The product management guide

Aha! helps product managers get their mojo back

Introduction to Product Management

Product management is an important organizational role. Product managers are typically found at companies that are building products or technology for customer or internal use. This role evolved from the brand manager position that is often found at consumer packed goods companies (see History below).

The product manager is often considered the CEO of their product and is responsible for the strategy, roadmap, and feature definition for that product or product line. The position may also include marketing, forecasting, and profit and loss (P&L) responsibilities.

The product manager often analyzes market and competitive conditions and lays out a product vision that is differentiated and delivers unique value based on customer demands. The role of product management spans activities from strategic to tactical. At its best, product management provides cross-functional leadership — bridging gaps within the company between different functions, most notably between engineering-oriented teams, sales and marketing, and support.

History

The product management role was originally created as a brand management position. It was initially defined by a New York advertiser during the Great Depression. In 1931, Neil McElroy wrote a memo to Proctor & Gamble. The young ad executive proposed the idea of a "brand man" — an employee to manage a specific product rather than serving a traditional business role.

Product Management Guide

This concept of product ownership is at the core of product management as practiced today. McElroy spoke about product ownership in a marketing context. He wanted "brand men" to "take full responsibility, not simply for criticizing individual pieces of printed word copy, but also for the general printed word plans for his brands."

McElroy's memo struck a nerve. Many firms adopted brand management for the next half century. This practice came to be known as consumer product management. Its principles were adopted as the software market grew during the 1980s.

This was due in large part to brand managers embodying the role of teacher. McElroy followed his work at P&G — where he went on to become President — with positions as President of Harvard and Advisor at Stanford. His work at Stanford led him to meet David Packard and Bill Hewlett.

Brand management knowledge became so coveted that many brand managers were recruited by tech firms for their deep product knowledge and sense of ownership. Intuit Founder Scott Cook was a brand manager at P&G before building one of history's most successful software companies. He applied his skills in a very different context at Intuit. But his end goal — to focus on understanding, delivering, and polishing user experience — remained paramount.

Gaps between engineering and marketing widened in the 1990s. Companies like Microsoft were rapidly expanding — but they faced challenges as they scaled software development. Engineers did not have processes to keep up with customer demand or speak directly with customers about their concerns. Nor did they have time to collaborate with sales and marketing teams responsible for revenue growth. A gap between them needed to be bridged — and product managers became the ones to do it.

"Good product managers take full responsibility and measure themselves in terms of the success of the product."

These words from the classic Ben Horowitz memo epitomize product management and what companies expect from their product leaders today.

Careers

Product management continues to expand as a profession. Demand for qualified product managers is growing at every level. There are a variety of roles and responsibilities depending on experience level. Opportunities range from an Associate Product Manager all the way to CPO. The average base salary in the United States for a product manager is $111,000 annually, and can grow past $1M in total compensation for a Chief Product Officer.

Here is a list of the most common product management titles and a description of the role.

Chief Product Officer

The Chief Product Officer (or CPO) usually reports directly to the CEO and is responsible for all product activities inside of an organization. They typically work on setting the overall product strategy designed to achieve corporate vision and goals set by the CEO and board members. The CPO sometimes plays the role of CMO as well. In this case, he manages the marketing and development of the product.

SVP, Product Management

The Senior Vice President of Product Management (or SVP of Product) is a senior-level product leader inside an organization who usually reports to a C-level executive, EVP, or GM. The SVP leads a large team of product managers. They also work closely with other key leaders in Engineering, Sales, Support, and Marketing to ensure that their company is building the right product to support the business goals.

VP, Product Management

The Vice President of Product Management (or VP of Product) is usually found in larger, more established organizations. They are an executive influencer responsible for large initiatives and building what will create the most value to the business. They work daily to keep cross-functional teams aligned, and usually have a seat at the executive table when discussing strategy and even M&A activities. The VP of Product Management often has influence in the organization well beyond the small size of the organization they manage. Product management groups tend to be much smaller than other functions like engineering, sales, and support.

