Despite how common the product management role has become across numerous industries, there has been a lot of debate and discussion about what a product manager actually does and how to do the job effectively. It doesn’t help that the responsibilities often vary from company to company, and even within a particular team.
There have been many proclamations, such as the fact that product managers wear many hats, can be described as ‘mini-CEOs,’ and their job can be roughly boiled down to making sure this doesn’t happen:
But beyond that, it’s unclear just who exactly product managers are and what it takes to become one (not to mention an effective one).
We at Alpha UX wanted to get to the bottom of all this, so we sourced more than one hundred product managers from startups to Fortune 500 companies across various industries to participate in our online survey. While we recognize there is likely no such thing as a ‘typical’ product manager, we did our best to reverse engineer a common persona. Below are some of our findings.
Breaking into product management
Product managers are a highly educated bunch. Despite technologists having more forward-thinking philosophies about culture and hiring, college remains an industry standard. Over 90% of respondents graduated from college, with over 50% holding a graduate degree.
While product managers major in a variety of areas, the most common by far was business at 35%. Natural Science, Social Science and Liberal Arts majors, the second most common focus area, made up about 32% of our respondents. Engineering, Information Technology, and Computer Science was a close third, with 29% of our respondents majoring in these fields. Math and Legal majors made up less than 5% of our respondents.
A tactician; a strategist
When we asked an open-ended question about our participants’ role, we got responses ranging from design to interacting with customers to organizational management and strategy. Here’s a few examples:
“I am an external-facing product manager. I interact with our customer base as well as own a few products. I also collaborate with marketing and provide content…”
“I lead the product strategy through to development and deployment, working with leaders in business from sales, marketing, operations, and development…”
“I write and prioritize requirements and manage and facilitate the product development lifecycle, from inception to release to review.”
In terms of day-to-day tasks, product managers reported engaging in both strategic and tactical work. While few product managers write code, they often possess technical skills and need to get their hands dirty. Here’s a look at the percentage of product managers that report participating in the following activities on a daily basis:
Ear to the ground
Product management requires understanding users and marketing processes, discovering problems and opportunities, and creating new product ideas. Just over 60% of our respondents spend time talking to customers. To gain user insights and feedback, product managers primarily practice in-person customer development interviews, online survey, focus groups, and in the case of digital products, tracking usage metrics.
Often product managers think they know what their users and potential users want, only to find out that they don’t, sometimes after spending lots precious time and money. To avoid wasting time and money by simply guessing what users want, product managers gain insights throughout the entire product development lifecycle.
Given this common responsibility, it’s clear that having deep knowledge of your market and your users can make you a valuable asset. A strong curiosity and drive to discover insights can also help a product manager become successful.
To aspiring product managers (and also those who are currently in the role and want to know if they’re following best practices), being awesome at the job takes…well, a lot of things. It helps to have a strong academic background, with proficiency in both business strategy and technology. Having market and user knowledge, and/or and empathetic and curious drive can help fulfill your responsibilities for gaining insights. And it’s clear that being able to hand multiples responsibilities and just generally “get stuff done”…whatever that stuff may be, is critically important. Learn more about what it takes to be a product manager by downloading the entire ebook.
Mike is a blogger and content marketer. He does content and SEO at Alpha UX and has been published in Entrepreneur, The Huffington Post, and Business Insider. You can connect with Mike @mfishbein or via his personal blog, mfishbein.com.