Product management is one of the more under-appreciated areas of business. Most of the time, the ‘better’ a product has been designed, the less you think about how it came to be. A perfectly designed product integrates with the user’s needs so effortlessly that the user may never consider the thought and complexity that goes into ensuring a product can be used intuitively. But all our favorite products—and our least favorite products—go through a life cycle that turns the product from a mere idea to something the user actually uses. And product management is the overarching process by which that happens.
Many companies and products live or die on the success of their product management. It’s very difficult to succeed with an inferior product. So, whether you’re thinking of starting a company or getting into the product management field, we’ve created this guide to help you understand what exactly product management is and how to do it successfully.
Table of Contents:
- What Is Product Management?
- Phases of Product Life Cycle Management
- What Does a Product Manager Do?
- Product Manager Skills
- Product Management Certification
- Product Management Process
- How to Become a Product Manager
- Product Management Interview
- Product Management Tools
What Is Product Management?
First, let’s start with the basic question: what is product management? It will be helpful to establish a clear product management definition to learn more about what makes for a superior product management process, and therefore a superior product.
For now, we can say that product management is the strategic process by which a business directs each stage of a product’s life cycle, from the initial idea through to the end user’s experience of the product. Successful product management exists at the intersection between the business’s objectives and the user’s needs & desires. It covers elements of design, pricing, marketing, and operations.
Phases of Product Life Cycle Management
Every product can be understood in terms of an overarching life cycle. This life cycle includes everything from initial inspiration to development, testing, and positioning in the market. Product management encompasses all the processes by which a company strategically oversees that life cycle.
The first phase of product life cycle management can be defined as “product discovery.” In reality, continuous discovery informs every stage of product management. Consider all the stages of the life cycle of a product and the various ways “discovery” can help or guide those stages.
A company may discover an existing market, an unmet need among its or other companies’ users, or else an entirely new idea or innovation. Thus, discovery informs the initial inception of the idea. Then as the company starts to plan, research, and test the new product, discovery continues to inform each of those phases. Planning and research will yield new insights about what’s possible for the product, as well as what users need or might benefit from. And as the company starts to test early prototypes of the product, discovery will continue yielding insights as to how to improve that product before its wider release.
And even after a product is released, good product management will continue to discover things about how users are interacting with that product, as well as how the broader market responds. This discovery will continue feeding information back into the original product, potentially leading to its adaptation, or even to the next new product.
Product planning is another part of the product management life cycle. In its most basic sense, product planning describes the creation and oversight of the strategic plan the company/team has for the product. This includes what product they want to build and how they want to build it. It includes how they’ll price and go to market with it. It also includes the short- and long-term goals they want to fulfill, plus the timeline and subset of processes by which they hope to meet those goals.
Product planning goes beyond the development of the product itself. Product planning also involves the company’s plan for bringing that product to users, which includes how to position and market the product.
Product development is a similarly multifaceted process that includes all the sub-processes that refine an idea into what consumers buy and use. Product development begins with assessing a market need, understood in conjunction with the company’s goals and resources. From there, product development involves conceptualizing the product and guiding the team of engineers toward designing the product.
Within that last step, of course, there are many stages to product development, which include testing prototypes and reassessing objectives based on that information, as well as changing conditions in the company or broader market.
Every product undergoes several changes and different iterations in its journey from concept to commodity. Product development is the process by which companies manage those changes as they move from prototype to the finished product that shows up in the marketplace.
What Does a Product Manager Do?
Okay, so now you have a handle on the broad strokes of what product management is. If you’re still reading, that means you’re probably interested in learning more about the actual roles and responsibilities of the product manager. You may be looking to explore the product manager career path for yourself so you can learn how to become a product manager, or you may want to better understand the role so you can build a team around you. In any case, let’s try to take a closer look at the question of what a product manager does.
How Is a Product Manager Different from Other Roles?
After providing the product management definition above, it might seem self-explanatory that a product manager oversees the processes of product management. However, that leaves a lot of apparent ambiguity as there are other, similar roles that exist in company org charts.