Director, Product Management

The Director of Product Management usually reports to the VP of Product in a larger organization or to the CEO or business unit leader in a smaller organization. This is a senior management role that requires management experience and the ability to collaborate with executives and other cross-functional leaders. The Director of Product Management should be able to articulate a clear vision for the future of the product, communicate with customers, and work to prioritize and define features that will achieve the most business value for their organization.

Group Product Manager

The Group Product Manager (or GPM) is tasked with the leadership and direction of a product team that is responsible for a specific group of products. It is the most important non-executive role that a product manager can have and often is responsible for managing other product managers. The daily responsibilities of a GPM include research, strategy, and product development. In most cases, strategy is handed down from an executive member of the product team. The GPM is then responsible for implementation and execution.

Product Manager

The Product Manager (or PM) is responsible for the strategy, roadmap, and feature definition of a product or product line. The role involves working with cross-functional teams and may include marketing, forecasting, and profit and loss (P&L) responsibilities. A PM analyzes the market and competitive environment to define a differentiated product vision that delivers unique value. This role spans many types of activities, from strategic to tactical. A Product Manager provides cross-functional leadership and bridges organizational gaps between different functional groups, most often between engineering, marketing, sales, and support.

Associate Product Manager

An Associate Product Manager (or APM) is an entry level position, usually reporting to a Product Manager or Group Product Manager. This is often a mentorship position and the start of a product manager's career. Associate PMs have the opportunity to learn from senior product leadership and form a strong foundation on product management and an understanding of design and development of new products. The responsibilities of an Associate Product Manager include UI designs, defining new ideas and features, analyzing data, and constantly looking for new ways to improve the product.

Product Owner

Some Agile teams have both a Product Manager and a Product Owner. Rather than task a single person with both external and internal responsibilities, the role is split into two parts. The Product Manager is charged with communicating the voice of the customer — and is tasked with achieving customer and market success. Meanwhile, agile development teams demand that the customer representative (aka the Product Owner) must articulate detailed user stories, participate in daily scrum rituals, and answer questions at all times.

Responsibilities

What is Product Management

There are a few core responsibilities common to most product management roles inside both established enterprise companies and at startups. Most often a product manager is responsible for understanding customer requirements, defining and prioritizing them, and working with the engineering team to build them. Setting strategy and defining the roadmap is often considered to be inbound work and bringing the product to market is often considered to be "outbound."

It is important to understand the differences between inbound and outbound product management because a great product manager has the diverse set of skills to do both well. Inbound product management involves gathering customer research, competitive intelligence, and industry trends as well as setting strategy and managing the product roadmap.

Outbound product management involve product marketing responsibilities such as: messaging and branding, customer communication, new product launches, advertising, PR, and events. Depending on the organization these roles can be performed by the same person or two different people or groups that work closely together.

Product Strategy and Definition (Inbound)

  • Strategy and vision
  • Customer interviews
  • Defining features and requirements
  • Building roadmaps
  • Release management
  • Go-to-resource for engineering
  • Sales and support training

Product Marketing and Go-to-Market (Outbound)

  • Competitive differentiation
  • Positioning and messaging
  • Naming and branding
  • Customer communication
  • Product launches
  • Press and analyst relations

Tools

Product managers have mostly been ignored by software vendors. Historically, there were very few purpose-built tools available for them to set strategy, define requirements, plan releases, and create visual roadmaps. This has only recently changed as modern, collaborative, tools have been developed.

Most product managers simply used a combination of spreadsheets, presentation and text documents to communicate their strategy and roadmap. Today, things are different. The emergence of cloud-based applications and SaaS has changed everything. The growth of product management has led to the creation of software used by product teams to set strategy, manage releases, define features, and capture feedback from customers.

Just like other functions in an organization, using the proper tools empowers product teams to collaborate more easily and make better decisions about what they should build next. They empower product managers to work more closely with the cross-functional teams across the company that they depend on to take a product to market.

