So…What Exactly Is a Product Manager, Anyway?

I’ve been working as a product manager in-training at Macys.com for a little over six months now, and the experience has been an amazing one so far! Of course, being fresh out of college and a baby in the workforce has seen its fair share of difficult days where I undergo multiple trials by fire. I wish I could say that I met every challenge with aplomb, but that’s simply not the case. A lot about working as a product manager is staying practical while at the same time providing the best possible experience for your end user. It’s something that I’m grasping more and more as I gain experience on my first (and current) project – migrating our maps service to Google Maps and updating our store locator experience.

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So what exactly IS a product manager? The field is a huge one and there are so many variations of the role. But in general, it’s a position that’s more common in technology companies, and the product isn’t necessarily a “physical” one – it’s frequently specific features on a website or mobile app, from small features such as the search bar or the recommendation engine, to larger features such as the entire checkout experience. Essentially, almost everything the end user sees and interacts with on a website is the grand vision of  product managers collaborating with many groups of people.

Recently one of my co-workers shared an excellent article that explains what exactly a product manager does. I think it’s one of the clearest and best articles I’ve read about product management, and if any of you are interested or even curious about product management, I’d highly recommend checking out “So you want to manage a product?” on Medium.

I wanted to share some quotes from that article which I personally learned during my half-year as an aspiring PM and include some of my own comments – hopefully it’ll provide more info about an awesome field!

When you begin managing a product that has at least one customer, you quickly learn that your job is much larger than even the fullest-featured product. Your job is to deeply understand the problem that your product aims to solve then chase the moving goal of solving every nuance of that problem. You will always have too many feature requests and too little time. Too many bugs and too little time. There are always things to do.

When I first started on my current project, I’d had zero experience with website store locators and overlays. But pretty soon I realized that the single most important thing in coming up with a good product is to identify the problem it solves, then working backwards from there to make a useful end product. Starting with the end users in mind and specifically the problem helped me to focus on providing the biggest value given time and resource constraints.

Being a product manager is about making compromises between what your team can accomplish within a given period of time and what your customers absolutely need.You will continually be torn between your team, customers, and business in an impossible race against time. The minor victory is in balancing short- and long-term product strategy, no matter if your product was conceived today or twenty years ago.

How I wish I had unlimited time and money! But that’s not the case – there’s simply not enough resources to do everything and then some. Having finite resources helped me to quickly learn how to prioritize the most important features for my product and to focus on providing the most bang for the buck. The 80-20 rule is essential here.

This is how I learned that, especially at a large healthy company, a product manager does not create visual designs. She also does not write code. Your designer is the design expert. Your engineer is the programming expert. And you, the product manager, are the expert on whether the design and functionality meet the specific user need at hand.

I can’t stress this quote enough. Being an effective PM does not mean you have to do everything to put the product together. Being an effective PM does mean that you always put the end user first. You are the advocate for the person who uses your product, and it’s your job to make sure whatever your team does solves this person’s problem.

Being a product manager is not about getting wrapped up in the fact that you have “manager” in your title. Sure, you get to call the shots. But you also get to be accountable for every up and down of your product. If a user doesn’t understand your product, that’s on you, not Marketing. If your product comes at the wrong time, that’s on you, not Strategy. If a user can’t find the button, that’s on you, not Design. And if a target user has no use for your product, that’s on you, not him.

This is something that I’m continually learning. One of the most challenging aspects of being a PM for me personally is not having direct control over setbacks – at the end of the day if the product doesn’t deliver or fails to meet expectations, that’s on me. So I have to learn how to be an effective leader, communicator, and influencer, without being able to step in to do someone else’s job.

Interested in learning more about product management? My friend Carl put together an awesome handbook with interviews of many tech company product managers. I’d recommend heading over to his site The Product Manager Handbook to check it out and download your free copy!

Edit 07/07/15: I’m also a regular contributor (and the co-founder) of the product management blog Product Manager HQ. Check it out for all your PM-related questions!

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