What does a product manager do (and not do)?

What does a product manager do (and not do)?

Compared to when I started out in product management, we’re a lot better at defining the role of a product manager. It’s always worth a reminder, so I’d like to share with you a talk I gave last summer, What does a product manager do (and not do)?

In the talk I answer the following questions:

  • What is a product?
  • What is product management?
  • What does a product manager do?
  • What does a product manager not do?
  • Why do we need product management?
  • What makes a good product manager?

Have a watch! There is a introduction in German, then the talk begins in English at 00:02:49. The full transcript is below, edited lightly for clarity and to remove my various verbal tics…





Thank you very much for coming today on this beautiful morning. I will be speaking in English. If I’m speaking too quickly or if anything isn’t clear, just shout, it’s not a problem, and I will hopefully make myself more easily understood.

Today we’re going to be talking about what a product manager does and doesn’t do. That seems fairly straightforward, but I think it’s one of those questions that many of us end up having when we become product managers.

Hands up how many of you are product managers? [Several hands go up] Brilliant, fantastic! And how many of you knew what the role was before you got the role? [About half of the hands go down] Exactly!

Many product managers I’ve known became product managers in the same way. They turned up one morning and were told, congratulations, you’re now a product manager. And they’re thinking, what on earth is this role?! So hopefully this talk will answer some of those questions.

The talk will be about 30 minutes I think, and then afterwards there will be time for questions and I will be here – I’m giving a workshop in the afternoon – so feel free to come up, have a chat and if there’s any questions or anything you like to talk about in product management, please do feel free.

Who am I and why am I on a stage?

So why am I standing up on stage in front of you? I’m a freelance head of product, so I work with lots of different companies and I’ve been doing that for about 7 years now through my own company. I work with startups, I work with big companies, I help them out with their product management. That could either be through hands-on product management or through helping the management team build a product team: recruit, consult and train and mentor the people as we go along. I’ve also written a book if you’re interested, and there’s more in it about how I became a product manager and what I’ve learnt over the years.

I’ve had a chance to work in a few companies. An interesting one is the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism because they published their Digital News Report just yesterday. This is the seventh year of running of that as well, and it is essentially a report into how people consume news on their phones, on the internet, and in print, and it reports on interesting things about fake news and how much we trust news.

So let’s start a few questions for you to make sure you are all awake and listening!

What is a product?

What is a product? Maybe let’s make it an easier question: why do people get a mortgage for their house? Is it because they want to have an affordable rate of interest or because they want to have affordable monthly payments? Not really. Most people who want a mortgage because they want to stop paying rent, or because they want to live closer to where they work, or because they need more space to start a family perhaps.

The difference here is that a product is not about the features, it’s not about what it does and what capabilities it has. A product is more about what it allows people to do, what goals it allows them to achieve. Typically these goals are things that matter most to them. So when we’re thinking of products we’re thinking of anything that really solves users’ problems, addresses some need, or helps the user to achieve a goal.

Most importantly, though, the product is not the important thing. That’s a difficult thing to think about as a product manager: what you are creating is not the important thing. The important thing is what the product allows people to do, and that something is very, very important to keep track of.

The whole product

So when we’re thinking of the product, it could be a number of different things. It’s not just the thing you build. The product could be digital, it could be physical, it could even be a service like training or some other personal service, but typically you are building the core product – the thing itself. But actually you’re responsible for much more than that. You’re responsible for a concept known as ‘the whole product’. And what that essentially means is, apart from the thing you build, there are usually complementary additional pieces that you need to have to unlock the value of the product.

Let’s give an example: so here is my smartphone and it is a product. It’s a piece of hardware. It’s got components in it. A product manager has had to decide with their team on the design, on the capabilities, on the specification, the look, the feel, all that kind of thing. But without a SIM card, without a contract, without any apps, without any data this won’t really do anything.

So as a product manager I am responsible not just for the phone but for ensuring that the apps, the data, the phone contracts and the SIM card are also available, compatible and working well with this product to unlock its value. Now this is the tricky part, because you’re not necessarily in control of all of those other elements directly, but you’re still responsible for ensuring that all of those pieces of the puzzle fit together nicely. That’s a difficult task, having to be in charge of things that are not necessarily in your direct control.

What is product management?

