Is Product Manager a Great Job, or What?

Let me just come out and say it. I think being a Product Manager is an awesome job.

From the time 24 years ago when I was tapped for my first Product Manager position, through the succession of product management jobs that played out through good economic times and bad, journeying through a motley succession of areas of expertise as varied as pharmaceutical clinical trials and Value Added Tax, I have been fascinated, entertained, and energized by my work. I don’t know how it would be for everyone, but for me it has been a blast.

Why do I find product management fun? For one thing, it touches almost every aspect of a company, from strategy to marketing, sales, product development, training, consulting and customer care. It’s a job that has had me doing tasks as different as, on the one hand, building spreadsheets that forecast the revenue expected from different pricing scenarios and, on the other hand, facilitating a panel of professionals at a customer conference, complete with running around in the audience with the Oprah mike so people could discuss and debate the ins and outs of filing sales tax returns. There are not many jobs out there that have you working across so many areas and specialties, learning from them and tying them all together to make your product successful.

Product management is also a young profession. The origin stories I have heard point to the post-World War II era at household product giants like Proctor and Gamble. (I guess that puts the birthplace of product management near Cincinnati, Ohio?) There’s a whole lot of leeway in a young industry to do what you want in your job, mixing and matching responsibilities to suit your interests, your strengths — and if you’re lucky — your fancy.

True, there are any number of thought leaders doing a yeoman’s job of developing best practices and standards for the profession, but product management is a wide open field whose goals and tasks are often poorly understood by executives and colleagues. There’s plenty of room for interpretation and customized, even quirky, approaches. Compare this to, say, accounting. That’s a profession which arguably goes all the way back to cuneiform tablets produced to inventory livestock and grain. If you want to interpret it more strictly, it’s a profession that at least dates back to the codification of double entry accounting in Italy around the time Columbus discovered the New World. Not only that, but accounting has governing bodies that set and enforce standards and practices. A Product Manager may hear: “Your user story doesn’t align with the Persona you described.” This hardly compares to: “You’ve failed to apply a reverse credit to this transaction and we’re gonna fail next week’s audit unless we fix this, pronto!”

Combine a young profession which focuses on innovation with the heavy adoption of product management by the software industry — a sector that is young, booming, and innovating in all sorts of ways with regard to product, organization and business models — and product management provides plenty of opportunities for you to trace your own, very personal, path through your working life. Then there’s your level of authority that you can grow. A Product Manager can become Senior Product Manager, Principal Product Manager, Director of Product Management, VP of Product, even Chief Product Officer. And the really cool kids use the title of Chief Innovation Officer, how cool is that?

Product people can shine at cocktail parties. “So what do you do?” “Oh, I’m Chief Innovation Officer at my company, you may revere me at your leisure.” (Actually, the other person is most likely thinking what exactly do they do, I wonder? Like I said, it’s a young and less defined profession.)

This makes product management more interesting, for me at least. I mean, how many other jobs list job responsibilities like “Evangelize the product vision” as a bullet point? Maybe postings for missionary work contain the word “Evangelize” but for years I only saw that on Product Manager postings.

Companies have leaders and individual contributors. But a Product Manager who is an individual contributor also has a leadership responsibility. They lead the product vision, which paints the picture of how the product will develop over time to include new features and technology. It’s a very unusual situation, giving you a foothold in leadership without necessarily leading people, just the product vision. More fun for less effort, if you ask me.

Just in the software sector alone, being a Product Manager gives you the opportunity to swim in a fascinating ocean of dot.com boom/bust venture capital internet startup Agile equity IPO new business model digital SaaS virtual cloud leading edge mobile bleeding edge social IoT blockchain machine learning AI action.

What About the “or What?”

Okay, so I need to talk about the “or What?” part, too, or I wouldn’t be giving you both sides of the story, “Is this a great country, or what?” is a rhetorical question. Nobody is expecting a balanced critique of the pros and cons of the United States as a response. But there are definite downsides to product management jobs that are worth considering. You want to go into a product management career with your eyes open.

First of all, there is the poor understanding of the Product Manager role, as I’ve encountered all too frequently — not just in others but in myself, even. This quality of lacking definition, navigating uncharted waters — which makes the job so interesting — can make it hard for you to work with the other roles at your company. Colleagues are not always sure what to expect from you, and may believe that some of the work produced by a Product Manager is not your responsibility but theirs. You can find yourself frozen out of key product strategy, vision, and roadmap discussions where your product management best practices and focus are essential to obtaining top-notch results.

With a poor understanding of the purpose and focus of product management comes a failure on the part of colleagues to appreciate the unique value you bring. So in times of retrenchment and reorganization, I think Product Managers are particularly vulnerable to layoffs. It’s important to be cognizant of this danger. In an economy where 40% of the entire workforce has experienced at least one layoff, you want to do what you can to improve your chances. (Though let’s not pretend that, with a phenomenon that affects two out of every five workers, there is always something you can personally do to impact it.)

There’s also an aspect of product management that adds to the difficulty of the job. A Product Manager needs to develop skill in two areas: the first is product management methodology and best practices. The second is the subject matter expertise (SME) of the individuals who use your product. Taking an example from software for marketing and selling banking products, you need the expertise of a marketer who works in a bank, with an understanding not only of marketing but also of the customers who use deposit and loans and why they make use of them. That’s already complicated enough, but you also need to understand what to do as a Product Manager of this software, namely follow a structured and ongoing effort to understand the problems and goals of your customers and translate this into new features to help solve these problems, then shepherd these features through the development cycle to launch.

Until you master both of these sets of skills and knowledge, you won’t be able to operate at full speed as a Product Manager. This is an extra challenge in product management that I would argue is not nearly so often the case in other roles.

Many Product Managers enter into their product management career through only one of these wo paths. Often, companies promote Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who have a depth of knowledge of the software product and what the customer base needs, hiring them into product management. But these SMEs absolutely need to develop a full understanding of the focus and best practices of product management. Conversely, a Product Manager with all the skills and best practices of the profession, but hired from outside the company, must learn about the jobs and needs of the software’s customer base. Of course, given the fact that product management best practice is to reach out to the market to understand what it needs (through interviews and surveys of individuals making up that market), this should happen naturally in the course of your work.

But despite the downsides you may encounter (if you find a company with a thorough appreciation of product management, these won’t be problems), I can’t help but be enthusiastic about being a Product Manager, and will continue to look for a Product role for the next step in my career.

Copyright (c) 2023 Jacques Murphy www.productmanagement challenges.com. All rights reserved.

I hope you found this article enjoyable and enlightening. Are you or have you been a Product Manager? I’d love to see your thoughts about the job — the good, the bad, and the buggy. Post a comment on LinkedIn! (This article was featured in a post on my profile on LinkedIn.)

About This Website

I wrote most of the articles on this website between 2002 and 2008, so they reflect my thinking from the time. Writing these articles was a way for me to clarify and codify my thoughts on software product management. You might find some of them of interest. It does not reflect important later developments, such as Agile (though I worked on a product that applied a sort of proto-Agile approach, even before the Agile Manifesto was signed). Agile also has had a significant influence on product management with the concept of the Product Owner role. These earlier articles also don’t reflect the pivotal focus on understanding the market problem through continuous interaction with customers and prospects, a key best practice in product management. But you’ll find some among them that are timeless.

–Jacques Murphy

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