The Product Management Pressure Cooker

This venn diagram below by Martin Eriksson is well recognized in the PM community.

It demonstrates so simply what makes the product manager role so complex.

pm-overlapping-areas Image courtesy of What is a Product Manager? - Mind the Product.

Product managers must be business-minded. We must understand the science of user acquisition, retention and referral. We need to know Excel and how to build financial scenarios and model revenue opportunities.

Product managers must be design-centric. We don’t need to know Photoshop or Sketch or XD but it sure helps if we do. At minimum we need to be able to draw simple wireframes and workflows to communicate user experience to our design team. We need to understand user experience.

Product managers must be technical. We don’t need to code but we definitely need to decode developer speak. We need to know what it means to be agile (figuratively but also literally). We must understand what it takes to bring the layers of an application together and how to manage and inspire the developer teams who do it.

You might be asking, must a product manager really be all that?

Didn’t I tell you product managers have an identity crisis?

The truth is that you may not touch all those responsibilities in your role as product manager. A lot will depend on how large the company is that you work for; what stage of the product life cycle your business is in; what culture, teams and processes have already been stood up — and which are immovable.

In short, the pressure cooker where PMs live — between business, design and technology — is a dynamic space. Its radius expands and contracts.

To succeed, PMs often need to be proficient in one domain, and at least interested in the other two.

But don’t sweat the requirements too much, the path into product management is nearly never a straight one.

curvy-path In The Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management, Jock Busuttil shares his journey which began in Ancient Greek Philosophy and detoured through Royal Airforce Pilot Training before landing squarely in technology, first as a webmaster.

##How can I get started with Product Management?

What if I told you you were already on your way?

If you own a computer, a smartphone or a pair of sneakers then you already have the experience of being a customer locked down.

thinking-of-user A product manager must always be thinking about the customer.

The first step to becoming an effective product manager is to think like a customer.

Here is a little exercise I like to run in my product management classes that you can try at home:

  • What product in your life right now is most useful?
  • Why is it useful?
  • What single feature contributes most to its usefulness?
  • Could that feature be improved? How?
  • What other features would contribute to its usefulness?
  • Would you refer this product to a friend? How would you “sell” it?

Eckhart Tolle describes spiritual awakening as the process of having a thought while at once observing yourself having that thought, and the increasing ability to sustain that duality.

In Work the System, Sam Carpenter describes the necessity for an “outside-and-slightly-elevated perspective.”

Your journey to product management starts here, with your own awareness.

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