What Does a Product Manager Do?

February 27, 2007 - Get free updates of new posts here

What Does a Product Manager Do?

This post is part of User Generated Tuesdays. If you want to be read by 1,100+ new friends please go here. This is written by Will Kern, who writes online at 3 times the fun.

[Noah’s note: I did product management for Facebook and it was something I never heard about in college. I met Will and asked if he could explain it for everyone.]

So you ask, what in the world does a product manager do anyways? Seems like a pretty straightforward question, right? If it was only that simple…

For starters, I work for a large internet company doing product management for our social networking group. Being a product manager means it is your responsibility to deliver top quality products that your target demographic loves, embraces, encourages their friends to use and cannot live without. And when you make quality products it makes it becomes easy to market the product.

Being a good product manager is a lot easier said than done. A lot of product managers fail to be good instead they are really bad. Really bad product managers lead to a lot of other really bad things: missing the target demographic with the product, wrong product being built, or even worse, never delivering the product they set out to build. All of these things have a negative impact on the company, in the form of lost revenue, bad morale and tarnishing the company reputation. Here’s how to make your employees love your company.

So enough on being a bad product manager, let’s focus on how to be a great product manager. So you may ask yourself, what do I need to live and breathe by in order to be a truly effective product manager? Well, that is the point of this article, so I will get right to it. Here’s how to be a good product manager and a bit about what I do:

  • Act as the CEO of the product just like a CEO drives the vision of their company and the ultimate success or failure of the company, you too drive the vision and success or failure of your product. After all, it is your product, so own it!
  • Sweat the small stuff (and of course the big stuff too) you must understand every aspect of the product, from company goals and objectives for the product, the market in which you are playing, who your competition is, as well as recognizing what you do not know. It is an absolute must that you can conjure up this information at the drop of a hat; you never know when you are going to need it.
  • Produce clearly defined product requirements OK, this will go a long way in winning you brownie points with your development team. Make sure you clearly articulate what you want the product to be (in writing or course). Otherwise you may find yourself in the situation of wanting to build a car, describing a motorcycle and getting a tricycle (get the point, be very, very clear on what it is you want).
  • Customers First remember, your customers will make or break your product. If you do not build what they love, embrace and cannot live without, your probability for success will dramatically decrease. Listen to them, take their feedback and incorporate it into the product. You will thank yourself later for listening to them.
  • Jack of all trades, master of … ALL so you are going to be the CEO of your product, but you need certain skills to navigate the waters. First and foremost, you need to be extremely disciplined in everything you do. You need to possess great time management and have a knack for identifying what is important, prioritizing those things, and executing on them.
  • Keep people accountable of their progress. This doesn’t need explaining, but your team will thank you for helping them manage their own deadlines so they don’t get overwhelmed at the end.


great ideas journal image
You also need to be good at evangelism (not the religious kind, don’t worry). You need to be able to talk the talk and walk the walk with marketing, PR and the likes.

That’s it, enough said. It is a great career, but like anything else, it is what you make it. I have chosen to make the most of it and I enjoy everyday of it!

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24 responses to “What Does a Product Manager Do?

  1. Brian Balfour Reply

    Good post.

    I think I would add one other thing that you kind of touched on.

    If I had to boil PM down to one word it would be “communication.” Its the responsibility of the product manager to make sure that every stakeholder in the product (not just the developers) understand what the end goal is and how you are going to get there.

    With out that, everyone would be working in different directions.

  2. Will Reply

    Great point! I kind of implied that as an over all undertone of the post, but it would have been worthwhile calling it out. Thanks for the pointer.


  3. Doug Karr Reply

    I’m a product manager as well and agree with all of your points, here. Our huge point of contention is that our development team thinks that ‘requirements’ control everything from the color of a shadow to predicting every use of a feature that will ever be accomplished and redocumenting every requirement through the lifecycle of the product. They expect the 3,000 page document that tells them everything so that they have zero liability when it doesn’t interact with the application directly. It’s the most frustrating part of my job.

    I think Product Management should ‘own’ the requirements and collaborate with teams and stakeholders to develop them; however, I disagree that requirements need to be in any finite detail.

    In fact, I would love to see what a Requirements Document that you folks have used in the past that you really like. You can email me by my signature name here at my domain address.


  4. Will Reply

    I did not actually get recruited for it, I kind of happened into it (well at least at my current company). I have done Product Management at previous companies from the get go, and here I was in program management and it was a natural progression into Product Management. Are you looking to get into Product Management/


  5. Damon Billian Reply

    The best Product Managers I worked with were at PayPal. Why:
    1. They cared about the product.
    2. They cared about fixing issues when the product was broken.
    3. They care what customers thought about the product.
    4. They were able to prioritize products by balancing company & customer needs.

    A great Product Manager also keeps Customer Service & Community Managers in the loop.

    It is really, really difficult to find great Product Managers these days because they are so valuable.

  6. Damon Billian Reply

    Hi Noah,

    Perhaps;-) But it never really got me anywhere;-)

    Really, good Product Managers are hard to find. If you find one, dip them in gold and chain them to a wall.

    But I bet you were a kickass PM.

  7. Noah N. Glass Reply

    In the early days of GoMobo, I was acting as Product Manager and trying to get up the steep learning curve. Where was your post then, Will?!? 🙂 The role was made even tougher by the fact that our development team was 8,000 miles away in Johannesburg.

