This is the first question when it comes to Product Management. You’ll find it everywhere and you’ll also find tons of answers from people trying to create a definition for the Product Manager role. Some are simpler, some very complex.
A product manager is a professional role which is responsible for the development of products for an organization, known as the practice of product management. Product managers own the business strategy behind a product (both physical and digital products), specify its functional requirements and generally manage the launch of features. They coordinate work done by many other functions (like software engineers, data scientists and product designers) and are ultimately responsible for the business success of the product.Wikipedia
Wikipedia offers a pretty long definition of the Product Manager role, compared to other sources. In many other places the definition consists only from the last part of it – “(Product Managers) are ultimately responsible for the business success of the product.“
Everybody agrees with that (PM being responsible for the success or the failure of the product) that you might think: “Eureka! That’s why they invented the Product Manager role: to have someone to blame if things go wrong!“
Funny or not, that’s the truth. And even if nobody tells you directly these words, you should assume it and feel it as long as the product exists, in all its phases. And if you don’t, it means you didn’t take it seriously and you didn’t believe in your product from the very beginning.
Perhaps you heard before about the “Product Owner”. This concept it’s newer than the Product Manager and it was “officialized” after year 2000, when the Agile Manifesto and the SCRUM framework appeared. Is it different than the Product Manager role we are talking about? In my opinion, no. I’d even go further and say that the Product Owner title it’s even more appropriate. Why? Because, as a Product Manager you really have to feel like you own the product. It’s yours, and it’s your responsibility to make it successful. Other people or frameworks thinks they are different roles. This is an interesting article I suggest you to read about this subject. I will not insist more, at least not in this post.
Of course, most of the times, owning the product doesn’t apply in the real sense of the word. You were probably hired to manage the product and you’re paid for doing the job. Unless you are not also financing the product, someone else is going to take the benefits: it can be money from selling the product, money from renting or from subscriptions, it can be collected data, or any other type of benefit.
If you’re still reading then you’re probably trying to understand the second part of the title: “Well… you might BE one and just don’t realize!“.
Even if we’re surrounded by products in our daily life, if you’re looking for Product Manager definitions online then you probably fall in the category of people that thinks first to software products when it comes to their management, then to physical ones. But the number of those is way too small compared to the physical products we use every day: our tooth brush, our desk chair, our car, the bus we commute with, etc. And even if we usually buy those or pay for using them, sometimes we build our own products, or have someone build them for us.
If you ever been in the situation when you built something for your own or your family usage or you asked and managed/helped someone else to do it, then – Congrats! – you were performing the role of a Product Manager!
Of course, I am not talking about building your own tooth brush or your own desk chair instead of buying them. I am talking about simple “innovations” like adding some cup holders to the doors of your car because your wife always complains she can’t get her coffee with her.
When you build something for your own usage or someone else’s, even when it’s something really simple you do it because you identify a need (my wife can’t get her coffee cup with her in the car). Then you make a research (there must be something to install so she can do it, let’s check the internet for car cup holders), you find a solution or consult someone else (George said I can get it from Amazon, and it will fit to my car model) and you apply it (buy the cup holders and install them or have them installed in a specialized service). Then you and your travel companion start using it, check if it satisfy the needs and do any necessary adjustments and/or improvements in case they need adjustments or improvements.
If your wife is spilling the hot coffee on her new dress, it’s all your fault, even if it’s not you who designed the cup holders and it’s not you who installed them on the car doors: the guy from the service did it. If everything goes well and she is happy with the new features, she would probably say: “those cup holders are great!“, not “you did a great job“. That’s fine, most of the times this happens: if product fails, it’s the Product Manager fault. If it’s a success, then it’s the development team’s merit.
I know… You probably think that’s not exactly a product… You didn’t build the car, you didn’t build the cup holders. Even so, you performed some of the tasks a Product Manager is doing in his/her daily activity. If you are installing the cup holders but there is a family rule “no liquids allowed in the car”, then you didn’t do your job, even if you put a lot of effort. Same thing if you install cup holders smaller than your wife’s favorite portable coffee mug. She just can’t use it, even if it looks great… It’s just not fulfilling her needs!
Is it your personal blog a product you own and you are responsible of? Yes, of course it is. Even if it’s the WordPress developers who built it, and the guys from the hosting company who installed it for you, it’s still your product and you are the Product Manager. You identified a need to have it online (maybe you have the plan to grow it and make money from it or it’s just your personal need to express yourself) and you did some marketing research how to do it. You had to choose from different platforms like WordPress, Joomla, Tumblr, Medium, etc., have it configured and installed the plugins you need. And maybe you collaborate with a friend who is running an AdWords campaign for you to get some initial traffic and other friend to do some design changes for you.
Don’t have any visitors on your blog? Maybe there is not enough interest for the topics you are touching. Then you didn’t do a good marketing research. Maybe the loading time is huge and nobody wants to wait or maybe there are bugs caused by the last installed plugin and the blog is not loading at all. Well, the bugs released into production are still your responsibility, even if it’s not you the plugin’s developer.
Before I finish, I have to apologize for writing such a big article and still offer such a simplified version of what a Product Manager is. Learning by example it’s my favorite method, and I hope you had the patience to read so far and you get a taste of what a Product Manager is and what is he doing. And yes, I really think at some point you were a Product Manager even if you didn’t realize it. That doesn’t mean you will get a PM job at Google, but you never now!
Photo: Coffee Shop in Brașov, my home town in Romania.