What does a product manager do?
Whether you’re new to the tech industry or not quite clear on how some of your colleagues spend their days, you might wonder, “what does a product manager do?”
This is a valid question. Many product managers ask themselves the same thing, because the role is a bit slippery and can differ depending on context.
I thought I’d take a crack at answering this question from my own perspective. Brevity is not on offer, but you’ll find here:
- Factors that create variety in the role
- Product management at its core
- The day-to-day at a high level
- Deep dive on common tasks
The classic answer: it depends
The first thing to get out of the way is that there is a high degree of variation in product management. The role can differ depending on:
- The industry
- The culture and processes of each level of organization within a company
- The personalities, abilities, and availability of key partners
Product managers often find their roles expanding to fill gaps on the team. Frequently, this involves picking up unglamorous work. Product managers may feel somewhat like a “PM and”: PM and engineering manager; PM and project manager; PM and bug backlog wrangler; PM and stakeholder soothsayer. This effect is what often drives the mismatch between reality and what product management books describe.
Despite this variation, there are some aspects that are core to product management.
The role at its core
I think of the product management role as answering 3 basic questions:
- Which customer problems / unmet needs should we prioritize solving, and why?
Product strategy can scale from a narrowly scoped feature area to stratospheric, industry-changing strategic investments. Here, PMs are seeking out problems that are urgent, pervasive, and/or that customers are willing to pay for. The golden opportunities are those that have a projected high impact on both customer goals and business targets.
- How should we solve those problems?
Solution definition includes owning the requirements that will keep customers on “the happy path” as they meet their goals. Product managers ensure the product experience is effective, efficient, and pleasant to use—while scoping requirements tightly enough to ship and iterate quickly.
- Did we successfully solve those problems, and what impact did that have on our customers and the business?
This entails both talking to customers and monitoring feature success measures: qualitative and quantitative data.
Leading through relationships
From my perspective and experience, this role works best if product managers take a collaborative leadership approach, rather than a dictatorial one.
Problem area discovery (question #1) requires gathering insights from a wide variety of inputs in order to find a strong signal. Everyone at the company with a direct connection to customers has valuable insights to offer. They are often critical partners in uncovering more data.
Similarly, the strongest solutions often come from team effort and imagination. Instead of writing up a fully-formed solution and throwing it over the wall, it may be ideal to bring cross-functional peers into solution-defining processes. Your mileage may again vary, depending on organizational culture and key partners’ strengths and interests. At Netlify, we’ve started running “Problem-Solution Alignment” exercises to brainstorm as a team how we might solve a customer problem. More on that in another post.
A strong product manager does not need to always have the best and smartest ideas. Rather, they create an environment where anyone can contribute towards the final designed solution. That said, PMs do take responsibility for outcomes. They need to use their deep customer knowledge and business savvy to keep the team on track to make the most impact. There’s a balance to strike between being receptive to input, and creating a clear direction forward.
Day to day
A day in the life of a product manager can again vary widely depending on role definition, seniority, and how much email people at your company send. “Too many meetings” is inevitable. Broadly, a PM’s time will include:
- Researching, defining strategy (always less time spent here than we want)
- Talking to customers
- “Planning” activities: setting roadmaps and priorities with input from Design and Engineering
- Executing on a number of active projects
- Communicating with stakeholders
- Creating customer communications
- Monitoring customer feedback and success measures (possibly writing one’s own data queries)
- Helping to set priority on incoming issues and feature requests
- Mentoring others and sharing knowledge
- Interviewing, including for non-product roles
Again, there may be other activities that are specific to the industry, team, or the PM’s personal background. For example:
- My background is in design and web dev, so sometimes I contribute design ideas for small changes. In the past, I’ve also done some heavier lifting when short-staffed on the design team.
- I’ve created demos and conference talks for features I’ve contributed to. This can overlap with the Developer Advocate role.
- On the Microsoft Edge web platform team, PMs participated heavily in web standards discussion at the W3C, WHATWG, and IETF. This is again different to other browser vendors, where devs may be the company’s sole representatives.
Tasks throughout the product lifecycle
If you’re still wondering, “ok, but what specific tasks do y’all do?”, you can explore these common activities I’m responsible for as a Senior Product Manager at Netlify (at time of writing). This list focuses on tasks specific to the product development lifecycle, so it’s not exhaustive. If you’re interested in a product management role, you can expect that your days might be filled with a blend of these and other activities.
- Gather customer and market insights to identify problems and size potential impact
- Conduct user/market research
- Talk to customers (requires coordination with the Sales org and/or Research)
- Review previous insights
- Make a recommendation on given problem spaces and feature areas: invest / maintain / retire
- Collaborate with product and engineering partners on:
- Product area strategy
- OKR definition
- Priorities and roadmaps
- Write a “stub” Product Requirements Document (PRD) to define a problem set and sketch out success measures
- Create parent issue in tracking tool
Solution refinement (10)
- Prepare problem statements and schedule a Problem-Solution Alignment (PSA) exercise
- Lead the PSA exercise to define proposed solution set
- Write the full Product Requirements Document (PRD): refine success measures, add details on the chosen solution set, scope milestone requirements, outline general release plan, set pricing and packaging
- Circulate PRD for stakeholder feedback and iterate
- Support Design on a direction for the user experience
- With Design, write initial UI copy
- Review UI copy and names for core concepts with writers
- Circulate UI mocks for feedback and iterate
- Gather customer feedback (does the solution adequately address their problems? Is it easy and pleasant to use?)
- Show customers early designs and iterate
- With Research, run a usability study and analyze the results. Iterate!
- Schedule and lead kickoff with project contributors
- Help create tracking issues for discrete buckets of work (fidelity and division of labor between Product and Design/Engineering depends heavily on the team)
- Work with Design and Engineering on ETAs
- Create a data plan for success measures and other telemetry
- Work with Engineering to implement telemetry
- Work with Data to review implementation plans and set up data dashboards
- Add the project to internal launch tracking tools
- Run regular project syncs, if applicable
- Work with Design on any UX tweaks along the way
- Support Engineering with PR reviews and implementation questions
- Support Docs on documentation for feature; review docs PRs
- Write blurbs for Labs beta features
- Keep Product Marketing and Developer Experience in the loop on upcoming functionality; set ETAs for marketing moments
- Prep and present launch plans to stakeholders
- Create an internal test plan (manual tests outside of PR reviews / automated testing; often called “acceptance criteria”)
- Prep and conduct Support training
- Confirm feature is code complete
- Facilitate internal testing and help prioritize bugs
- Announce availability of feature for internal alpha
- Share availability of feature with key customers, for private beta (if applicable)
- Confirm data dashboards are ready
- Create a feedback survey
- Write a forum post
- Write a blog post and review with Product Marketing (who often advise and prepare other user comms)
- Schedule launch & create checklist
- Confirm readiness, launch the feature 🚀, and celebrate with the team! 🥳
- Monitor customer reception + feedback
- Review success measures
- Help team prioritize incoming bugs and future investments in this feature/area
- Proactively meet with customers to validate their experience
- Ensure Engineering removes feature flag when ready
The product manager role can be challenging to define, given that ol’ devil in the details. At the core, it’s about working with a cross-functional team to ensure the product you build adequately addresses customer needs, for a positive business impact. Keep those users on the happy path!
You might be able to tell from the lists above that product management entails quite a bit of context switching. That’s certainly true. On the other side of the coin, I find PM life thrilling because it’s always different: so many ways to add value, so many interesting and talented people I get to work with every single day. I’m grateful to have fallen into it.
I hope my perspective helps clarify what this role actually is—or might be—but can bet the PMs around you have their own perspectives to share!