There are many answers to the question, “What does a project manager do?” Some would describe them as the CEOs of new products, managing the product from the vision stage to market launch. Others describe product managers as customer advocates, ensuring product quality. Yet another perspective is that they lead development teams and collaborate cross-functionally, for example, with R&D and marketing.
All of these answers are correct, which is why product managers are among the highest-compensated, fastest-growing professionals in the world today and the least understood.
This article details a typical product manager role, how to become one, who employs project managers, and what qualifications and skills they need.
Product managers develop solutions to problems. They must also devise ways to understand what users need and prioritize their needs over their “wants” because the latter may not be attainable. Then, once a solution has been identified, a great product manager must ensure it is built, tested, and brought to market.
But that’s not the end of it. For a solution to be successful, the consumer must be educated in how to use a product. So, the product manager is also charged with devising ways to educate the consumer, deciding whether changes need to be made, and pulling a product off the market if it has reached the end of its lifecycle.
Fundamentally, the product manager is a leader. The product manager must drive a vision. However, the product manager must also be involved with the nitty-gritty of product development—writing product specs, recording meeting notes, and testing products.
Crisis management is another major area where product managers play the leading role. The manager is the one who must deal with angry customers who are frustrated with a product.
Product managers must be comfortable collecting and analyzing quantitative data from historical metrics and qualitative data from user research and customer feedback. They must be able to determine market trends from the data and conduct competitive analysis. With this data, the project manager must work with upper management for decision-making and prioritizing directions for product development.
Once the decisions are made, the project manager creates an actionable plan to execute a concept. The product manager must test the product and prepare it for shipping. The testing may involve an iterative process that the product manager must monitor.
Lastly, the product manager should come up with a product roadmap for iterations and innovations.
The role of a product manager varies by company. However, overseeing the project lifecycle and making sure that a product is built to specifications is more universal. Even if a product is built to specifications, if it fails, the product manager is responsible.
Here are some of the specific duties of a product manager:
Act as scrum master in lean and agile organizations.
Interact with customers, provide customer support, and collect feedback.
Prioritize project flows and manage workflow to avoid backlogs.
Engage in product strategy planning for one, two, or five-year timelines based on data analysis and the competitive landscape.
Create wireframes, specs, and user journeys for new features and products, including business goals, user stories, product requirements, and customer context.
Collaborate with the engineering team, product team, marketing team on product decisions and refine the specs until the product is built.
Run data analyses using SQL and Excel.
Document information flow to share with teams, management, and other stakeholders. For example, release notes and dates, user flows, and meeting notes.
Act as the interlocutor between development, market research, marketing, and management teams to make sure each group can achieve its objectives.
Understand the problems with product features and their development by communicating with sales teams, support teams, and customers.
Decide which projects to pursue, prioritizing work and managing budgets.
Prioritize tasks and projects daily based on competitor activity and customer needs.
Stay current on industry trends and attend conferences and events.
Resolve conflicts between product teams and cross-functional teams. In other words, people management.
Oversee product testing based on user experience and functionality.
Produce progress reports on product development—create presentations, videos, blog posts, and content.
Present product demos to management, customers, and media and engage with all of these groups.
Collaborate with product marketing managers, PR, sales, and media to prepare a successful product for launch and a pricing strategy.
Monitor products post-launch to identify any issues and to check on the product’s success or adoption rate.
The visual below, by Linda Gorcheis, author of The Product Manager’s Handbook, gives a thorough overview of what a good product manager does, their responsibilities, and the foundational skills they need. According to Gorcheis, the upstream tasks shown are strategic while the downstream tasks are tactical.
Both small and large firms hire product managers. If you are just starting out, it is a good idea to work for a small company and gain experience before applying to the big guns. In a smaller company, you are more likely to be exposed to the whole product lifecycle rather than assigned to just one part of it, which might happen in a large corporation.
Here are some big tech company names that hire product managers. Amazon, Facebook, Google, HubSpot, PayPal, Slack, and Twitter. Product School offers a more comprehensive list of companies and gives the salaries.
Many people who become product leaders start out as engineers, designers, or in another closely related business role. That’s because a product manager needs cross-functional knowledge To prepare for a career as a business manager, it’s advisable to get experience in these three functional areas. You can do this by taking on different roles in your company, or, ideally, by developing your own product.
By building your own mobile app product, you will know how to create a business model, design, code, and select UI/UX/visual design. You will also understand the project management, marketing, and launch processes.
Some project managers are initially hired as industry experts. As they work with the development team and collaborate with cross-functional team members, they become good candidates for a product management role.
The specific technical skills that a project manager should have will depend on the context. Products differ depending on the customer. For example, the customers of an API product manager are most likely engineers of other firms. Therefore, an API product manager requires a strong technical background.
On the other hand, a consumer product manager who serves millions might need to be adept at scaling. A B2B product manager who only has a few customers might need a deep understanding of relationship management.
In general, a product manager requires both hard, technical skills and soft skills. Examples of hard skills are the ability to code, for example. Examples of soft skills are understanding client relations, leadership, people management, and an understanding of selling and sales.
Most product managers will have a bachelor's degree in information technology or computer science. Some might have an MBA. Additionally, product managers may have additional technology certificates or awards that they have earned.
If this article has piqued your interest and you think you might be interested in becoming a project manager, here are some final tips.
Demonstrating problem-solving skills will go a long way when you are applying for a product manager position. Here’s a guide to structuring a product manager resume.
Develop your strategic thinking skills by listening and questioning.
Hone your collaboration skills. A product manager has a natural ability to bring teams together and get a project done.
Learn how to stand in the customer’s shoes so that you deliver the right products.
Consider taking product management certification courses to enrich and strengthen your resume.
Start a side project and document the failures and successes. This will show your ability to manage a project throughout its lifecycle from concept to launch.
If you are early in your product management career, work at a small business first before applying to more prominent firms to build your knowledge and skills.
A career as a product manager is likely to be long-standing, lucrative, and rewarding. Product managers are in demand and will continue to be until technology stalls and consumers and businesses no longer need solutions to problems. That’s unlikely to happen any time soon!