Product management isn’t a very well-known role, there are a lot of misconceptions about who product managers are and what what they do.
1. Product Managers are Project Managers.
While some product managers have project management as a large part of their job, most do not. Project managers are mostly concerned with timelines and coordination. While they might be responsible for gathering the project requirements, they don’t have much say in identifying and choosing the requirements.
Product managers are responsible for identifying problems and opportunities, picking which ones to go after, and then making sure the team comes up with great solutions, either by thinking of the solution themselves or by working with the designers and engineers. This is why product sense—having the intuition to recognize the difference between a good product and a bad product—is so important for product managers.
2. Product Managers are in Marketing.
This myth is tricky, because with title inconsistencies, sometimes there are marketing roles called “Product Manager.” But at companies like Google, Amazon, Twitter, and Facebook, product managers are not in the marketing department. Instead, they’re usually in the engineering organization.
Marketing folks focus on getting users into the product, while product managers
define what happens once the user is in the product. For example, a marketing manager might come up with messaging and start a social media campaign, while a product manager comes up with new features and works with the engineers to launch them. While marketing people will talk to product managers about features that would help the messaging or branding, they don’t define the details of those features or work with the engineers to build them.
3. You can’t become a product manager right out of college.
The word “manager” in the title makes many people think that you need a lot of experience to become a product manager. Also, because product managers make so many decisions that affect the direction of important products, it seems like a senior role.
In fact, many tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo recruit product managers directly out of college. They’ve found that passion, intellect, a strong customer focus, and lots of energy can be a winning combination for great PMs. If you want to become a PM, don’t think that you have to take a different job first.
4. Product Managers just write specs.
The job of a PM is very different than that of an engineer or a designer. Engineers are expected to deliver working code and designers are expected to deliver wireframes and mocks. For PMs, just delivering a spec isn’t enough. PMs are responsible for seeing the entire project through to a successful completion. Writing a spec is a technique for communicating and moving the project along, but the spec doesn’t have intrinsic value. Many PMs communicate ideas without specs, through conversations and drawing ideas on whiteboards. And some PMs fail because they write a spec but don’t follow through to make sure the team understood and implemented the ideas.
5. Product managers just set up meetings.
Some people think that a PM’s job is just to get the key stakeholders in a room together to make decisions. Good product managers don’t just serve as passive conduits of other people’s opinions. Instead, PMs research the area and come up with their own point of view and frameworks for making decisions.
PMs do need to meet with the key stakeholders and understand their opinions and priorities, but then they synthesize those perspectives, lay out the tradeoffs, and come up with a recommendation that will satisfy all of the stakeholders. In any meeting or conversation, the PM needs to represent the interests of all the people who are not in the room.
Product managers are able to reduce the number of meetings their teammates need to attend because they’re able to represent the team to other groups and find productive ways of communicating that don’t require meetings.
6. PMs should build exactly what the customers ask for.
It’s great to do customer research and listen to what customers ask for, but it’s not enough. Product managers look beyond what customers say to see the hidden needs and deeper goals.
When Oxo, a kitchen utensil company, asked customers what was wrong with their measuring cup, they talked about the cup breaking when they dropped it or its having a slippery handle. But when they watched people use the measuring cup, they saw people pour, then bend down to read the measurements, then pour, then bend, then pour, then bend.
Nobody asked to be able to read the measurements while pouring, but Oxo was able to see the need. They now sell a measuring cup with the measurements at an angle so you can see the lines while pouring.
7. PMs set the dates.
As Nundu, a PM at Google, says, “PMs don’t set dates. Engineers set dates.” As a PM, you can tell your team what you want them to build, but then they’ll tell you how long it will take to build it. If the timeline is too long, you can’t just tell them to code faster; it won’t work.
Instead, if you have external deadlines you want to hit, you need to make tradeoffs and negotiate. You either need to cut features or find a way to parallelize the work and bring on more people to help out. Sometimes you can be even more clever and find ways to reduce the rest of your engineers’ workloads, such as getting them out of unnecessary meetings or having them temporarily spend less time interviewing candidates. Not trusting the engineers’ estimates and promising other teams that the work will be done sooner than the engineers agree to is one of the fastest ways to ruin your relationship with the team.
8. Product Managers are the boss.
Some people try to sell the PM role by saying you’re the CEO of your team. In reality, product managers have no direct authority over the team. The team is never obligated to do what the PM says.
Instead, PMs influence without authority, building up credibility with the team, communicating clearly, gathering data and research, and being persuasive to lead the team. Teams follow PMs when they’re convinced that their goals align and that the PM will help them better achieve their goals.
It’s important for PMs not to try to tell everyone what to do, stepping on designers’ or engineers’ toes. Designers should be empowered to own the design of the product, and engineers should be empowered to own the technical implementation. PMs need to understand those choices and the impact they have on the overall experience. They should be willing to speak up if they don’t align, but PMs shouldn’t make the mistake of trying to control those decisions.
9. Ideas are more important than execution.
People who are new to PMing sometimes think that coming up with ideas is the most important part of the job. In practice, execution of an idea is much more important. Many different people on a team can come up with lots of great ideas, but the details are usually the hard part.
As a PM, it’s important to take broad ideas and make them tangible and actionable. Product managers need to think about the corner cases and figure out all of the little steps that need to happen to make an idea a reality. Often this involves getting your hands dirty: finding servers to run your code, convincing other teams to prioritize the work you depend on, and using the product consistently to find and iron out all the rough edges.
10. You can say “That’s not my job.”
While most roles on the team are crisply defined, product managers have a more fluid role. When you’re a product manager, your job is anything that isn’t being covered by other people.
As a PM, you’re responsible for the success or failure of your product, and no job is beneath you. If there’s work that no one wants to do, you need to find a way to get it done, even if that means doing it yourself. If you let the work slip by, no one else will make sure it gets caught.