That’s what a product is. So what is product management? There are a number of different ways of looking at it. I think one of the difficult things about product management is that I think it’s changed quite a lot over the years. Maybe twenty years ago when I started working in technology, product management was very much a process. It was: if you do these things in this particular order, and if you do the launch in this particular way, and if you develop the product in this particular way, then you should have a good product.

Now it’s changed much more into a focus on what is important, and how we know that what we are creating is going to be successful. Product management has very much evolved over the years. Some good places to start are Marty Cagan’s book, Inspired, and my book (The Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management) will hopefully shed some light on this as well. Another excellent book by Martin Eriksson, Richard Banfield and Nate Walkingshaw is Product Leadership, which is all about the next level above product management – how to work with people and influence leadership within an organisation. That book in particular is a very good one if you have been a product manager for a while.

Cagan says the job of the product manager is to identify the simplest, smallest product that satisfies the user need, whilst also being valuable, usable and feasible. Valuable – it has to have value for the user, it has to be useful, it has to solve a problem that matters. It has to be usable so you can be solving the best problem in the world, but if you do it very badly and in a way that’s very difficult to use, then clearly nobody is going to use your product. And it also has to be feasible, so we’re thinking about, from a business perspective, is it possible to solve that problem cost-effectively in a way that actually will create a sustainable or a profitable business.. Our job is to create a product that meets those three criteria whilst also doing this as quickly as possible.

The intersection of different disciplines

Another way of looking at it is Martin Eriksson’s view. He thinks of it in terms of the intersection of several different areas of interest or discipline. He says it’s the intersection between the business, the organisation you work with, the technology you’re working with and what’s possible with that technology, and most importantly the user experience. So not just UX, but the user experience – how the user works with your product, how the user experiences your products, how you as an organisation interact with your customers and your users. He summarised this in a Venn diagram, and he says that you as a product manager are right here in the middle.

Now there are a few things to take away from this. First of all we’re only looking at the piece in the middle. So rather than saying we are the entire puzzle, that we have to be good at all of these areas and experts in everything, we’re saying that we’re in the middle, the intersection. We’re not saying we’re experts in everything, we’re saying we’re generalists. And the objective of the product manager is not to become the expert in every single discipline because that would take you a lifetime. You would have to have a whole lifetime’s experience in design, a whole lifetime’s experience work as a developer, a whole lifetime’s experience in user research. Clearly we can’t all become experts in each of these areas.

What Martin says is that a good product manager should be experienced in at least one – because everyone comes from somewhere, everyone has some background experience in one area – but should be passionate about all of the areas, and be able to have a conversation with experts and practitioners in all these areas.

In other words, I don’t necessarily need to be able to code in Python, but I should be able to have a sensible conversation with my developers to make sure that the approach they’re taking is the right one based on what we are trying to achieve with the product. Similarly, I don’t need to be necessarily an expert in how to gather user research in an unbiased and statistically significant way, however I do need to be to have a conversation with my user researcher to make sure that we’re using that information well and building the appropriate product based on that research. We should be able to have a conversation with these practitioners, not necessarily an expert in each of those areas.

No fixed route to become a product manager

My own route into product management was that I started off in the very technical subjects of Latin and Ancient Greek, which had absolutely no bearing at all on my chosen career. I then somehow managed to get a job in a company called Zeus, which was about the only tenuous connection with Greek mythology I could find, and then I found my way through that startup, through a number of different roles, into product management.

So what we’re really saying here is that there is no one way to get into product management. I think by definition we all start somewhere – we all have a particular background. And whether your background is design, research, project management, sales, development, or whatever else, everyone comes to product management via their own route.

Fill the gaps in your experience

The important thing here is that you’ve at least had some experience in each of these areas. If you find you have gaps in your experience, it’s a really good idea to try and find ways to sit with people, to work with people in those areas, so that you can gain an understanding of what is easy, what is difficult, what is possible, what considerations they’re making when they’re thinking about how to solve the problems you’re setting them. Do try and fill those gaps in your experience if you’ve not had the chance to do so already.

What does a product manager do?

So what do we actually do, then? I was asked this question when I was managing a team in government. In the UK government, I was working for the Ministry of Justice. and you wouldn’t think necessarily that the Ministry of Justice would have much in the way of products. As it happened, they were looking to turn all of their paper-based processes into much simpler, easier-to-understand, online digital processes. For example, if you had to pay a court fine because you’d been caught speeding in your car, then the goal was making the process for paying that speeding ticket much easier to do online, as opposed to having to fill in twenty-seven pages of paper form.

