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What The Heck Is A Product Manager Anyway?

If you're going to work in the tech industry, you'll definitely need to get on your product manager's good side!

You're reading a guest blog by Andrea Saez, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Trint. If you have tech industry know-how and would like to contribute to The Ironhack Blog, get in touch with [email protected]

Welcome reader,

You’ve probably heard of the role of a product manager and will likely be working with one some day. Who knows, you might even become one!

In order to work effectively with others, it’s important to have at least a high level understanding of what they do, what’s their focus, and how you can support each other in your organization.

Let’s dive in.

Product Management - A Brief Introduction

Product management is a discipline that is often misunderstood. Confused with “project management” (a major trigger word, please never call your PM that!) product managers sit between multiple teams and help steer the direction of the product.

Understanding Product Management: The Good, the Bad and the Venn

Image credit: Saeed Khan

At their very core, product managers will focus on:

  • Creating a strategy and future direction for the product
  • Creating and sharing a product roadmap 
  • Help decide what problems you’re solving as a team, and how those translate into features and solutions that add value for a customer
  • Prioritize and set guard rails for the engineering team around what to do (and what not to do!)

Think of the product manager as your valiant protector. Instead of your engineering team being flooded with requests, feedback, and sometimes even mandates for things to do, the product manager will be there to sort through the noise and help decide what you can work on next.

Product management - A slightly more complicated introduction

Ok, so the above was actually a little bit simplistic in nature.

Product managers do a lot more than what I just said. Because it is a misunderstood role, PMs tend to do a lot more than what sits outside of their remit - at times even doing things like project manage for the team. Yes yes, I just contradicted myself. While it isn’t something they should be doing, it is often something they might be doing.

In addition, product managers are also often described as the team psychologist. They will inevitably be managing relationships, help diffuse arguments, and run a lot (a lot) of negotiations across multiple teams.

Product managers are there to help make sure that the entire organization is aligned around what to do, where the product is heading, and ensure the product is constantly bringing value to your customers.

A Day In The Life Of A Product Manager

I’m not going to give you an hour-by-hour breakdown, because every day might be different. At a high level though, product managers generally focus on three key areas:

  1. Communication and alignment
  2. Documentation
  3. Learning 

Let’s explore these a bit further.

Communication and alignment

In order to be a product manager, one must have excellent communication skills - including written, oral, and storytelling abilities. These three skills coupled with empathy is what truly makes a product manager great.

A PM is there to make sure that not only are they able to communicate decisions to the rest of the organisation, but also align everyone as to why those decisions have been made. These may be through meetings, presentations, and Q&A’s. 

Product managers will also be talking to your customers and teams a lot. I mean, a lot. At the end of the day, a product isn’t built for a single user, so it’s imperative that customer feedback is always being looked at. If you’re curious about what your customers are saying, your PM can easily get you involved in the process, allowing you to also be that close to what your customers’ needs are.

Documentation

This is not to be taken lightly: Write 👏 it 👏 all 👏 down!

Whether you sit with the product team or not, documentation is key.

Product managers have a lot to sort through and analyze, and being able to track things down back to the source can help clarify decision-making. This can come in the form of nurturing the backlog, writing specs, or putting together problem-statements to record potential future solutions.

All product managers generally kick off their documentation by answering three key questions:

  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • Why?
  • How will we measure success?

These apparently simple yet powerful questions can help enable, focus, and guide conversations - so don’t be surprised when they come up! It helps draw the line between jumping off to a solution, and understanding that there’s a hypothesis you can start testing with.

Learning

And speaking of hypotheses… experimentation is how your product managers (should) approach everything. 

A product team that is solely building features upon request is not a product team.

A product team will challenge, test, verify and repeat the process until they have enough evidence to proceed or dismiss an action. Not only is this helping the business avoid the risk of failure by preventing potential debt (whether that be UX, tech, or otherwise) - but it can enable your team to be more innovative.

Setting Up a Product Team

A product manager never works alone. Product management is and always will be a team sport. 

Because of this, it is important to clarify that product managers sit within the product team - not within the “product management team.” In other words, a product manager is a role that exists within the larger product organization.

There isn’t a strict way of setting up your product team, and it will most certainly vary based on the size, growth, and maturity of the company itself.

That said, you will generally find the following team members:

  • Product manager
    Sets the product’s strategy, direction, and outlines the product roadmap. Works to understand what, why, and for whom you’re building things for.
  • Product marketing manager
    PMM’s are the PM’s strategic and communication partner. They help align the business around decisions, and focus on positioning, messaging, and lead with go-to-market initiatives.

  • UX Researcher
    UX Researchers will help uncover how to best solve problems by looking at user behavior, data, and interviews. They help the product team come up with the right evidence to move forward.

  • Product designer
    Product designers help bring research to life. It’s important to clarify that there is a difference between product, UX, and brand design. While some designers can have a wide remit, particularly in smaller companies, these specializations will differentiate as your team grows.

There are also other team members that may sit within the product team, again, depending entirely on how the product organization is made up.

  • Product Owner (scrum)
    If you’re part of a scrum team, the product owner role will be present. While the product manager focuses on the higher level strategic decisions, the product owner will look at other responsibilities, such as managing the feedback backlog, writing user stories, and making sure items are being passed on to the development team. When there is an absence of a PO, it will either be a product manager or an APM that may take some of these responsibilities onboard.
  • Data analyst
    The data analyst will take a look at data and help communicate conclusions to the team. The insights that data analysts bring to an organization can help understand users better, and help the product management team create more meaningful experiences.
  • Product Ops
    Product ops make sure that the team is working efficiently, set methodical workflows into place, and help develop business processes aligned across the whole of the organization.

  • Engineer
    Engineers don’t traditionally sit within the product team, but this practice is becoming more and more common. Having members with a highly technical capacity can help unblock ideas and help bring fresh new perspectives to the team.

With all of this said, it’s also really important to know that it is not a product manager’s job to come up with solutions, but it is their job to lean on the people around them to find out what the best solution might be. They will lean on design, engineers, product marketing as well as the extended business-facing teams. The best ideas are solved as a group, not as a solo act.

Good PM vs Bad PM

Personally, I don’t like to think there’s such a thing as “good PM” or “bad PM” - because the real difference here is experience. 

As with anything in life, we grow and evolve based on what we learn. Product management is pretty much the same.

A PM is only as good as the lessons they learn, but also as good as the support they are given to learn those lessons.

If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this article today, it’s that product management is about asking lots of questions and trying to learn as much as possible before making a decision. We can’t make good decisions based on the unknown - that would be risky! But your team will be able to mitigate some of those risks by running research and gathering evidence.

When working with a product manager, know that their number one priority is to create value. In order to create value, they must be open to learning - and learning sometimes includes finding out you might be wrong. When this happens, make sure to celebrate your product team. They've probably just saved you a huge headache and made sure you don’t accidentally spend time on the wrong thing!

About the Author

Hi there 👋 Thanks for reading!

My name is Andrea, and I’m Senior PMM at Trint. I have a background in product management, and have spent the last 8 years training product teams and building product tools.

I love product management because it opens you up to asking lots of questions. I can be inquisitive, while calming my inner scientist and ask “why” 100 times if I must until I uncover as many truths as possible. 

I pivoted into product marketing a couple of years ago. As I like to say, I’m a product manager who happens to like to talk a lot - so it works!

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