Product manager is typically one of the most cross functional roles in a business. This often makes it a highly sought-after role because it enables you to learn so much about how a business operates. Therefore, along with being a management consultant, a product manager is a top post-MBA role for graduates from brand name programs.
In order to better answer the question, “What does a product manager do?”, let’s take a look at what distinguishes the product manager from adjacent positions.
Product Owner vs Product Manager
First let’s consider the product owner vs. the product manager. In fact, these are perhaps the most closely aligned roles, and in many organizations, they may be the same role.
The product manager role is essentially strategic. The product manager focuses on the company’s evolving vision for the product, as well as other company objectives and market conditions.
The product owner, on the other hand, may serve a more of a tactical function. The product owner can serve as an intermediary between the broader strategic goals overseen by the product manager and the team/s charged with executing those goals. The product owner essentially translates the team mission from grand strategy into more granular, actionable objectives for the team to execute. The product owner may interact more with the manufacturing and operations teams, for example.
Note that the product owner role is a more specialized term that originates in the Scrum agile methodology for product management. And again, both these roles can be played by the same person. You may be employed as the product manager, but within an agile team, you may need to serve the function of the product owner also.
Product Manager vs. Project Manager
Now let’s consider the distinctions between product manager vs. project manager. There’s a similarity between the project manager role and the product owner role in that the project manager’s function—compared to the product manager—is more tactical than strategic. The product manager is always cross-referencing the needs of the various stakeholders, including the company and its customers. The project manager oversees the initiatives and organizes the resources to make the company’s goals for the product into a reality. The product manager takes more of a bird’s eye view while the project manager oversees what happens on the ground.
Product Manager Skills
Now that you understand a bit more about what the product manager role is, let’s take a look at some of the main product manager skills necessary to succeed in the position.
Critical Thinking and Analysis
First and foremost, a successful product manager needs excellent critical thinking and analytical skills. Product managers are constantly consuming large, complex, and evolving sets of information. Developing a successful product requires synthesizing all this information into a coherent strategy for moving forward. Product managers must navigate conditions and objectives within their own company, as well as those affecting users and other stakeholders. They must be strategic, they have to carefully assess risk, and they have to keep an eye on the more tactical dimension of what’s possible and how it can be achieved.
If there’s one thing you can be sure about as a product manager, it’s that nothing goes according to plan. Every system has its contradictions and vulnerabilities. Plus, no product development happens in a vacuum. Conditions within companies and markets are constantly changing, and product managers need to know when and where to reassess strategy in order to serve the larger objectives. If developing a product were as straightforward as just imagining it and building, far fewer companies would fail.
Product managers are often tasked with assessing a product’s financial performance and making recommendations around how to price or market the product more effectively. This typically requires a high degree of comfort with data and the ability to design and execute complete analyses of data.
The product manager’s role is above all a strategic one. This means the product manager is responsible for overseeing the moves a larger group of people must make to meet shared objectives. Everyone within the team will have their own responsibilities and incentives, so a product manager needs to display effective leadership to keep everyone rowing in the same direction.
As mentioned above, the product manager works at the intersection of many different concerns, including all the different team members, other employees, executives, and stakeholders within the company as well as the broader ecosystem. In addition to the analytical and strategic functions a product manager must serve, the product manager also needs to serve as translator between all the different people and entities.
Product Management Certification
So now that you understand the necessary product manager skills, does that mean you’re qualified to be a product manager? Or is there some formal product management certification required?
There is no single academic certification equivalent to, say, an MBA for aspiring product managers. However, there is an increasing number of companies offering formal product management education and product management certification.
Individual companies looking to hire a product manager may or may not require some formal certification in order to apply. But even if they don’t, you may want to consider enrolling in a reputable program that confers product management certification, as these programs can help you develop the skills, confidence, and knowledge of established product management frameworks necessary to get hired and succeed.
Product Management Process
We’ve already gone through a general overview of the product manager function. Now let’s take a closer look at the different phases of the product management process. For those of you familiar with management consulting, notice how the process looks similar to a problem-solving approach you would employ in a case interview or on the job.
