What is product management?

Product management is vital to delivering innovations and driving business growth. It is an important organizational role that is growing in popularity. For example, 17 percent of MBA students at MIT Sloan School of Management go on to take jobs in product management — making it the third-largest job category for graduates.

Product management is perfect for entrepreneurial individuals. Product managers are often able to operate with autonomy, work across many groups, have a meaningful impact on business growth, and develop life-long career skills.

What is a product manager?

A product manager is responsible for the strategy, roadmap, and feature definition for a product or product line. The position may also include product marketing, forecasting, and profit and loss (P&L) responsibilities. Product managers can be found at companies that are building products and technologies for external customers (consumers, end users, partners, etc.) as well as internal customers (employees). Product managers work closely with sales, support, marketing, and engineering to deliver the best possible customer experience.

Product management spans from strategic objectives to tactical activities, including:

  • Setting a product vision and strategy that is differentiated and delivers unique value based on customer demands. This includes defining personas and analyzing market and competitive conditions.

  • Defining what the product team will deliver and the timeline for implementation. This includes creating a release plan, capturing actionable feedback and ideas, and prioritizing features.

  • Providing cross-functional leadership, most notably between engineering teams, sales and marketing, and support. A key aspect of this is communicating progress against the product roadmap and keeping everyone informed of updates.

History of product management

The role of product management was originally created as a brand management position. It was first defined in the U.S. during the Great Depression. In 1931, advertising manager Neil McElroy wrote a memo to colleagues at Proctor & Gamble (P&G). The young advertising executive proposed the idea of a "brand man" — a role with specific responsibilities to manage the entirety of a product's brand and be accountable for its success.

This concept of product ownership is at the core of product management today. McElroy spoke about product owners within a marketing context. He wanted brand managers 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. Over the next half-century, many companies adopted a brand management approach. This practice came to be known as consumer product management, and many of the same principles were adopted by the software market as it grew during the 1980s. McElroy followed his work at P&G — where he became president — with positions as president at Harvard University and advisor at Stanford University.

Over time, the organizational benefit of the product owner became so coveted that many brand managers were recruited by technology firms. These emerging companies wanted to leverage the deep product knowledge and sense of ownership that the role held. Many brand managers went on to become entrepreneurs and product leaders.

For example, Scott Cook was a brand manager at P&G before founding Intuit in 1983. The roles of brand manager and company founder are quite different. But Cook's background in brand management — focused on understanding, delivering, and polishing user experience — was paramount to Intuit's success.

As technology advanced in the 1990s, gaps between engineering and brand management widened. Companies like Microsoft were rapidly expanding but faced challenges as they scaled software development. Engineers did not have processes to keep up with customers' demands and concerns. They also did not have time to collaborate with the sales and marketing teams responsible for revenue growth. Product managers and product leaders began to bridge the gap between teams.

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

These words from the classic Ben Horowitz and David Weiden memo "Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager" epitomize product management and what companies continue to expect from their product leaders today.

Careers in product management

Product management is a well-paid and rewarding career. There is a variety of product management roles and responsibilities required, depending on experience level. Product management titles range from the entry role of an associate product manager to a senior chief product officer who leads the entire product team.

Product management continues to expand as a profession. Demand for qualified product managers is growing at every level. If you are looking to start a career in product management, you can expect a challenging interview process. Be prepared to speak to your technical knowledge, decision-making skills, curiosity, and motivation. Product managers can prepare for interviews by practicing from a comprehensive list of interview questions.

Product management responsibilities

Product managers have both internal and external product management responsibilities. Internal product management involves gathering customer research, competitive intelligence, and industry trends — as well as setting strategy and managing the product roadmap. External product management includes product marketing responsibilities, such as messaging and branding, customer communication, new product launches, advertising, PR, and events.

Product strategy and roadmap planning (Internal)

  • Strategy and vision

  • Customer interviews

  • Defining features and requirements

  • Building product roadmaps

  • Release management

  • Go-to resource for the development team

  • Sales and support training

Product marketing and go-to-market activities (External)

  • Competitive differentiation

  • Positioning and messaging

  • Naming and branding

  • Customer communication

  • Product launches

  • Press and analyst relations

It is important to note that product managers are responsible for these activities at every stage of the product lifecycle — product development, launch, growth, maturity, and decline.

Product manager skills

Product managers need a wide variety of skills to be successful. The best product managers are curious, thoughtful, and organized. A relentless focus on customer needs helps you fix strategic problems. Each day, product managers work hard to align and drive action. You need a variety of skills to do this successfully, including working with UX designers to build wireframes and mockups so the scope of a feature is clear.

Some of the most important product management skills include:

  • Analytical skills

  • Communication

  • Empathy

  • Financial skills

  • Leadership

  • Presentation skills

  • Project management

  • Research

  • Strategic thinking

  • Technical skills (methodologies, processes, and tools)

Product management tools

Historically, most product managers simply used a combination of spreadsheets, presentations, and text documents to communicate their product strategy and roadmap. These tools are easily available and typically included in any company's suite of applications. But as the discipline evolved, it became clear there was a need for purpose-built product management tools. Now, cloud-based applications and SaaS tools make it possible to set strategy, manage releases, define features, build visual product roadmaps, and capture customer feedback in a single source of truth. These tools can also support teams that want to implement modern methodologies like agile product management.

Certifications for product managers

Demand for product managers has increased over the past decade. The role remains one that many professionals often stumble into and learn as you go. However, training programs and educational materials are quickly being offered and developed to support product managers who are looking to master the craft — including free and paid courses from Aha!

Learn more about the discipline of product management:

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Product management dictionary