Product management is one of the most intriguing parts of the product development process. But what is it actually? What defines good Product Managers? How hard is it to start working in the product management area? Those are only some of the questions I’d like to answer in this (not so short) introduction to product management. Whether you’re already experienced in this field or looking for tips on how to start working as a Product Manager, I hope you’ll find this article useful.
What is Product Management?
Product management is one of the most difficult roles to define, mostly because of how different and unique it is in various companies or even industries. To give you an idea about it, you can’t compare a Product Manager who works in a pharmaceutical company with OTC or RX medicines with the one who is working in a software development agency on SaaS products. And even though most likely they could never replace each other in their respective companies, they have something in common – they are responsible for their products and their whole lifecycle, no matter how different these products are.
It’s also the essence and my take on the definition of product management. It’s a constant process in which you are fully responsible for everything about the product at every stage of its lifecycle. Its ideation, vision, target group, development progress, release strategy, market position, pricing, post-release support, and a long-term or a short-term roadmap, depending on the product and used methodology. Successful product management is something really hard to achieve. It requires great communication skills, broad knowledge from many different industries and/or companies, never-ending curiosity, or empathy. I will talk about these aspects in detail later in the article.
Project and Product Management – Where is the Difference?
Before we dive deeper into the world of product management, I want to indicate the difference between Product and Project Managers, as people tend to confuse these two roles calling them simply “PM”, while in reality, they are very different. Most IT companies have employees working in both of these roles, and they are equally important in every one of them.
Product Managers are responsible for the success of their products. “Success” can be measured in many ways, depending on the product itself. Usually, success is measured by KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) like Monthly Recurring Revenue, New Monthly Subscribers, Customer Churn, or Customer Lifetime Value. In the product management world, such KPIs are then being shaped into goals. For example, a goal might be to decrease the overall Customer Churn, measured monthly, by 2%. How the Product Manager will achieve it, is up to him or her. Product Managers have all the data which is associated with the product, they know their products, and finally, they know their customers. By making data-driven decisions, they need to either iterate on what they have or make a bigger bet with their product strategy in order to achieve this goal.
On the other hand, Project Managers are responsible for accomplishing a certain project, usually with a strict budget and deadline, rather than achieving any particular goals. And accomplishing such a project is a measure of their success. Delivering a project has no space for experiments and different iterations, mostly because of two, already mentioned factors: deadline and budget. It’s up to the Project Manager to then allocate resources in a proper way in order to accomplish this project, without making any business or strategy-oriented decisions regarding the actual projects or products they work with.
Even though these two roles are different, people holding the position of Product Manager are doing many “project-like” things during their daily work. As said earlier, they are responsible for the development of their products – planning the work, creating roadmaps, or distributing engineering resources into certain areas. Their decisions shape the business and the long-term strategy of their companies.
Key Aspects of Product Management
There are some aspects of product management that are absolutely essential for all Product Managers in order to do their work properly. The uniqueness of this role and its placement within the organization makes them crucial in order to ensure successful product management.
Communication is one of the most important, if not the most important piece of effective product management. As a Product Manager, you are working extremely closely with all the departments that are involved in the product development process. These departments are Engineering, Operations, UX, and Business. You bond them, making sure that every member of each team is fully aligned on the general direction of the product.
And what’s best, pretty much everything you will do as a Product Manager is somehow connected to communication. From daily meetings, sending emails or messages on Slack, having presentations, creating documentation, conducting training sessions, planning new sprints, responding to customers, or generally representing the product. Paradoxically, the Product Manager is one of the most independent roles in IT structures, but it’s also the one that requires a huge effort in building relationships with other members of the team, end-users, sales, executives, and even investors.
It’s impossible to manage a product without good communication skills.
As a Product Manager, you’re leading all the effort behind the product development process. The whole team has to share and accept your vision for the product direction and strategy. Otherwise, it’s hard for me to imagine the product being successful. And by the whole team, I mean literally everyone who’s working on the product: developers, QA engineers, ops, designers.
