In my 11+ years in the high-tech industry, the least well-defined job that I have come across is that of the… drum roll please… ‘Product Manager’ (and the closely associated role of ‘Product Marketing Manager’). The role of a Product Manager (PM) varies quite widely across different segments in the high-tech industry, and even across different companies in the same segment.

In this article, I’ll try to shed some light on the role of a PM by summarizing their major responsibilities. But, first an anecdote!

It Is What You Define It Is!
About a year ago, I interviewed at a startup that makes software in the ‘human resources’ field – let us call them Scooby-Doo, Inc (not their real name!). They were looking to hire someone who can build their product management team. The two founders were the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and VP of Engineering. They had secured about $10 Million in funding from two venture capitalists in Silicon Valley just a couple of weeks earlier.

I arrived on time at the well appointed offices of Scooby-Doo, Inc. First up was the CTO, a very pleasant guy dressed in Scooby-Doo T-Shirt, shorts and funky sandals! During the interview, I asked him what was the main reason he wanted to build a product management team.

He said he wanted someone to document all the features in their product (which had already been created) in one Word document so that they can understand what features were in their product. He also said he didn’t want the PM team to "muck around with defining features or product strategy" because between him and the VP of Engineering, they had it covered.

Next up was the VP of Engineering. I asked him the same question – "What is the biggest reason you want to build a product management team?". He told me that he wanted someone to create UML diagrams of the current product as well as for all the new features that he planned to come up with so that developers could implement them.

What Do Product Managers Do?
While the role of a PM varies widely depending on the company, there are several key responsibilities that product managers usually undertake at a vast majority of successful high-tech companies – based on my own experiences as well as conversations with friends in the industry. I’ve grouped them into the following six categories:

  1. Market Research:

    This refers to the activities of studying a market to understand the customer needs, competitive landscape, and market forces – with the ultimate goal of uncovering opportunities for creating product enhancements as well as new products.

    This is done via conversations with customers or potential customers, talking to customer-facing teams such as sales and support, studying reports and articles on the marketplace, test driving competitive products, keeping tabs on customer behavior, and other such activities.

    This culminates with the PM preparing a business case, product strategy and/or business requirements document (BRD) detailing how to capitalize on the uncovered opportunities.

  2. Product Definition and Design:

    a) Product Definition refers to the activities of specifying what a product needs to do. This is usually done via what is referred to as Market Requirements Document (MRD) or Product Requirements Document (PRD). This document may include information such as product vision, target market, competitive summary, detailed description of product features, prioritization of features, use cases, system requirements, performance requirements, sales and support requirements, etc.

    b) Product Design refers to the activities of specifying the look and feel of the product including the user interface (UI) and the user interaction with the product – covering the whole spectrum of user experience. In larger companies the PM works with UI designers or interaction designers to create this, while in startups the PM may do all of these.

    I consider this to be the most valuable among a PM’s activities – so much so that I actually think product manager jobs which don’t include this responsibility are really not product manager jobs at all!

  3. Project Management:

    This refers to the activities of leading cross-functional teams including engineering, QA, UI design, marketing, sales and support to develop and launch the product on-time and on-budget. This may include securing resources, creating project timelines, tracking progress against timeline, identifying critical paths, getting additional resources when needed, and communicating status to the executive team.

    In larger companies, Project Managers actually perform most of these activities with the support of PM’s. In very small startups, the PM may be asked to do these by herself. In some companies, the Engineering Lead may do most of these activities as well.

  4. Evangelizing the Product:

    This includes the activities of communicating the product benefits, features and target markets, and in general championing the product to internal teams such as sales, marketing, support and executives. This also includes evangelizing the product to external audience such as press, analysts and customers.

    In larger companies, the PM is supported by the Product Marketing, Marketing Communications (MarCom) and/or Press Relations (PR) teams in evangelizing to external audience.

    I consider this to be the second most valuable among a PM’s activities – especially evangelizing to the sales & marketing teams, and the executives to create excitement around the product.

  5. Product Marketing:

    This refers to the activities of outbound messaging – telling the world about the product. This includes creating collateral such as datasheets, brochures, website, flash presentations, press packages, trade shows and more.

    In larger companies, the product marketing activities are almost always separated from the PM. They’re instead performed by the Product Marketing Manager. The biggest shortcoming of this arrangement is the resultant inefficiencies in communication and the weakening of outbound messaging.

    In some companies the terms ‘Product Management’ and ‘Product Marketing’ are used synonymously and one person is responsible for all activities. In companies where there are separate ‘Product Management’ and ‘Product Marketing’ groups, the latter group performs all the activities mentioned in this category. They may also perform some of the activities in categories 1, 4 and 6.

  6. Product Life Cycle Management:

    This refers to the activities of managing a product as it goes through its life cycle from ideation to launch to growth to maturity, and eventually to decline.

    This includes tasks such as product positioning, pricing and promotion, product portfolio management, competitive strategy, making build/buy/partner decisions, and identifying and developing partnerships. The PM works with Product Marketing, Business Development and MarCom teams on many of these activities.

There you have it – my attempt at demystifying the role of product management (and the associated role of product marketing). I hope this helps product managers and product marketers as well as those who work with them – including a certain friendly CTO who likes cartoon T-Shirts!

P.S. In case you’re wondering, I decided to pass on Scooby-Doo, Inc. I ran into their CTO at an event recently – they have built a 3 person Product Management team and the company is doing well.