The Art of Product Management

I have held the position of Product Manager at several different companies and I have to say that having the same title did not mean I was doing the same thing at each of those companies.  There is a fine line between Product Management, Product Marketing and sometimes Project Management and at many companies, the titles are sometimes interchageable and the roles are often blurred.

I first became a PM at a fairly small but fast growing company – Telco Systems.  If I remember correctly, we grew from $7 million to $70 million in sales in just 3 years. It was a crazy place for a while.  I was young – just 27 years old and I had a lot to learn.  I was fortunate to learn about what it really meant to be a PM from a great boss (thanks, Art!).  This company had a fairly traditional take on PM and I was able to see how PM is supposed to work.  I have sinced worked for companies that had less traditional roles for their PMs and have experienced the struggle of making things happen when a company does not understand the PM role. 

When you first enter the role of a PM, I think the most striking thing is the amount of resposibility and objectives heaped upon you – without having any direct reports to help you get these things done.  It does not mean that people don’t do work for you.  It means you have to get them to do work for you while they are doing work for their real boss and possibly on other projects.  It means that you have to meet deadlines, hit targets and make things happen around you without the benefit of being able to give other employees their reviews, salary increases and promotions.

Here is where the ‘art’ comes in.  I firmly believe that Product Management is not for everyone.  It is a multi-faceted, interdisciplinary, high stress, multi-tasking job.  The entire product life cycle, from product development through introduction through end of life planning is managed by the PM.  That means you need to work with people from every department within the organization at some point.  You work with customers and get to know what they want and what your competitors have.  You have to define all the pieces of the puzzle, communicate it to the appropriate individuals, get Engineering to comply with their portion, get testing done when needed, get someone to source and cost what you will need, develop marketing plans and actual collateral materials (or get someone to do that for you too), have Quality come up with their requirements for verification or inspection, get manufacturing ready to make it (or determine to outsource it), educate the Sales people so that they can sell it, train customer service so they can support it . . .  Oh yeah, don’t forget to set pricing and make sure that margin targets are going to be met.   Along the way, you will be called upon to make critical decisions when things go wrong, when trade-offs between features and costs or time to market need to be made, to shorten the time to market due to competitive pressures . . .  Aaaahhhh – the stress,  I mean, art of it all!!

So, for anyone out there who is thinking about moving into Product Management – are you ready for a wild and crazy ride?  It is a fantastic job in my opinion – but it takes a strong personality and a tenacious spirit.  It also helps to have some experience in other functional departments.  Having been in Engineering or Software development, Manufacturing or Marketing is a big help for understanding the roles of those individuals and knowing what can and cannot be done within those functions.  Some of the best PMs I know have a good background in one or 2 other disciplines and can understand the tasks involved for the majority of the team.

When all is said and done, I would say that the most important things a PM can do to be successful is to earn the respect of others in the organization by: 1. taking the time to learn about each team member – what they do and what they know; 2. prove early on that you can contribute and not just delegate; 3. get to know your customers well – they are what makes everything else possible; 4. make decisions – ask questions, evaluate information and make the hard decisions and 5. Take responsibility – you are the PM and the buck stops there.  If people respect you, they will do good work for you.  Remember, that is what Product Management is – getting people who don’t report to you to do work directed by you – quite an art!

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