A day in the life of a product manager brings many diverse responsibilities and tasks, which is one of the reasons it’s such an interesting career. This diversity, however, can lead you down unintended paths that divert you from being successful. Actively managing your daily tasks and longer-term goals is not your manager’s responsibility, but your own.
There are many good descriptions of a product manager’s job – I won’t reinvent the wheel here. A product manager’s core responsibility is ensuring a viable overall business, requiring continual engagement with many peer groups, each of whom seeks her guidance and assistance on a daily basis. There’s a blurry boundary between active engagement and doing someone else’s job that changes according to market, product, and organizational maturity.
The product manager must ensure that engineering has a clear vision and plan to build necessary capabilities at the right time. Whether due to market disruption or building a new product, the product manager may become more deeply involved in product design than with a more mature product. She may be called upon to verify that engineering prototypes actually deliver necessary use cases. She may need to specify detailed user experience elements. She may be asked to help make architectural trade-offs with ramifications on delivery timelines, product scalability, and usability.
Purists could argue that the product manager should draw a line at defining use cases and let engineers, user experience designers, and functional architects work it out. Such neat circumstances don’t exist at startups or new product groups. Letting her business fail on job definition grounds would be the height of negligence. The product manager jumps into the void and does what’s needed.
Similar situations arise on the outbound, or customer-facing, sides of a product business. Sales won’t be able to engage customers on their own in the early days of a new or disrupted market. The lack of reference customers, established buying patterns, and stable product means that a sales rhythm is not yet established. The product manager will be called on to evangelize her product’s value, defend competitive attacks, and deliver a product vision and roadmap directly to prospective customers. Rather than say it’s the account manager’s job or a pre-sales engineer should give the demo, the product manager will be out selling.
Fallacy of extremes
I’ve seen product managers get trapped in the fallacy of extremes where they allow one important aspect of their role to overshadow other core responsibilities. Because so many peers ask for product management’s active engagement, plentiful demand and positive feedback reinforce the imbalance. The unfortunate result over time is letting these same people down when product strategy becomes obsolete or is dead on arrival.
Only in retrospect, having moved on to a new role, did I realize that I crossed the line and allowed myself to become too involved in functional architecture. I succumbed to the fallacy that I needed to be involved in all the engineering decisions and conversations that I was asked to participate in. For an engineer-turned-product-manager like myself, it’s easy to slide back into architecture as white-board conversations with developers descend into the critical detail of how features will work. I love designing and building products. Yet, by allowing myself to be drawn into core engineering responsibilities, I unwittingly spent less time on product strategy and it showed. Following the realization of my error, I resolved to be conscious of my broader responsibilities, continually triage my tasks, and avoid extremes over time.
A product manager can’t operate by rigid definitions. There are times when she must step over the line to bridge gaps. It requires awareness that she is temporarily wearing another person’s hat, that she will return the hat as soon as possible, and that she must absolutely find a way to wear the product manager’s hat on a daily basis.
Focus on balance
I’ve advised many product managers to be cognizant of their core responsibilities and avoid my mistake so they can maximize the value they bring to the business and, in doing so, strengthen their career trajectory. While we may enjoy in-the-moment satisfaction wearing another hat, product managers are ultimately rewarded based on their strategic contributions and not for doing someone else’s job.
The irony in this reality is that a product manager benefits from experiencing the successes and challenges of her peers. Spending time with each group yields a valuable 360-degree understanding of her business’ performance, opportunities, and threats. Being in a sales situation quickly clarifies competitive weaknesses and messaging deficiencies. Customer support experiences highlight product gaps that risk customer satisfaction. As with many aspects of life, focus on balance and avoid extremes that make you too busy to do your job.