What’s Product Management? PMs from XO Group and theSkimm Tell All.
Ever-evolving tech and startup roles can be notoriously hard to explain or define.
And Product Manager – which incorporates technology, user experience, and business development – might be the trickiest of all.
At Dom & Tom, a mobile app development company that works with the likes of Bloomberg, Turner, and Tyson, cofounder Tom Tancredi is quite familiar with the evolution of product management.
He works with product managers at the companies he creates products for, and he hires product managers for his own team. In fact, “it’s one of the most sought-after positions we’re looking to fill,” he told us.
But it wasn’t always this way.
“We started as an engineering company – building whatever was designed and spec’d out,” said Tancredi. “…But the businesses would nix the projects because the costs ballooned or a business-known requirement would be overlooked. In the last three years we incorporated strategy and product management to… fold all the stakeholders into the development process.”
Dom & Tom’s shift toward hiring for, and defining, the role of the product managers echoes trends seen in many other companies, from startups to legacy institutions. As digital products become increasingly complicated, often involving more partners and collaborators, effective product managers are becoming essential.
“All products have three major stakeholders: technical (engineering) stakeholders; business stakeholders; customer stakeholders,” Tancredi told us. “The product manager has to sit in the middle of all three to make sure the product fulfills all the requirements.
“A product manager looks at a problem with three-dimensional lenses,” he added. “[He or she] has an overview of the vision of the product, and is aware of the costs, constraints (time, people, resources), and the goals of what needs to be done.”
For more context on what product management looks like we spoke to Dan Storms, senior director of product at XO Group; Dheerja Kaur, head of product at theSkimm, and Jenn Vargas, an independent product consultant who has worked with Classpass, Flickr, and Birchbox, among others.
As a senior director of product at XO Group, part of Dan Storms’ job is “helping couples through life’s most important moments” through websites and products from The Knot, The Nest, and the Bump.
What is product management to you?
The product manager is responsible for knowing why we’re doing things. I call them the keeper of the why. The product manager is looking for and listening for ways the users signal the fundamental needs that they have.
There are a lot of skills you need as a product manager, but the skill that I’ve seen as ultimately resulting in people being successful is empathy. If you don’t have empathy for the user, it’s really hard to build something that they’re going to want to use.
Do product management responsibilities change from company to company?
It does mean slightly different things. The way that I break it down is you can think of three main responsibilities. On the earliest side is what you might call user sciences or user researcher. What that means is understanding the users, interacting with them. Testing concepts.
The second is just general product management which is: you’re able to take those product concepts and the designs and put them together and write user stories, so the engineers have something to code every day. In a lot of companies, that is most of what product managers do–you’re just working nonstop to stay ahead of the engineering team.
The last is a product/project management role where you’ve got an end date and a deliverable, and you need to coordinate with marketing and with other various people.
There’s sort of a maturity curve if you will. In the past, people had used product management and project management synonymously–it was all just PMs. The PM was responsible for project management, and then over time as companies get more sophisticated they layer on what I call product management. Then if you get to that next level, you also layer on user sciences capabilities. It’s asking a lot of product people to do many different jobs, but to me, that’s the right collection of things for a product manager to be responsible for.
What is product management to you?
You are the voice of the user. Your job is to approach every meeting, every conversation, from the user’s standpoint.
What has your career trajectory been?
I started my career in engineering [as a software developer for ESPN’s app and website]. That was at a time when product didn’t really exist for a lot of companies.
As I got more senior, the role that I was playing was actually product. [Eventually, ESPN created formal product roles, and she made the switch from engineering to product.]
What I’ve found in the second half of my career is I enjoy really owning the end to end process. [But] one thing I’ll always miss is physically building code.
Do you need to have an engineering background to be a good product manager?
In product your job is to help build products, so understanding what engineers do is extremely important. That doesn’t mean you need to come from an engineering background, though, in fact, if you don’t, that can bring a very unique perspective
My greatest challenge [as a product manager] is losing my engineering mindset when being creative. [When you’re working on product management] you need to think big and outside the box, but your engineering brain is like, how can we build that?
Jenn Vargas works as an independent product manager through her consultancy, Mostly Brilliant. “I’ve created a role for myself where I can work with fresh startups one day and large corporations the next. And since I work remotely, I do that work from all over the world. My headquarters is wherever my laptop is.” This year Vargas has worked in Cape Town, South Africa; Porto, Portugal; and Dublin, Ireland.
What is product management to you?
Product Management is about distilling market and user needs into features, tools, and experiences that help the business reach–and exceed–its goals.
How have product management responsibilities varied at different companies you’ve worked for?
They’ve changed dramatically as I’ve worked at progressively smaller companies (and as Agile becomes more commonplace). At larger companies, there is a fair bit of specialization. The PM is generally responsible for generating requirements or user stories, setting priorities, and managing stakeholders throughout the product development process. UX experts, project managers, scrum masters, tech leads all take on the responsibilities for their specific areas of product development, and the PM checks in to make sure the end product is on track and to remove any blockers where they may exist.
At smaller companies, however, there is less specialization and a PM might be responsible for wireframing, prototyping, and sometimes even designing the features in addition to handling the tech lead and project management aspects of execution. It’s definitely more of a jack (or jill) of all trades role.
How did you get into the field?
A stroke of fate. I was interning at Flickr the summer before my senior year of college and was invited to join one of the PM weekly meetings. I wasn’t entirely sure what Product Management was, but I went. I suppose someone there recognized that I had potential as a PM because they gave me a small project to own for the rest of the summer. (It was the first Flickr/Facebook integration when Facebook first opened up their Newsfeed.) It was then I realized that there was actually a role that turned all of my natural habits and tendencies into an actual career path.
I’ve been doing product ever since.
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