But, there’s one important aspect here – you are no one’s boss. Product Managers, as independent individuals, have to lead people without using any authority over them. The way in which you will build this leadership is up to you – you need to build trust, and you always need to be considered as a reasonable and charismatic person. If you won’t, people will never follow you. And if they won’t follow you, they will never believe in the product you’re trying to create or improve.
Remember that it takes time to build a relationship based on trust and respect. If you want to be a leader, you always need to act as one, and you always need to remember this.
While comparing project management to product management, I’ve mentioned that there are many “project-like” things within the whole product management field, and planning is most likely the most important one of them. If you want to be a successful Product Manager, you need to constantly think about the past, present, and future. Always in relation to your product.
By looking into the past, you can see your decisions from different angles, adjusting plans for the future. You can also see your mistakes. And I am not afraid to say that product management is somehow the art of making mistakes and learning from them. It’s impossible to avoid. As a Product Manager, you will make smaller or bigger decisions every day. Remember that product management is about decisions, and not all of them will play out perfectly well.
Presence is tied to the actual state of your product. You know where its biggest gaps or flaws are, and what areas should be improved – based on the current data, customer feedback, and your intuition. Successful product management requires a deep understanding of your product, and it also requires you to understand how people are actually using it. Without this knowledge, you won’t be able to plan the future of your product.
Regarding the future, obviously, you always need to know what to do. The exact approach to planning product development is tied to the methodology used within your organization. If it’s Waterfall, you will probably have work planned for many months into the future, sometimes even years. On the other hand, Agile is more dynamic and gives you the ability to shift direction in a matter of a few weeks. Nonetheless, as a Product Manager, you always need to have a plan for the future development of your product. There are many useful tools that will help you in this task, but we will take a closer look at them later in the article.
The development team should be like a well-oiled machine, and it can’t stop. If it will stop, then you have failed in the area of planning. And it would be a very expensive failure as well because as we all know, engineers are the most expensive part of the product development process.
Product management is all about data. The future of the product should always have its foundation in a set of data that is related to it. Of course, different metrics are important for different products. For example, you won’t be really interested in metrics like monthly churn or onboarding adoption when you’re responsible for a small B2B platform. On the other hand, it might be your daily bread while working on a B2C software used by thousands of users.
In the section about planning, I have used the word “intuition”, and I believe it’s important to say that it’s not always possible to make a decision based on real data. Sometimes you will be forced to make a bet, based on your intuition, knowledge, or past experience. Still, data-oriented tools like Business Intelligence platforms, or even marketing tools like Google Analytics should be your best friends when it comes to managing your product. Such data will give you invaluable insight into what’s most important to you: the actual usage of your product.
Make it your daily habit. Work with data, analyze data, and compare data – when you learn to effectively work with data, and analyze your business decisions based on the data, you will make a very important step in the direction of successful product management.
Empathy is one of the hardest things to learn. And yes, it’s a skill, not an emotion. Even if you struggle with it today, you can learn it. If you want to achieve your goals within the product management field or you simply want to grow your personal business, one day you will need to learn empathy, as it’s a great way to learn more about your customers and their problems.
Speaking of problems.
Every good product is solving a problem. If it’s not, it’s useless, because it won’t only be used by anyone, but no one will give you their hard-earned money for it. But problems are very different in their nature. The fact that you’re looking into something in a specific way, doesn’t mean everyone does the very same thing. I know it sounds like a cliché, but we are really different, and we are looking into certain aspects of our lives in a completely unique way.
That’s why product management lies extremely close to empathy. You can build a product for thousands of users, and you will never reach the utopia, in which everyone is happy using it. And it doesn’t matter if it’s free or if users are paying for it. Everyone will look at it in a slightly different way. What’s more, everyone might use it a different way, and what’s most important – everyone will think about it a different way. Even if someone doesn’t like it, you should do your best to understand why. It might help you solve problems you’ve never thought of before.
Remember: be emphatic, listen, ask questions, and always be ready to learn. Thanks to this, not only will your product improve, but you will also become a better Product Manager.
Curiosity might be perceived in many ways, both positive and negative. Don’t worry, though, I will stay far away from our private worlds – let’s focus on business! In it, curiosity, as a skill, characterizes good, maybe even great managers. But how does it apply to the product management field?