    We’ve got a fantastic Product Manager at GoMobo now in David Fellows. Phew! I can’t imagine trying to do the PM job as we have for 16 months with our SA-based team in the days before IM, Skype, and international text messages. It’s still a real mission, but we’re learning every day and finding ways to communicate constantly, clearly, and effectively.

    The greatest challenge that we’ve had has actually NOT been the geographical distance and timezone mismatch between our Product Manager and dev team. It’s been the problem of being a small company that uses freelancers to do some of our work, tying their efforts into our larger work product. Simply put, our learning has been this: BEWARE OF A PROCESS THAT REQUIRES ITERATING WITH NON-DEDICATED RESOURCES.

    Will, Noah K, others:
    What’s the one greatest challenge and learning that you’ve had as PMs? Stories, please.

  8. Will Reply

    Noah G,
    If only we had met earlier, if only….
    As far as the greatest challenge that I have faced would be the geographical distance of development teams as well as the varying levels of expertise within those teams. We had development teams literally across the world, all trying to deliver their piece of the product at the same time. Logistics management and communication were key, and they went a long way in making it as smooth as possible. With that being said, I think having a bunch of developers in a room together living and breathing the product (as well as the PM) is the best way to go (this definitely helps solve your problem of iteration with non-dedicated resources), but hey, this is only my 3 cents :-)!


  9. Noah N. Glass Reply

    Great stuff, Will.

    Here’s another question…

    In your experience managing projects of this sort of complexity, how do you budget in a) flexibility and b) time for unforeseen circumstances?

    I find myself trying to write the master score for an orchestra and trying to be as careful as possible about budgeting in buffers for mission creep and exogenous variables, but I think it’s just as bad to overshoot the time parameters as to undershoot. Any tips?

  10. Will Reply

    Noah G.,
    Now answering that would be giving away all of my secrets, wouldn’t it? 🙂
    One thing we did, which was a huge undertaking, was to do a planning session at the early stage of the product with each development team representin’. This allowed us to flush out all of the assumptions / dependencies based on the fully baked requirements (a must for this, otherwise you are just wasting your time) and develop a time line in which we could deliver the product. Our development teams were pretty seasoned in producing LOEs, so they are pretty accurate when they deliver their expected time frame. Of course, they took into account that some things change and that their will be some unforeseen issues, so they built in a buffer to cover those little gotchas. With all this, it gives you a realistic and attainable date in which you drive towards, with the understanding that you are going to hit some road bumps, but you have planned (as best you could) for them.

    At the end of the day, the date drives everything, but there are only so many hours in a day.

    Hope this helps!


  11. Will Reply

    Noah G.,
    Sorry, my bad! LOE = level of effort. It is an estimation of time given by development teams for the work to be performed. Let me know if there is anything else I can help you out with!


  12. Noah N. Glass Reply

    That’s a really funny anagram.
    Reminds me of a New Yorker caption (www.newyorker.com/captioncontest)

    “I’d like to help you out here, Steve. I just don’t think I can commit to any real LOE.”

  13. Will Reply

    haha, that’s a funny one. You would be surprised at the anagrams that are thrown around my work. See if you have heard of or can figure out these: SWAG, UGC, PRD, TRD, UI…. the list goes on and on, it is maddening sometimes!

  14. Mike Reply

    Good stuff Will. I’ll need to forward this to my parents who still don’t understand what I do (I’m also a Product Manager).

    @Doug Carr
    I have to agree with you on your point . It just doesn’t make sense to document every last cosmetic or usability feature. In my organization we have certain standing requirements that don’t need to be documented – the order that things should sort in, how/when audit events should be created, how certain types of pages – e.g. forms – should look, etc. We document those requirements once and they serve as standing requirements for every release going forward.

  15. Doug Karr Reply

    Mike – thanks so much. Noah, what an awesome conversation you’ve started here! Wow! Product Managers are an optimistic, evangelistic, lively bunch, aren’t we?

    I would really appreciate any books, tips, internal docs (that can be shared) that any of you might have on this subject matter! My email address is doug [-at+] douglaskarr | com.


  16. Pete Swisher Reply

    Noah, this is an excellent post and discussion.

    The thing about Product Management is that even the perfect description of the job is still vague to anyone outside the technology business. My family and friends still don’t know what I’ve done for the past 8 years. I also find that most software companies, especially those outside of Silicon Valley and Alley don’t know what a PM is. I’m experiencing that issue in my recent relo to Orlando, FL.

    I’m curious as to what other PMs transition into.. In other words, if you find there aren’t a lot of good PM jobs, what else do you do? Biz Dev? Marketing Mgmt? CEO of a startup? What else have others done?

    – Swish

  17. Douglas Karr Reply

    I’d like to get my work to understand what it is, first! Our internal dev team seems to think we’re internal consultants… as long as they agree, we move in that direction.

    Product Management can lead to Director of Product Management, Product Marketing, Director of Technology, Director of Usability, Director of Accessibility, Director of Solutions, Director of Integration… I think there are plenty of opportunities to shift both laterally or be advanced.

  18. Steve Norman Reply

    I teach product management in Orlando and am looking for a guest speaker for my class. The subject would be a general overview of the work, how lucrative it can be, good things, not so good things, etc.

    Anyone interested?