I think to be a product manager you need quite a diverse range of technical skills. It’s everything from all aspects of the product life cycle, from figuring out what it is going to create in the first place, all the way through to launching a product and sustaining the product when it’s in the market. But these technical skills are okay because we can learn them, we can pick them up; we can read books, we can attend training courses. It’s relatively easy to learn the technical skills.

What I think is much harder for a product manager to learn, if you don’t already have them, are what are called the soft skills, the people skills, the emotional skills. I think there are quite a few: the ability to influence without authority, the ability to motivate and to lead a team of people when it’s going well, and also when it’s not going so well. It’s important to be able to look at the perspective of what it is you and your team are trying to achieve now and what it is you’re trying to achieve in the future.

The two most important traits of a product manager

But I think above all, there are two characteristics of a product manager that are the most important, and those are empathy and communication. Empathy is that ability to see things from the perspective of your users to appreciate and understand what are their problems, as opposed to simply trying to solve your own problems or your team’s problems.

A second most important aspect is communication. As a product manager, you are continually taking in information from your team, and you’re feeding information out to your team, to your stakeholders, to your customers, to your users and so on. You’re always this conduit – there’s information flowing through you all the time. Your ability to communicate effectively is really, really, really important. You need to be able to choose the right way of talking to people; you need to choose the right words to say to people. And half of that is really about understanding who it is you’re talking to and having empathy with them.

Consider the needs of the audience

For example, for you as the audience, I’m trying to think about all of those talks I’ve been to where I didn’t enjoy it, I was bored, or the speaker was difficult to understand. And I’m trying to make sure that I avoid doing those things with you. So I’m trying to give you slides with relatively few words on them; I’m making sure the writing is big so you can see it even if you’re far away from the screen. I’m trying to speak in a way that hopefully you can understand, without me speaking too quickly. Because what I’m trying to do is to understand your needs as an audience, not just to be informed but hopefully to be entertained a little bit as well (hopefully).

If you think about that when you’re communicating, when you’re doing a one-to-one, when you’re doing your stand-up, when you’re presenting to your managers about your roadmap or whatever else, think about what it is they need from you and try to adapt how you communicate accordingly.

A product manager is a t-shaped generalist

As we’ve been saying, a product manager is a generalist. They may have a particular specialism. In my case, I happened to start out in networking, so I know a little bit about how networks work, but beyond that…? I don’t know anything about any of the new development frameworks, if you told me to go and develop a new app with Spring, I wouldn’t have a clue.

The point is that you have got some experience somewhere, because everyone started somewhere, but what we do have is this general set of experiences, this generalist approach, so it is what’s called a t-shaped person. And what we’re doing is we’re working with a team of specialists. We’re leading and guiding a team of people who are experts in all these different areas and have different skill sets and different approaches, and hopefully they come together as a team that works as effectively as The Avengers.

Balancing competing needs

One of the other things that is quite difficult for a product manager to do is to balance possibly competing needs between the users – the people that are using a product – and the business, which is primarily there to make money or sustain itself, and to please shareholders and so on, because that’s the nature of how things work. And those things are not always aligned, so again it can be a tricky balance to make sure that you’re striking the right approach.

I would always personally bias towards addressing user needs over the needs of the business. Because if you have no users you cannot sell your product – you have no business. You have to really focus on the people who are using your product and show you’re meeting those needs, and then secondarily look at how you can satisfy the needs of the business as well. Clearly we cannot create a product that is losing money hand over fist. We have to make sure that the [business] model works.

What does a product manager not do?

These are the things that we do. What are the things that we don’t do? Well, we’re not a project manager. We’re not a program manager either. We’re not just the product owner – and I appreciate this is an entire talk in itself, and if you’ve search for product owner vs product manager, you’ll find thousands and thousands of articles.

The product owner typically was defined as a very specific role in Scrum which is a particular methodology in agile. And if you literally did only the things that the Scrum Guide tells you to do as a product owner, then you would never leave the building, you would never talk to users or customers, you’d never conduct user research, you’d never conduct any external testing, because all you be doing is grooming the backlog, doing stand-ups, prioritising the backlog – and you’d never do anything else.

