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Understanding the Product Manager Role

Mar 4, 2020

In business, you can generally assume that any role with the word "manager" in the title involves driving projects that connect with a larger strategic goal. But not all managerial positions are the same. Some managers manage people; others manage budgets or timelines.

As one type of manager, the product manager role combines budgetary, timeline, and people management to launch—and sometimes market—products. Their role is unique and largely dependent on the needs of the organization.

What does a product manager do?

As it turns out, product manager job descriptions vary quite a bit. That's mostly because the product manager role "is fundamentally a white space role," or a role whose responsibilities change to fit the unique needs of a particular business, Jackie Bavaro, an author who's managed projects at Atlassian, Google, and Microsoft, wrote on Medium. Every company is different in size, scope, mission, and offerings, so unlike plumbers, accountants, and other professionals with well-defined roles, the job of a product manager will look different wherever they work.

Every product manager is tasked with creating and executing a plan to launch and maintain a product. But because a product could be just about anything—a retail offering, a consultancy, a service—the skills product managers need vary. As Bavaro explains, one company might prefer a product manager with great design taste, but another might be looking for seniority and industry experience. Most employers at least require candidates to hold a degree in marketing management or business management and exhibit some technical proficiency, as companies are increasingly using and producing technology in their day-to-day operations. Product managers should know the basics of customer relationship management software, such as Microsoft Dynamics; analytics tools, such as Google Analytics; and SEO or content marketing platforms, as well as basic productivity technology like the Microsoft Office Suite, to stay up to date on a product's launch and performance.

A day in the life of a product manager.

While every product manager role is different, there is some general overlap in the day-to-day responsibilities. A given day might look like this: In the morning, you might interview customers about their product experiences, then you might complete a market analysis for a product road-mapping presentation to the executive team. After lunch, you might lead a sprint with developers to deliver a round of enhanced features to customers. Later, you might meet with your chief product officer to finalize revenue targets and discuss prioritization for the upcoming quarter.

Of course, different companies—tech giants, small businesses, the many product-focused organizations in between—require different things of their product managers. But there are a few parts of the job that employers are consistently looking for.


A core responsibility of any product manager is "aligning stakeholders around the vision for the product" writes Sherif Mansour in Atlassian's Agile Coach. That means working with different people in different departments with competing priorities, such as developers, C-suite executives, marketers, and accountants. Building strong relationships with stakeholders is key to keeping them aligned and supportive of the product's road map.

Peloton, for example, is looking for a candidate who thrives "in a collaborative environment and is willing to give and accept constructive feedback." At Facebook, product managers will be expected to "establish shared vision across the company by building consensus on priorities leading to product execution."

Leadership and self-management.

Many companies are looking for product managers who can oversee and deliver on a range of responsibilities in a fast-paced environment. At Facebook, for example, preferred candidates will be able to "lead the ideation, technical development, and launch of innovative products" and "drive product development."

Balancing it all can be challenging, so product managers need to be able to juggle multiple projects and organizational needs confidently. "Managing tight deadlines, revenue targets, market demands, prioritization conflicts, and resource constraints all at once is not for the faint of heart," Julia Austin writes in the Harvard Business Review. "If a product manager cannot maintain their emotions and keep it cool under pressure, they can quickly lose the confidence of all their constituents."

Customer empathy.

Product managers are responsible for ensuring that the customer is at the center of every part of the process. This could mean interviewing customers, collecting and analyzing user data, and ensuring that their feedback is addressed. At Amazon Web Services, for example, product managers are expected to "engage with customers through a variety of channels and serve as the voice of the customer internally."

There is a social and emotional element to this work. Austin calls it emotional intelligence because when product managers engage with customers, they have to "be tuned into [customers'] body language and emotions, and...astutely suss out the pain points that the product or feature will address."

Evolutions in the role.

Given the dramatic shift to the digital era, product managers are increasingly being asked to display some kind of technical prowess. Some places, such as Facebook, require at least some experience developing technical architecture and building web applications. At Google, senior engineers evaluate a product manager candidate's technical competence; tests might include whiteboard coding questions, Business Insider says. Other companies often make it clear that core skills, knowledge, or experience in the IT field will give candidates a leg up, even if these traits aren't required.

The good news is that most of these qualifications are obtainable. You can acquire the skills and knowledge needed for the project manager role through a comprehensive postsecondary degree program, an internship, or on-the-job experience. And if you're coming from another business field, you'll likely have an advantage: the communication, leadership, and problem-solving skills you develop across your career will suit you well in product management.

If using your technical and organizational skills to launch new products aligns with your interests, consider pursuing a product manager role.

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