The first step in just about any product management framework will involve defining the problem. A successful product doesn’t just emerge out of nowhere. A successful product always arises to address a problem or a need unmet by the current marketplace. These problems are opportunities for innovative companies to succeed. To do so, they must do the work of clearly defining the problem their product will resolve.
After defining the problem, the product management process requires defining the market. Who will buy and use this product? What is the size of this market? What competition exists? What market forces will serve as headwinds or tailwinds to the development, release, and adoption of your product?
People and companies are always trying to solve problems in ever more efficient ways. So, before you actually start investing engineering resources into developing a new product, you need to research other ways users and companies have tried to solve your problem in the past. There may be a clear precedent for solving your problem that simply needs improvement in how it’s manufactured, marketed, or released. Or it may be that no sufficient solution exists, in which case more innovation will be required. But even this innovation will be informed by the in-depth research into other solutions.
In the product management framework, MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product. This is a somewhat theoretical construct a company establishes for what minimum criteria must be met for the product to succeed in solving the defined problem. The MVP doesn’t tell you what your finished product will look like. It simply tells you all the qualities, at a minimum, your product must offer its user. This is the baseline from which a successful product manager aims toward a truly superior product. A product may offer many flashy features at a compelling price, but if a single necessary component of the MVP is missing, the product will fail to get off the ground because it won’t address the problem.
Gather Actionable Data
Any daydreamer with a pencil and a sketchbook can think up a fantastic hypothetical product. The real crux of successful product development involves figuring out what elements of the vision can be turned into reality and how that execution takes place. This involves thinking about a company’s current resources, its position in the market, as well as the exterior resources and other factors that will shape the company’s ability to develop the product and bring it to users.
Only now, in the sixth of eight steps, does the product management process start to really establish an overarching strategy. This phase will take all the insights yielded from the previous phases of the process into account as the product manager develops a strategy for the product. What are the company’s objectives for this product specifically, and what are the company’s larger objectives? What resources does a company possess to help achieve these objectives, and which obstacles can be anticipated in advance? What segments of the market will be targeted, how will they be accessed, and how will the product be priced? How will we approach manufacturing the product?
Once the strategy has been defined, the product manager begins to oversee its execution. The strategy itself will encompass a large variety of roles and individuals, and the product manager needs to make sure all those people are working in harmony toward the successful execution of the stated goals. This means maintaining oversight of the product development process as it unfolds, responding to obstacles as they arise, and if necessary changing course to better define and execute the team’s objectives.
Iterate Based on Data
Again, many strategies look great on paper, but none of them get executed in a vacuum. Few things go exactly according to plan, and even if they did, no plan is perfect. Successful product management relies on continuous oversight and adaptation to see what’s working and what isn’t, where the team is or isn’t meeting its objectives, and what fluctuating conditions compel changes in the objectives themselves. Product managers must assess the performance of their team at speed and cross-reference that assessment with the volatilities of the marketplace. It’s a little like trying to land a plane on a floating runway—you need to continually check not only how the plane is flying, but how the runway itself is changing.
How to Become a Product Manager
Does all the above sound like the job for you? Let’s look at how to become a product manager.
First, of course, you’ll need to acquire the necessary education. We briefly mentioned product management certifications above. In general, a business undergraduate or MBA degree is a very helpful and a common path for aspiring product managers.
You’ll also want to drill down a bit more on what industries and types of companies you think you’d like to work in, as each will have its own specialized requirements for the product manager position. Gaining experience and expertise specific to the industry you’re targeting will help prepare you for the job and will make you even more compelling to potential employers.
For instance, many people are currently attracted to the position of tech product manager, with tech being such a lucrative, impactful, and high-profile sector. But the product manager at Google does not have all the same responsibilities as the product manager at Microsoft, even though both companies create software. The difference is even more apparent when you compare the Google product manager to the Netflix product manager. Of course, there are commonalities, but the products Google develops are obviously different from the products Netflix develops. If you compare tech to manufacturing, the difference becomes quite large indeed.
If you’re really interested in the product manager career path, you may want to explore positions as a product manager intern. A product management internship can be excellent preparation for serving as a product manager yourself. Be sure to investigate product manager internships available within the industries that interest you, as this can help launch you to your dream job.