I go to places where genuinely that is all they think a product manager does – and that’s missing the point. There’s also the situation in which you have too few product managers in an organisation and one product manager is running several teams – just the [Scrum product owner] aspect of the role can take up all of your time, because you’re managing several teams worth of stuff. Again that’s something that probably needs to be changed. [In situations like these] we need to be able to divide up that role or that workload between several people.

So we’re not just a product owner – there’s everything else you need to do and quite a lot of that is people-based. You’ve got to talk to stakeholders, you’ve got to be thinking about the strategy, you’ve got to be helping and understanding the research that’s going to take you in the direction you need to go with your product. Yes, it does encompass the things you need to do as a product owner, but it’s much, much, much more than that.

You’re not a replacement for missing specialists

You’re not the tweak-the-website person. You’re not sales support. You’re not the chief QA tester. You’re not tech support. You’re not the person who does the spreadsheets. In other words, you are not a replacement for the specialists that are missing from your team.

If you need someone to be doing reporting and analytics, then get an analytics person. If you need someone to be doing testing or technical support, get people to do the technical support and the testing. You have enough on your plate already as a product manager just simply running your product, leading your team and making sure you’re building the right product without trying to do all these other roles.

Of course we know what happens, because generally product managers are pretty good at doing these different things. The organisational says, “We don’t need to hire someone else – you can do it, because you’re really good at it! Go on – you’re really good at it!” And you go, alright then, and then you’ll find out next week you’re doing all of the spreadsheets, you’re doing all of the reporting, and you don’t have time to talk to people anymore.

What we’re trying to do is to make sure that we carve out time to do our actual job, and try not to spend all our time doing effectively other people’s jobs.

Why do we need product management?

That hopefully gives you an understanding of what we do and what we don’t do. So why do we need product management in the first place? Well, the first thing is that it’s difficult to keep track of what our users need. If you think about 10-15 years ago, social media didn’t exist really in any meaningful way, and now we have this whole realm of product features and concepts that never even existed before. And this [pattern] will obviously continue. Think about how AI and machine learning are impacting on all of our products in the same way as ‘big data’ impacted on us a few years ago.

User needs evolve. The fact that every single picture on here is now solved by your phone just gives you an indication of how things change. It’s not that any of these products necessarily failed as such. They were all needed at the time. But what people needed from those products evolved, it moved on, it moved beyond what those products were capable of.

Evolve or die

To take Blockbuster Video for example: in the 90s and early 2000s, the way to see your films at home was to rent out a VHS video, or later on, rent out a DVD. Then later, Netflix and others came along with mail-order DVDs they sent you in the post, then that was replaced by streaming. So user needs evolve.

But it wasn’t that people wanted to be streaming [movies] in the first place – all they wanted was quality films, accessed conveniently, without having to pay a fine if it was late. That’s what killed off the rental business – not the fact that it was Blockbuster or anything else. (Remember, Netflix itself started out by sending physical copies of the DVDs out before they started streaming.) The user needs evolved. We wanted something different, we wanted something more, we wanted something more convenient, and that is what caused these products and these companies that didn’t evolve to fail.

What makes a good product?

Think about what makes a good product. Think about products that annoyed you. When you think about products that annoyed you, what was it that annoyed you about them? What things did you feel not work for you? Was it inconvenient? Was it difficult to use? Was it not really connecting with your needs? Was it not understanding what you were trying to do as a person? Did it make you jump through someone else’s process, rather than fitting in with your own process, your natural way of working?

Then think about products that delighted you. When you’ve had to tell someone how great a product was, what was it about it you told them? Was it perhaps the customer service? Was it the ease of use? Was it the convenience it had?

Really, what we’re looking for is the special sauce that creates a good product. Typically: attention to detail – in other words really and truly understanding your needs; solving your problems before you even knew you had them; truly understanding your needs as an individual as opposed to generalising.

Most of all, treating you like a human being – someone who is trying to achieve something – somebody who’s just trying to live their lives with the minimum of extra aggravation.

Minimising additional pain and aggravation

Going back to working in government, many of these products that we were creating, these services were things that people didn’t necessarily want to have to use, but when they did have to use them, they didn’t want it to be painful. All we were trying to do was to minimise the additional pain and difficulty in their lives when they had to apply for a court order or apply for a new passport, or things like that. People don’t want to necessarily do those things by choice, they have to do them.