As you already know, product management is very broad. Product Managers work with many people from many different departments or units. They need to know a lot, and they need to understand crucial business processes. And it’s still the tip of the iceberg because people who are really successful in product management, have broad knowledge from many different areas, industries, and even companies. To increase this knowledge, you need to be curious. For example, while working on your software, you need to understand and know what’s happening outside of the product development area.
Sales, support, marketing, operations – by trying to understand how these units operate, you might not only help them in their daily work but also develop yourself as a Product Manager. If you’ll work on a video marketing campaign, you should learn about video protection, or in sales, you should understand what CRM to use.
Curiosity should always lead you to new situations. There’s always something new to learn, and only by being curious, you can actually increase your knowledge and experience to the point when you can make good decisions by looking at certain aspects from many perspectives.
Perspectives that are unavailable to people who are closing themselves in their bubbles.
There is also another side of curiosity in the product management process. It is a curiosity that is related to technology, in general. When you work on your software, or when you are developing your product strategy, you always need to know what’s happening “outside” of your company. And I am not talking about competition. We live in a time where many products are being created almost every single day. It’s impossible to know or try everything, but it’s at least worth it to know what’s actually “sexy” in IT right now. It might always inspire you or your UX team to plan changes that are really trending and are expected by your customers.
To summarize, curiosity definitely defines great Product Managers. The ability to be curious is crucial in the whole product management process and during every phase of your product lifecycle.
Product Management Roles
If you have found this article while trying to learn more about not only product management itself, but also the general hierarchy of the Product teams, you will find this part especially interesting. As it is with every role, Product Managers have their own level of seniority. Every organization approaches this aspect in a slightly different way, and sometimes, it’s not really surprising to see Product Managers who are working as just Product Managers, without any special title-related prefixes, for 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years straight.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that this position is completely flat, as you might encounter companies who are approaching this really seriously, creating big Product Management Offices and a hierarchy within their structure. Based on my research, experience, and observations, I have tried to prepare a general hierarchy that is pretty common in bigger IT companies.
- Associate Product Manager – a person with no product management experience, usually very young and/or at the very beginning of the professional career. Associate Product Managers are rarely involved in actual product development. They focus on helping PMs with their daily tasks, like gathering data, collecting feedback or making a simple analysis.
- Junior Product Manager – a person that might not have product management experience, but has worked in similar structures or in an IT company in a different role, and aspires to be a Product Manager. Junior Product Managers are involved in the product management work, and in most cases, they are being mentored by PMs while working on smaller projects or taking responsibility for certain, non-critical parts of the product. They rarely work fully independently.
- Product Manager – without a doubt it’s the most frequently seen role in all product management departments. Product Managers are fully independent, and they are personally developing a roadmap for their products. As said earlier, it’s not surprising that many PMs are holding this role for many years, especially when they are not interested in the people management aspect, and they want to focus entirely on operational work with their products.
- Senior Product Manager – a very experienced and successful Product Manager with at least 5 to 10 years of proven experience in the product management field. Senior Product Managers are not only taking full responsibility for the most important products in the organization, but they are also mentoring PMs with less experience, especially in Product teams without anyone who is higher in the product hierarchy.
- Product Lead – it’s where people management becomes more important than actual product management. A person in this position is often responsible for the general direction and development of a few different products that are being driven individually by their independent PMs. Someone who’s working in this position is not supervising the PMs work, but rather than that, makes sure that they are moving their products in the right direction, evaluating their KPIs, and helping them set new goals for the upcoming months.
- VP of Product – the VP of Product is responsible for the strategy of all products that are being developed in the company. This person is focusing purely on people management, making sure that all PMs within the team share the very same vision and they fully understand the business needs that are outlined by the CEO, CPO, or shareholders.
- Chief Product Officer – it’s a person with the biggest product knowledge and seniority within the organization, often representing it outside. CPO sets business and product strategy, which are then being executed by all members of the product management team. It’s also the CPO who’s making the most important decisions about the future of the product.