And remember that you can always use more education. To maximize your chances of getting your dream product manager job, look into the growing ecosystem of product management books and product manager interview prep. These will deepen your knowledge of the job and help ensure your success on the job hunt.
Product Management Interview
Assuming you’ve sufficiently built up your resume, the next hurdle you’ll have to clear is the product management interview. Some positions, like investment banker for instance, are so clearly defined that the interview process tends to be highly similar between firms.
This isn’t so for the product management position. Product management interview questions differ from firm to firm, mostly because the role encompasses so many different skills and functions slightly differently within each company.
Still, there are some generalizations we can make about the product manager interview questions you’re likely to encounter. You are sure to encounter a mixture of more personal questions regarding your personal history and experience, as well as more technical questions related to the work you’d be doing with that specific company.
Some product manager interviews do involve formal case questions. But most of the time, these case questions are not so in-depth or complex as those that make up the traditional consulting interview, for instance. You’re more likely to have several shorter questions, each offering a few bits of information about a real or hypothetical situation, which you will have to analyze.
Product Manager Interview Questions
First, as with any interview, you’re likely to get some number of personal questions. These may ask you to explain your resume, or to tell your personal story. These questions help the employer develop a deeper sense of your personality, your personal history, and everything else you specifically will be bringing to the position.
The next category of interview questions for product managers includes fit questions. These build on personal questions to help an employer get a better sense of how you’ll function within a larger team and organization. This is the part of the interview where you’ll be asked more in-depth questions about your experience working on teams in the past, including moments where you’ve succeeded, failed, and been tasked with leadership.
Your production manager interview questions are also certain to include what might be called competence questions. These are designed to test those very skills we mention above that every successful product manager must possess. You may be offered hypothetical problems or scenarios to analyze and provide a solution. You may also be asked more general or theoretical questions designed to assess how you’d fulfill the various functions of the product manager. For instance, you might be asked what criteria you use for prioritizing between different needs and objectives. Or you might be asked what your strategy is for determining what customers want. You may even be asked to provide analysis of some existing product or company.
Finally, your interview is likely to contain technical questions. These will test your knowledge of business, economics, and finance more generally. They are also likely to assess your knowledge of the specific industry or company you’re interviewing for. You may not need to have in-depth expertise of every granular concern your engineers will face, but the more relevant working knowledge you possess, the better your chance of getting hired. So, make sure you revisit the fundamentals of your business education before your interview, and do whatever you can to deepen your knowledge specific to each company and industry.
Product Management Tools
With companies investing so much money and putting so much at stake to develop new products, there is a very healthy ecosystem of product management tools available. These tools help product managers synthesize vast quantities of information to make better decisions. The different product management tools available serve a wide variety of different functions.
Pendo and Amplitude are two digital tools that help track and analyze user behavior. This provides significantly more data than simple customer surveys. By better understanding user behavior, product managers can develop superior products.
ProductPlan and Roadmunk offer roadmapping software that helps product managers create, adjust, and oversee their product roadmap. The product manager’s job involves overseeing so many different processes, and roadmapping software helps keep everything cohesive and digestible.
Slack, Confluence, Zoom, and other messaging and communications tools are essential for keeping teams in communication and on the same page. They may seem elementary because of their widespread use, but they can be essential part of the product management position.
monday.com is an extremely valuable tool for helping keep track of shared and individual objectives. This software gives you the ability to visualize everyone’s responsibilities, including both one-off projects as well as regular or iterative tasks. Product management platforms like this help keep the whole team organized.
Product management is, in many ways, the essence of business. Every business’s core work is, in some way, to develop products and to connect those products with users. This is such an elementary principle that many smaller businesses may not realize the true value of clearly delineating the product management process.
But as markets grow larger, more complex, and more competitive, businesses must invest more resources with more intelligence in order to successfully develop and deliver products. Hence, the role of the product manager has become integral. Whether you’re hoping to one day become a product manager, or you’re simply looking to improve the product management procedures for your business, understanding the principles of product management will only increase your likelihood of success.