Users always have a choice

Users always have a choice. If your product doesn’t meet their needs they will either use someone else’s product, even if it does a worse job, or they will choose not to use your product altogether.

In some cases that can be problematic. If somebody is too scared to log on to change their passport or to order an updated driving licence, that’s a problem because they could be opening themselves up to legal difficulties in the future. We want to make sure that we give them the option that’s the least painful of the ones available, including [the option of] doing nothing at all.

What makes a good product manager?

Let’s think about the characteristics that make a good product manager. This is a difficult one because I think what it means to be a good product manager gets harder every day. First of all, we need to leave our ego at the door- it’s not about you, sorry. It’s not about the thing you create, the product. You may have invested time, blood, sweat and tears into creating these products, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter, it’s just another product. So it’s not about you, nor is it about the product.

Everything is an experiment

Guesses and assumptions – putting the solution before the problem will lead to failure – usually. We need to make sure that we’re not guessing what the product should be, we’re actually evaluating the data and research that we have and making sure that we’re using that to inform our approach. We can’t be the person that gets up in the morning and in our shower think, “I’ve had a brilliant idea for our product.” (That’s what your boss does.) That’s what you need to stop doing. The way we do this is to make everything an experiment.

So in this case, data and user research shows that users don’t like typing passwords into their mobile phone, so if we try sending an email with a one-time password and measure the time to login on mobile, and also user stress when logging in, we should see this change. This is the measurable difference that we’re trying to achieve. What we’ve done is we’ve created a very small experiment. Every single thing that we do should be based on this idea – everything is an experiment.

In product management it’s all about people, it’s not about the technology, it’s not about managing the product – it’s all about the people. Maybe 10% [of your job] is technology but 90% of the job is actually about managing people, whether that’s your stakeholders, your team, your customers or users, whoever. The needs of your team and your stakeholders are not necessarily aligned with those of your users, so you’ll find yourself being pulled often in many different directions. This is challenging. As a product manager, your job is to align the team. Your job is to get everyone to be working towards a goal – your vision for the product. With no vision, everyone will pull in different directions. With a far-off goal in mind, that people care about, people will be drawn towards it.

Divided thinking

We also need to be good at dividing our thinking between the short-term and the long-term, between the detail and the big picture, but we also need to use different sides of our brain. We need to be creative when we need to be. We need to be analytical when we need to be. So we’re always jumping around different ways of thinking and working.

The challenges of product management

All of that are the good aspects of product management. However product management can also be challenging. We’re the people who run towards the fire.

We have to figure out what the problems are in our team, in our products and we need to respond to them.

We need to make sure that we can keep moving forward.

We need to keep the team calm.

We need to address any difficulties that come up, because they always do.

We need to keep several plates spinning at a time, and that is often the hardest piece: to be able to make that context switch, day-in, day-out, between different products, different features, different needs of different people.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should

I think another aspect which is very difficult for us at the moment is what it is to be a good product manager – what it means to be an ethical product manager.

This is itself a very big topic, but just think about this Google Duplex demo that you might have seen last year. This was a Google AI-driven personal assistant phoning up to make an appointment at a hair salon. And the way it spoke, the way it interacted with the human being was very life-like. It even umm-ed and paused, and made those natural language things that human beings do and machines typically don’t.

My problem with that was not that it was a massive leap forward in technology, but the fact that the person at the other end of the line did not know they were talking to a machine. You have to think about that and the implications of that and how this technology could be used or abused.

We have to start asking the question, not just can we create something, but should we create something. In other words, just because it is possible to create this technology, doesn’t necessarily mean it is an ethically good idea to do so. Just imagine that Duplex technology being used to automate millions of sales calls. then you can start to see the problems that this technology could create inadvertently.

Try and consider how your product could be misused or abused. You can’t anticipate every possible way it could happen, but think about avoiding the obvious things. Think about data security, privacy; think about keeping your users safe. In other words: do no harm – like doctors.

Quick recap

Let’s recap:

  • a product manager is at the centre of user experience, the needs of the organisation, and the technology
  • a product manager is someone who collaborates with your avenging team of specialists
  • a good product manager manages the people but also considers the ethics of their product when is this a good idea? Is it going to do no harm to my users?

Thank you very much – thank you for listening.

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Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a freelance head of product, product management coach and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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