The Product Manager in the Coal Mine

Hidden behind the title of Product Manager is a wide array of different challenges that makes the job vary a lot between companies, and even within the same company. Understanding the archetypal roles, as well as where your own interests and strengths lie, will help you make the most out of the position and choose wisely when looking for your next job.

Product Manager, Product Schmanager

Acting partly as an interface between different more specialized functions is at the core of what makes the Product Management role hard to define clearly, why it varies greatly between companies and why it oftentimes end up being very far from what the job description looked like.

What will determine what your everyday look like is whichever function is relatively the weakest in the company and thus where the greatest needs are. Your job is to fill that need.

If the UX team is relatively junior or lacking resources, you will spend a great deal of time with user research and user testing, ensuring consistent graphical profiles and design patterns are used as well as ensuring wireframes and mockups are prepared to the development team. Depending on company size and organization, you might have to take on a lot of that work yourself.

Similarly if on the other hand the business department can’t clearly communicate their needs or, as in the cases of many new start-ups, is still looking for a good product-market fit. As a Product Manager, you will add the most value being more externally focused, finding business opportunities and transferring the business domain knowledge back into the tech and UX organization that otherwise might be stumbling along blindly.

In the third case, where the tech team you are working with is relatively junior or understaffed, then your focus will need to be more internal. Depending on your technical knowledge, you might do things like propose specifications for customer facing APIs, take part in writing technical documentation and overall provide more lower-level technical acceptance criteria and testing in order to free up time for the developers to focus on building the product.

Of course, no matter the situation, as a Product Manager you are always likely to end up doing parts of these things, but understanding how much the focus of the role can change depending on context can help you make better informed decisions.

Know Thyself

When taking stock of your own strengths and interests, it’s likely that you find that one or two of the above mentioned profiles align better with you. Knowing yourself will help you greatly when looking for your next job.

If you can find out during the interviews which archetype most closely align with the everyday challenges you will face, you can avoid ending up in a position that on paper looks great but in practice is a bad fit.

In some companies, there is an awareness of this and you see things like separating between having the title Product Managers refer to a more business focused role and Product Owners as a separate role for more technical and/or UX focused roles working closely with the agile development teams usually filling the role of a Scrum Product Owner. Alternatively you might see the title Technical Product Manager flash by which clearly suggests a need for technical knowledge, usually due to the technical nature of the product in question.

Oftentimes though, all these nuances are glossed over and the blanket term Product Manager is used. There should thus be no surprise that the same person can both end up excelling and struggling in the role, depending on context.

I have seen this first hand where a former colleague struggled a lot with a development team that needed a Product Manager with more technical knowledge, creating a lot of frustration on both sides. Once her role was adjusted a bit so that she instead could focus more externally on the business side, she excelled. Within a few years, her strategic market understanding and drive made her the obvious pick for Head of Product.

A Final Word of Caution

Being in the intersection between business, tech and user experience means that you will be caught in the crossfire when there are organizational problems.

The Product Manager is in many regards the canary in the coal mine of modern companies.

If your company is seeing a high turnover of Product Managers or Product Managers that seem to be under performing, odds are that this is a symptom of bigger underlying organizational issues. Additionally, the company might be exasperating the problem by hiring the wrong profiles.

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