04008 What Is a Product Manager For?

When I tell people at parties that I’m a Product Manager at a software company, the response is usually: “Oh, that’s nice … what exactly is a Product Manager?”

That’s only natural, but what’s pretty unusual is that you’re just as likely to get that question from a software company colleague. I suppose this stems from the nature of the product – software, in an industry that is not mature. I don’t think this is the same issue in other, much more mature, industries like household products.

So I find myself explaining what a Product Manager is for, and I try not to launch into an article-length speech. My answer always boils down to something along these lines:

“A Product Manager fills in the gaps between different functions and departments in order to make sure that the product develops and makes progress, with the aim of making the product perform better relative to the competition.”

So what are some of those gaps? Read on for a list of potential gaps you’ll encounter at your company.


Gap Analysis

The first thing a Product Manager needs to do is his or her own little “gap analysis” to identify those gaps in the product or the organization, gaps that need to be bridged in order to move the product to the next level. The mix and match of gaps is different at every company.

The Gap Between Development and Direction

The Product Manager sets and clarifies the direction of the product as part of the Product Roadmap. This direction is usually a panoramic description of the landscape where you find yourself and the place where you want the product to go.

Compare the product direction with the nuts and bolts of software development for this day, this week, and this release. If the product direction is the forest, development work takes place down among the trees. When you’re developing, you need to focus on the individual trees. Because of this, it’s easy for software engineers to forget the overall forest view. And Sales and Marketing often never get down to descriptions of individual trees.

So the Product Manager can help guide discussions between these two perspectives, as needed. Marketing could use some good, concrete examples of upcoming functionality, so that collateral and other materials reflect solid, practical details. And Development could use a view of the bigger picture when making choices and judgment calls that will inevitably have a more far-reaching impact than the engineers are first aware of.

The Gap Between Marketing and Usefulness

Marketing is promoting. It is the nature of marketeers to tout the many features of the product. “Is that a feature? Well then, let me figure out how to say how wonderful it is.” It’s a great quality.

But when you promote something, it’s easy to go too far in digging up benefits and potential results. While a product may have many capabilities, any given prospect or customer will find that some of these are much more useful to their situation than others.

Product Managers can describe very concretely how a given capability can be used to cut costs or make more money. While marketing collateral tends to talk about “squeezing costs out of your supply chain,” a Product Manager can be much more specific with: “You can see orders in the pipeline and estimate inventory needs more precisely, then time orders from your suppliers to arrive just in time, eliminating delays in shipments and speeding up invoicing.” The Marketing version sounds great and is important at a macro level. But the Product Manager version is concrete and highly useful.

The Gap Between Sales and Reality

It’s always a temptation for Sales to describe the product in glowing terms that sometimes go beyond the actual capabilities of the software. On the one hand, the Product Manager needs to reel in some of those explanations to make sure that they focus on reality.

On the other hand, the Product Manager should listen carefully when the sales rep is reaching a little too far, and put some of those inspired ideas into the requirements for future releases.

And remember, those ideas are much more if they come from the prospects themselves.

The Gap Between Future and Present

One of the most non-technical statements I ever heard about software was that “software is squishy.” It’s also one of the most technically accurate statements I’ve encountered. Software can be maddeningly hard to pin down as far as what it does today versus what it will do six months from now.

The Product Manager is right at the nexus of current and future functionality. He or she is clearly aware of what the software does today, because they have had to define exactly what it does as part of defining how it needs to change for the future. So a Product Manager can be extremely helpful during discussions with prospects and teammates when the difference between past, present, and future must be made crystal clear.

The Gap Between Revenues and Profits

Product Managers usually find themselves engaged in a variety of supporting activities for Sales. The primary focus of Sales is the top line price, in other words the revenues that will come in with a signed contract. The goal is to bring in as much money as possible.

But the Product Manager ends up involved in, and often primarily responsible for, the profitability of the product. And they see that while the product could be used to do a whole lot of things, some uses are more cost effective than others. Some uses cost the company more in terms of customer training, internal processes, customer support, and services provided but not charged for.

Because of this, it’s important for the Product Manager to use an understanding of which uses are more profitable and ensure that the product positioning and sales training are focused on the most profitable ones. During proposals, demos, and discussions with prospects, a Product Manager can steer the conversation towards the most profitable uses and build the vision around those.

The Gap Between Managing and Doing

A Product Manager is officially a manager. At least, the word is in his or her job title. Like a manager, he or she must obtain results by influencing and guiding others to produce those results.

Unlike some managers, the Product Manager may also be the only person who can actually do some of the hands-on work, such as crafting requirements, defining demos, and providing collateral or press release content.

So a Product Manager stands in the middle between the management team, who obtain results mostly through others, and the non-managers who produce results directly. This fills an important gap where ideas are translated into action, and difficulties encountered completing certain actions can trigger improvements to the ideas that brought them about.

So That’s What a Product Manager Is For

There are no doubt other important gaps that the Product Manager tries to bridge or fill. And of course there are other, much more specific, things that a Product Manager does. While this role is hard to explain to others concretely, it can make all the difference in the effectiveness of a product and a company.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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