The Who, What, and Why of Product Management (from a Startup Founder’s Perspective)

I’ve been in “product management” for a long time, as long as I can remember and certainly since I first starting building my own small apps and digital products in the early 2000’s.

But that terminology wasn’t codified in my own head at the time and the culture around product management has rapidly changed, progressed and matured, especially in the last few years.

In fact, it has grown to the point where there’s an entire industry around it, specifically, and its significance within the business building has become much more elevated; it is even seen as a stepping stone for a future startup founder and CEO.

I find that last point quite fascinating especially because my pathway to becoming a startup CEO myself never had anything so clearly and programmatically defined (but this post isn’t about how I feel about this and honestly it doesn’t really matter).

For the record I’ve never actually held the title of Product Manager officially in any previous role over the last 20 years as a professional. But I know all of the ins and outs and individual parts that make up the role because I’ve played them distinctly while building my own companies and successful indie projects (sometimes they even do this too). Heck, I’ve even hired a bunch of them for my companies.

A while back I started cobbling together an assortment of thoughts and scribbled ideas and concepts that might look like “best practices” when put together (although I don’t claim them to be).

These were found in my moleskine notebooks or in emails that I’ve sent my team or documentation that I’ve personally created for projects that I was putting together.

But what really caught my attention was the number of questions I started getting from folks that I coach and mentor, especially from those who were considering a move into software and technology as a career more formally.

Simply-put, I started getting asked this question more and more often:

John, do you think I should look into Product Management as my next career move?

So I started codifying my own thoughts so I can best answer these folks and, if anything, what I’ve put down here are just some cleaned-up versions of the answers that I’d give. I hope that you might find some of this overview useful (and if you want to have a greater chat about it and my own experience then you can, of course, ping me anytime).

I’m no expert when it comes to product management as it is professionally understood and performed today but I do know a thing or two of how to evolve and move an idea into a working production-ready product and into the hands of customers and users.

And that’s what product management is all about and why product managers exist in the first place: They exist to ensure that ideas become products that customers use (and love).

PM is a lot of work. Fun, but, a lot of work.

The What and Why of Product Management

I have counseled many folks on whether product management is a good next step for someone’s career and 9 out of 10 times I believe that it is a useful and beneficial role for someone’s career.

But that doesn’t mean that one has to have that on one’s resume and you certainly do not have to hold the official title of PM to gain the insights, experience, and technical / soft skills that a PM would necessarily grow.

The benefits of being a PM are obvious and clear: You get the chance to experience (almost) the full lifecycle of a product. I say “almost” because in many cases the PM doesn’t create the initial concept and may not be present for the birth of the core idea.

This isn’t bad but it does create a natural dysfunction in the system of learning the true and complete lifecycle that can only be gained through starting your own thing or founding a company.

This is why I often suggest that those who feel inclined to start their own company that they should just go ahead and do that and they’ll learn all they need in terms of product management (and then some).

But what you gain in breadth of knowledge and experience you can miss out on the deep specifics and hands-on skill-building that may also be of interest. This isn’t always the case but it is often the case.

This isn’t nearly an official definition but the way that I see a PM is as follows: A PM is a coordinator of people, teams, systems, and philosophies. In some instances they provide leadership in specific areas while in other contexts they are a positively political figure who negotiates varied interests with the hopes of delivering a product to market but who may not “own” the product outright.

Every organization will have a different cultural and organizational understanding of what a PM does and does not do so definition is truly canonical nor official.

But, of course, folks have tried. For instance, I’ve seen this diagram come up time and time again which is grossly (but very useful!) oversimplified:

PM: UX, TECH, BUSINESS via Mind the Product

I’ve also seen this as well which is complex but attempts to frame most off the possible responsibilities and potential domains of coverage:

PM: Even more detail! Read more via Product Logic.

Although this is useful it’s usefulness is limited and it can be even a bit scary as it some may interpret this as a call for knowledge and wisdom in all of these areas.

Obviously, no single person on the planet has expertise in every one of those fields and they honestly don’t have to. Again, that’s really not the role of a PM anyway and an intelligent PM is always a utility player, adjusting their role as the product, team, and business needs (constantly) shift.

Oh, so what makes a really great product manager? Glad you asked…

You may spend a lot of time like this. Literally.

What Makes a Great PM?

A good product manager is one who cares about delivering a product to customers in a timely and cost-efficient manner.

A great product manager is one who deeply cares about her own team and stakeholders, the needs that they have as individual contributors and professionals, and they give a really big shit about why the product exists in the first place.

A good product manager is one that can effectively coordinate a variety of timetables and dependencies and is able and work at a high-level as well as get in the weeds when necessary. They say “yes” to a lot of things.

great product manager may be able to work at the macro and micro level (because of a previous deep-level skillset or specialization) but has enough empathy, composure, and respect for the teams and individuals they work with to get out of the way. They say “no” more often than “yes”.

Finally, based on my experience, I’ve seen three common themes and personality traits that make truly exceptional product managers:

  1. They are insanely curious about the product and the universe around the product. Tactically this means that they are devouring competitor’s resources and white papers, reading industry news that is directly and adjacently-related, and have an untamed appetite to learn.
  2. They are people-centric in their thinking and behavior. Again, they may actually have a previous career as a specialist (like a designer or engineer, or even business developer / operator) and that may give them credence and cultural kudos but it’s their empathy that wins the respect of their peers even when (not if) they are not always liked.
  3. They are masters (or on their way to become masters) of communication. Although this is obvious it’s worth being stated explicitly: A great communicator is both one that can speak outwardly to individuals and a team but is equally great at shutting up and listening with intent to learn and understand. It’s this latter part that separates the wheat from the chaff.

