Every time someone asks me what my job is, and I tell them I’m a product manager, they look at me as though I’ve started to speak another language. Their eyes glaze over and from then on, I know that most of what I say will be in one ear and out the other. While I was at UF, I never heard anyone so much as mention the role of product manager. Little did I know, it was the job that I had dreamed of my whole life.
At UF, I studied Finance and minored in Computer Science and Engineering. Ever since I started school, I wanted to find a business focused role that still let me work in the exciting, fast-paced world of technology. I considered myself more of a generalist than an expert in any one area and because of this, I was nervous I wouldn’t hold my own in strict finance or development. Luckily, once out of school, I stumbled into product management and it ended up being exactly the role I was looking for.
What exactly is Product Management?
Product management is one of the fastest growing and most important roles in the modern world, yet somehow, almost no-one knows what a product manager does on a day to day basis. Very few universities offer a product management course, let alone an entire field of study and most students never consider product management out of college.
A product manager is responsible for almost every aspect of a single product within an organization. They are, for the most part, the CEO of their own product within a company. A product manager works alongside development, design, project management, marketing, sales, pricing, and almost every other department to help guide the strategy for their product. This isn’t to say, however, that the product manager has explicit authority over other contributors. Instead, the product manager provides the customer’s perspective in conversations and helps guide the other groups and subject matter experts to the right conclusions.
Product management was originally conceived as part of the Agile development strategy that many technology companies leverage today. The best known example is probably the Spotify Model (yes, that Spotify) that organizes teams into “tribes” and “squads”. Today, product management has grown from being primarily used in consumer facing tech products to be an integral part of many traditional company’s strategies. The key tenants of product management (cross discipline collaboration, open dialogue, design) can be applied to almost any situation. According to an article from McKinsey’s website, the growth of data, design, and complexity around business decisions and products has led to this expanded focus on comprehensive product management.
At this point, I want to quickly mention a trap that I see a lot of people fall into. It is easy to confuse product management with project management. They are even similar in that you can spell one role by switching two letters in the other, but that’s about where the similarities end. Project management is concerned with tracking a single customer project or implementation and ensuring that the work is delivered on time. It is usually a reporting and communications role. Product management, on the other hand, is more concerned with creating a comprehensive product strategy.
What does a Product Manager Do?
At this point you may be thinking, “OK Harrison, but what does a product manager actually do? What are your day to day job responsibilities?” And, as clichéd as it probably is, no two days are ever the same. That’s one of the reasons that I enjoy product management as much as I do. I will try to distill the key aspects of the role down to the most important parts.
If you were to look at the generic elevator pitch for what a product manager does, it would probably mention collecting requirements from customers and communicating those requirements to development so that they can create compelling product features. And while managing customer requirements, prioritizing those requirements, and communicating requirements to development is an important part of the job, it is much more complex than simply managing a feature backlog. For every customer requirement, there must be a business case that clearly defines the value of the product feature to both the customer and the business as a whole.
For example, imagine you are a product manager for a car company. More and more customers are coming into your dealership and asking if they can purchase your car in neon pink. Should the company invest in the process and development changes that it would take to provide pink cars? What is the market like for pink cars? How would this affect the brand perception of your product? Who would these pink cars be marketed to and how would you reach those customers? Are there any legal ramifications of putting neon pink cars on the road? Answering all of these questions would be the responsibility of the product manager.
In order to answer these questions, the product manager will spend a lot of time with customers doing discovery activities, listening to feedback, and understanding customer pain points. The product manager then brings all of this information back to internal teams and helps guide the direction of the product.
What are the Most Important Skills for a Product Manager?
It takes a unique type of individual to be a product manager, but there also isn’t one type of person that always makes a successful product manager. Some product managers are more technical and some are more design oriented. Some product managers focus primarily on dealing with development while some are “jack of all trades.” Companies will traditionally hire certain types of product managers. For example, Apple tends to hire product managers that are more design oriented while Facebook hires more technical product managers. It is usually a good idea to research what type of product managers work at a company before applying.
While there is no “normal” product manager, there are some incredibly important traits that a product manager must possess. Here are what I consider to be the three most important attributes of any product manager:
Customer Focus – First and foremost, the product manager is a customer advocate. It is the responsibility of the product manager to be able to provide the customer’s voice in any conversation. As such, it is pivotal that the product manager knows their customers, industry, and market inside and out. Product managers will usually spend the first portion of their day reading the latest news on the industry and other competitors. When in conversations with other teams, the product manager will then use this customer knowledge to make sure the conversation never strays too far from the ultimate goal; doing what is right for your customers.
Ability to Learn – Like I said earlier, the product management role is one that covers a wide array of topics from legal to financial matters. When starting as a product manager, it is safe to assume that you won’t be an expert in every single field that you interact with. That said, it is pivotal to a product manager’s success that they keep an open mind and are willing to learn about these subjects. Often, the product manager is asked to make decisions or support decisions that deal with how their product interacts with these fields.
Also, as mentioned in the above section, the product manager is an expert in their industry and market. It takes time and effort to learn this valuable information. As a personal example, I work in healthcare, a field I was never exposed to before starting at IBM Watson Health.
Hard Work Ethic – I don’t include this topic on the list to be pretentious or to suggest that I work more than any of my other recently graduated friends. But if you’re the type of person that likes to work 40-hour weeks, leave work at the office, and won’t commit, then product management certainly isn’t the right role for you. There is as much work to do as a product manager as you want to do. There is always an opportunity to have more conversations, evaluate competitors and the market, and continue to learn more about your product.
Why Become a Product Manager?
Product management is an incredibly exciting, challenging, and rewarding field that is clouded in mystery and poorly understood by many college students. If you are a hard worker, love challenges, are willing to constantly learn, and like to deal with people, product management is a wonderful field to consider.
If that’s not enough to peak your interest, product managers are increasingly being looked at for promotions and management roles. As a product manager, you learn almost every aspect of a business, your customer’s wants and needs, and how to make a product succeed in the market. Who would you rather have running your company than someone who has spent their entire career learning this valuable information?
I hope this quick dive into product management has made you more curious about the field. If you’d like to learn more, I’ve included some resources that I found to be useful. Feel free to reach out with any questions or to chat. Best of luck in FLA and beyond!
Harrison Tool is an Offering Manager for IBM Watson Health’s Value Based Care Initiative. He was a member of FLA Class X and graduated from UF in 2016 with a BS in Finance and a minor in Computer Science. Harrison was also involved with the International Case Competition Team, CAP Mentors, and other Heavener organizations. In his free time, he enjoys cycling, reading, and trying to convince himself that moving to the freezing north wasn’t a terrible decision. Feel free to email Harrison.