Quicknotes: The Product Manager – A Visionary Tech Leader

11 February 2017 By Alastair Cleland

1549 Original

​You’ve seen the tempting ads, right? “Product Manager, Spotify, $120k+”. “Senior Product Manager, Facebook, £90k+”. Could this exciting and lucrative career be for you? We profile tech’s hottest job title, exploring what makes the *mastermind* product manager tick.

First, let’s be clear. What does a product manager actually do?

They manage products. (Obviously!) Specifically, though, we’re talking tech products – apps, websites, software, games. It's such a wide role that in a small digital operation, it's often interchangeable with the CEO/founder title. Larger organisations can have 100’s of PMs, each looking after their portion of the pie: the analytics reports; or blackjack games portfolio; or territory-specific version, for example.

Growth, glory and profit. World-class product managers provide irresistible vision, uniting teams around them and keeping everyone’s eyes on the prize. In the complex, competitive and fast-paced tech world, a PM with this kind of fanatical focus is worth their weight in gold.

Done is better than perfect.

Key tasks include:

Image: ThoughtWorks

WHAT TO WEAR Suits are for squares. PM’s occupy the supremely fashionable niche between ‘glued-to-their-hoody developer’ and ‘super-slick investor’.

How does one become a product manager?

Business instinct and skills are the backbone of any good PM. As such, it’s not uncommon to find high-flying business and MBA grads taking the PM path, along with related fields like economics, marketing and finance. Whatever your educational background, you’ll undoubtedly need to flex your financial muscles on a daily basis.

Leadership is another crucial credential. Whether proven in the boardroom or the sportsfield, leadership skills allow a PM to build fruitful relationships with both staff and stakeholders. Stress comes with the territory, and should be water off a duck’s back. 

Oh, and tech expertise of course. PM’s won’t be expected to code themselves (usually!) but they sure better know enough to represent their product with confidence. In fact… the list of desired skills goes on.

Image: Product Lingo 

Sounds like some demanding entry-criteria, then! Any tips for aspiring PMs?

Hiring managers invariably look for PMs with 2 years+ experience – a bit of a catch-22 for the aspiring upstart. But heck, any product manager worth their salt would never take no for an answer, so why should you?! Get out there and prove yourself in whatever field you can, and don’t be afraid to sell yourself hard, particularly if changing sectors.

TOOL OF THE TRADE An ultra-high-spec, top of the range MacBook - criminally under-used for anything more processor-intensive than email.

Who should I be idolising? Any famous PM alumni?

How about Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Larry Page (Google), Jeff Bezos (Amazon)? That good enough for you? OK – their job titles may have been ‘CEO’ or ‘founder’ but all of the above and more performed all the duties of product managers at the top of their game.

Let's learn some key terminology:

ROADMAP Like a business plan for the product: the blue print for success. Ruthlessly evidenced and detailed plans, yet always adaptable to shifting circumstances. “Roadmaps are evidence of strategy. Not a list of features.” – Steve Johnson

BOOTSTRAPPING Pre-finance, a period when the product is proven and 'rolled out' to the market on a ‘shoestring’ budget. Next steps: rounds of funding and cash injection to scale and conquer the global market.

SHIPPING Pushing a product or update live. Gone are the days of multi-year lead times: product managers should feel comfortable shipping on a daily basis to outrun their competition. “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late” Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn.

UX User experience. The product manager should be the voice of the end user, calling b***s*** on confusing or unnecessary developments from the team, cutting off wasted energies at source.

GROWTH The gold standard of a PM’s world. Something to be ‘maximised’, ‘fuelled’ and even ‘hacked’.

FAILURE *Definition missing from dictionary*

I’m in! Where can I get more insight and start mapping out my own path?

BOOK Chaos Monkeys: Inside The Silicon Valley Money Machine An ex-startup CEO and Facebook PM takes you on his wild journey from Goldman to the tech bubble.

WEBSITE Mindtheproduct.com – Prolific PM blog with offshoot events and meetups.

INFOGRAPHIC 280 Group’s PM infographic covers people, processes and profit.​

ARTICLE Hemal Shah on medium.com – Smart, spirited advice on how top PM’s perform.