Even though every company is different, this list should give you at least a general idea of the typical hierarchy in product management teams. And if you are interested in joining such a team, becoming a Product Manager yourself, you will at least know what to expect, and how your product management career path might evolve in the future.
Tools used by Product Managers
Successful product management requires a lot of work in many specific product areas. This work is related to communication, planning, or data analysis. That’s a lot, and if you don’t want to get lost really quickly, you will need tools. I won’t have any golden advice here because every Product Manager might work with a different set of product management tools. I will rather focus on bigger buckets of tools related to specific product development areas. I will also choose only those that are really relevant and used by the majority of Product Managers. After all, there are hundreds of useful tools out there, and I could definitely dedicate a separate article only to this subject.
Project Management Tools
They are essential in the product management world, and I really mean it. Project management tools allow you to effectively track all the issues and all the engineering work (sometimes even UX work, depending on the org) which is associated with your product. There are two types of Product Managers – those who love this part of their job, and those who should start. As a member of the first group, I am close to the statement that a good Product Manager can be measured based on experience with such software.
Jira, Asana, ActiveCollab, whatever you choose, you will probably spend the majority of your time there (or at least you should!). Project management software allows you to see where you are, and it’s also extremely important when it comes to planning your roadmap or product strategy. As a Product Manager, you’re responsible for all the requirements of the work that is being done by engineering teams, and in many cases, you are creating issues with those requirements in such software. It’s also a good idea to use this software as a space for your backlog – all the ideas about future dev work that are yet to be shaped into real issues for engineering teams.
Whatever you’re doing in project management software, keep it simple and keep it clean. It’s here where you are communicating with engineering teams of your organization, and by doing everything you can in order to keep this part of your work tidy and standardized, you are silently improving your relationship with developers, even if you are not thinking about it in this way. If their life will be easier, your life, as a Product Manager, will become much better as well.
Be aware, though, and don’t fall into the trap of being everyone’s secretary. Whenever you’re coming up with new ideas or product requirements, it’s your responsibility to make sure it’s properly documented, but you should never chase every single ticket in the project management software. You’re not the only person using it, and as long as developers have requirements from you, they will be able to update everything on their side. Take care of your part of the job, and let others do what they’re supposed to do.
Knowledge Management Tools
Knowledge management tools, like Confluence or Notion, are used to store and share product-related documentation. Documentation is usually focused on certain projects or requirements helping all the engineering, QA, UX, or even operation teams, understand what is the product desire in the case of certain projects or the future state of the software. And this understanding is very important because the development team is usually writing code based on product documentation. If it won’t be clear, and if it won’t be written properly, the organization might lose thousands of dollars and months of precious time.
Good documentation will also help you in decreasing the amount of time you would normally need to spend answering the same questions all over again. And it’s completely normal. While managing a product you’re working with plenty of different people, from different teams, or even different parts of the world. And I can assure you that it’s impossible to find time for everyone. Even if you prepare a detailed presentation for the team, no one will remember everything. Engineers will need this “place”, in the form of documentation, that will guide them during the project, and this project might even last 6, 9, or 12 months. That’s why it’s so important to do it properly from the very beginning.
While talking about documentation, it’s important to add that it should never talk only about requirements. Products are solving problems, and good product management is like a constant process of trying to understand and define those problems. Don’t be afraid to define problems in your documentation. The team will appreciate it. It’s always better to know not only what we are going to do, but also understand why we are actually doing it. And this rule applies to pretty much everything we’re doing, not only to the product management field.
Business Intelligence Tools
It’s here where your main dish lies – all the data related to your product and tracked metrics. Of course, not all IT companies are using sophisticated BI tools like Oracle, PowerBI, or Datapine. Sometimes it’s just about having everything in good old Excel. And hey – what’s important is the fact that you are actually working with data, it doesn’t matter how you do it.
Product management is driven by data and you will need such tools to know and understand all the crucial metrics about your products and/or business. MRR, Customer Lifetime Value, Average Revenue Per User, Customer Retention, New Trial Customers, etc. These are just examples of what you can and what you should see in BI tools in order to successfully manage a product. In the end, it’s up to you to choose your metrics, and use such software in a way that will help you in achieving your goals, or simply planning your product strategy.