Tools that were built specifically for product managers allow them to efficiently:

Set a product strategy

Great products start with a clear product strategy. The ability to capture product strategy is what sets many product management tools apart from generic project management software. Without collaborative software to capture high-level strategy, product teams can quickly build themselves to nowhere.

Establish product goals and map them to initiatives

Goals are the quantifiable metrics set by a product manager to ensure they are on track. Purpose-built tools enable product managers to establish goals and map them to high-level initiatives. These become a sign post for the team to measure progress, and make sure the features they are delivering create unique value for the business.

Plan for sprints and releases and manage dependencies

Collaborative software makes managing sprints and releases easy. It takes a cross-functional team to successfully communicate value and support users when teams ship a release. To keep everyone in sync and manage critical dependencies, it's important to track all of the technical and non-technical work in one place.

Crowd-source customer and colleague ideas

Ideas are the lifeblood of any product, and they can come from many places (both internal and external). Tools today allow product teams to crowd-source ideas directly from multiple stakeholders, including customers, sales, and support. The most powerful way to bring this to life is a comprehensive tool that integrates this functionality. It allows product managers to quickly prioritize ideas so they can build what will add the most value to the business.

Define and prioritize features

Requirements management should be an ongoing process throughout the lifecycle of a product. And requirements should be generated by lots of folks, including customers; partners; sales; support; management; engineering; operations; and — of course — product management. Software allows product managers to set priorities, keep features aligned with goals, and provide clearly defined features for the engineering team.

Create and share visual product roadmaps

Product managers likely spend hours each month crafting the perfect roadmap view to communicate what's coming to both internal and external stakeholders. Product roadmap software stores a roadmap in the cloud and continually updates it as features and dates change. It eliminates the need to continually tweak a roadmap for various audiences, and allows product managers to easily customize views for different audiences.

Integrate with other tools that teams use

Integrations allow product managers to collaborate and communicate with cross-functional teams that they depend on for success. Other groups already use third-party tools such as JIRA, Microsoft Visual Studio, Salesforce, and Zendesk. The product team might also use tools such as Slack or HipChat to communicate. It is critical that SaaS solutions for PMs integrate with the tools that the teams already use.

Certifications

Demand for product managers has increased over the past decade. Training programs and educational materials are quickly being offered and developed to support product managers who are looking to master the craft. But today, product management is an apprenticeship — and educational options still reflect that. The role remains one that many professionals often stumble into and learn as they go.

There are some options for those interested in becoming a product manager or improving their existing skills. They include:

Pragmatic Marketing

Pragmatic Marketing has educated more than 100,000 product managers and marketers since 1993. They eschew theory in favor of practice — their instructors have worked at the UN, IBM, Microsoft, and more. Their courses implement "The Pragmatic Marketing Framework" — a blueprint for key activities from product planning through go-to-market launches.

Pragmatic offers six levels of certification in product management and marketing. Registration and FAQs are available here.

General Assembly

General Assembly was founded by Jake Schwartz in 2011. Their courses range from one-night seminars to 10-week immersives. 14 campuses across 4 continents teach students at all career levels the most relevant 21st century skills — including product management.

One of GA's most popular courses is their 10-week product management immersive. Students gain an overview of how to build viable products; create and share effective product roadmaps; and develop metrics to measure their success. The immersive is broken into 6 units. Each unit focuses on a specific aspect of product management ranging from UX design to stakeholder communication. The end goal of this course is for students to measure a product's success and track its lifecycle.

Applications and requests for syllabi can be found here.

280 Group

Formed in 1998, the 280 Group is a Product Management consulting and training company that helps clients do great Product Management using their Optimal Product Process™ Framework. They have trained tens of thousands of Product Managers and helped hundreds of companies optimize their Product Management function. They offer Product Management Training Courses, Consulting and Contractors, Product Management optimization, Certifications, Product Management books and templates.

You can find out more about their Product Management training, consulting and optimization services here.

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