Consequently,  a quality PM isn’t one that necessarily has a deep bench of experience but one that certainly exhibits these characteristics: Curiosity, exemplary relational skills, and a growing and respected communicator.

I’d be remiss to not specifically expand on the last part a bit more… you see, a great PM is one who listens, constantly, to not only the needs of the team but to the product itself.

For instance, if the product is beautiful but no one is buying it then their time and attention needs to now be directed more to understanding why the “business” side of the house is failing so badly.

If the product is selling but the time between updates and releases is far too slow in terms of being able to respond adequately to critical feedback (and bugs / issues!) from customers then a PM’s focus must necessarily adjust towards technology because a new hypothesis is now forming around engineering gridlock.

This means that they probably are both strategic and analytical. They can handle a spreadsheet and don’t mind working the numbers but they can also stand before a blank whiteboard and aren’t overcome with fear and anxiety. Again, expertise in either one isn’t required but the ability to execute despite expertise is important.

Finally, deploying their curiosity, love of people, and through their communication skills an adept PM has their own internal compass that allows them to navigate the complexities and never-ending levels of ambiguity that the role entails.

This means they have a level of self-confidence and poise that allows them to operate independently and autonomously but has the humility to know that their inter-dependence is what gives them purpose and meaning – without their team they don’t have a seat on the bus.

They’ve not merely adopted the perspective of senior management and/or the founders but they’ve made it their own and added their own unique perspective to not just the product and how it is built but also massages the “why” around its very existence (and they have the courage to tell the team that it might be time to go build something else).

It’s all about the team (PM included).

What Does a “Day in the Life Of” Look Like?

Great question and it’s one that’s easy and hard to answer because in many instances it just looks like barely-managed controlled chaos.

One of the reasons that many folks (rightly) believe that a role as a PM is a very decent and strategic career stepping stone for a future founder and/or startup CEO is because the role is training the person (and building scar tissue) around their ability to become a true firefighter in all the ways imaginable.

They are talking with their team(s) all the time, the individuals within those teams, and senior leadership on a daily basis. They also find time to talk to customers (both existing and potential) consistently as well as any PM worth their salt knows the true, felt needs of the front line buyer. This cannot be overstated.

They also find the time (within the same day!) to isolate themselves to the administrative tasks of actual management of product through a variety of tools and systems, some of which are software-bound and others which are more cultural and ephemeral in nature.

The former could be as simple as a codified system through email or Google Docs or Trello board or as complex and as labyrinthine as JIRA or even as old school as Lotus Notes. The latter could be related to some sort of agile software development practice, an iteration of scrum, and the daily exercises and routines that may naturally accompany such adherence.

Finally, they may also dedicate part of the day (or specific days in the week) to larger strategy conversations, analytical research that allows them to maintain relevance in marketing nuance and understanding.

There is certainly a fine balance between working in the workflow of PM and working on the workflow of PM, if that makes sense. A PM deftly executes against the agreed upon soft and hard systems as well as optimizes the systems for better clarity and future execution.

They are never completely satisfied with how well things are being done but at peace with the knowledge that certain constraints are outside of their control and they are able to get the job done regardless.

Personal and professional growth is the goal.

What Does Success Look Like for a PM?

Ah, another great question and one that is related to but chiefly different than what makes a quality and great PM.

Success for a PM constitutes two particular outcomes that are related and can be mutually inclusive but not necessarily guaranteed.

For starters, success for PM is when they find themselves to be a respected contributor to the delivery of a product to market. They understand the team and the team (and individuals) know that they can trust the PM (hopefully this is in the greater context of global organizational trust).

Success is not directly related to mastery of certain tools or workflow philosophies or manifestos related to scrum and agility, although these things can be a consequence.

Secondly, a PM knows they are succeeding when production is sound (and improving) and their appreciation and understanding of the greater organization and business is also growing.

They are growing as a person and as a professional and because they are curious individuals this excites and illumines even greater possibilities within the existing organization or without.

Consequently, the end-game success plan and roadmap for a PM is that they do not stay as a PM forever. Optimally, they move upward within the organization being given greater clearance and responsibilities or they move laterally into an self-directed team to engage and grow in a specific desired skillset.

They may also begin to look outwardly at other larger business roles in other companies and, if I’m reading the current cultural trend and guidance from other blog posts and experienced professionals accurately, they may even consider founding or starting their own company with their newly minted and tested, and worn faculties.

Success, most simply understood, does not take on a static form but a fluid one. PMs are goal oriented but most likely have vision far beyond that of the current product line and delivery deadlines.

They want to grow as operators and influencers who can leverage their experiences of building empathy and leadership for even greater purposes.

It’s also worth noting that success for an organization as it relates to their PMs is one where they are motivated to invest deeply into them without reservation, not so that they might necessarily retain them infinitely (although they might try) but so that their products might evolve and be delivered with even greater performance and results.

You see, this is an opportunity to learn about the person charged with product management and building bigger roles for a growing professional. It’s an opportunity to trust them with bigger things which may include the need to let them go someplace else after a time.

Again, hopefully this is helpful and this will be a post that I may continue to come back to so that I can edit and update it with more thoughts and perspectives.

If you want another perspective then here’s a very decent one (with slides!) as well.

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