Customer Feedback Tools
Whenever you’re managing a product, you’re not doing this for yourself, but your users. They will use your product, they will pay for it, and eventually, if you manage to build a friendly communication path between them and your company, they will come back to you with feedback.
Every feedback is important and whenever you’ll receive it, you should be very excited because someone out there is using your software and investing his or her personal time in order to improve it. That’s why it’s so important to use feedback-oriented software and to integrate it with your product. If it will be hard to share some ideas about your product, no one will write a word about it. Except for social networks, but they are not the thing here, and they should never be treated as tools for customer feedback. They might bring some feedback, yes, but it’s just one of the channels.
To collect feedback you can use various different tools like UserReport, Sprinklr, or Canny. Growing a community around them is an amazing way to have unlimited ideas about the potential future of your product. You will know what your users want firsthand.
Remember that customer feedback won’t always be positive. If you’re a Product Manager with many years of experience within the product management field, negative feedback might even be more important to you. It can give you more answers, and it might make you think about the product in a completely different way. That’s why you should remember to appreciate negative feedback and learn from it. And never take it personally, even if you have spent years working on your product. This might be very hard, but it’s yet another thing that defines the best Product Managers – the ability to listen and learn from someone who’s angry or confused without taking anything personally.
You already know how important communication is in the product management process. It doesn’t really matter what tools you use within your organization – you must remember that easy-to-understand and transparent communication is essential for every Product Manager. You’re the one who defines complicated business requirements into engineering issues that are then being shaped into your new software. You must keep it simple.
Whether your organization is more “email-like” or “Slack-like”, remember to communicate transparently, openly, and professionally. If you see that there are some communication flaws and your company could benefit from software like Slack or Discord, don’t hesitate to propose it. If your company is more email-like, make professional your email marketing, include a Dmarc report, and always check the deliverability of your emails
Communication is like a foundation of every organization and business in pretty much every industry. Product management is no different, and you need to use all the tools you can in order to make communication between you and all the teams taking part in the product development process, simply better.
Marketing Analytics Tools
In order to create a successful product, you need good product marketing. And product marketing strategy is usually driven by all the marketing analytics tools – both those that are focused purely on data and those that are approaching marketing in a more behavioral way.
Many product management teams have separate positions that are working on product marketing, but every Product Manager should have at least basic knowledge and understanding of marketing. Remember that you’re looking at marketing-oriented data in a completely different way than marketers. That’s why it’s always worth it to spend some time, at least once a few weeks, with marketing tools like Google Analytics or Hotjar. They might inspire you to adjust some parts of your product or to at least rethink them because you will notice that users are spending more time doing something than the UX team has initially thought they will.
Product management and product marketing are like twins. Without one of them, your organization will feel empty, and it will be very difficult for your product to be truly successful, even if you create revolutionary software. You will always need this marketing muscle to build communication and a story around your product. Without those two things, no one will hear you.
- Product management is about taking responsibility for the product at every stage of its lifecycle,
- Successful product management requires broad knowledge from many different fields, like marketing or business in general,
- Project management and product management are two different areas, but you can find many project-like responsibilities in the daily life of Product Managers,
- The key aspects of product management are communication, leadership, planning, data analysis, empathy, and curiosity,
- Product Managers are never asking “what”, they are asking “why” – they need to fall in love with problems, not solutions,
- Product Managers don’t have a clear career path, as you might find many of them holding the very same position for several years,
- If you aspire to be a Product Manager, you should try getting relevant experience in your current company or getting hired for the position of Junior Product Manager,
- Product Managers are using many different tools to organize their work, documentation, or analyze data – all those things are really essential for them.
That’s all! I really hope that you will find this introduction (yes, it’s still just an introduction!) to product management interesting. It’s a tough role. A role that requires broad knowledge, resistance to change, stress, and a lot of patience. However, I also believe that people working in this field are very fortunate. Not everyone is managing big, successful products used by thousands of users.
It’s very satisfying, and definitely worth the effort needed to get there.